Bismillah Khan - The Maestro from Benaras


Bismillah in Benaras

Bismillah’s grand father’s house in Benia Bagh in Benaras was not large. In it were crowded his grand parents, his three maternal uncles Vilayat Ali, Sadique Ali, and Ali Bux, their families and now Bismillah, Shamsuddin and their mother. It was a simple house hold with few frills, and Bismillah’s son describes it as small house with a clay tiled roof (‘Khapdail’). But here too music permeated the air. All his uncles were shehnai players of a high calibre, and they played at the entrance of many temples. His youngest uncle, Ali Bux  played every morning at the holiest of holy shrines – the Vishwanath temple for which he was reportedly paid an amount of four rupees. As Bismillah grew older, he grew extremely attached to Ali Bux, and he later became his Ustad. 

It is true that the maternal family of Bismillah Khan was one of shehnai players, yet almost all of them were proficient singers as well. Bismillah himself had a wonderfully mellifluous voice –a gift his sons inherited. He describes his musical ‘khandan’ as one of singers: “We belong to the ‘Khandan' of Ustad Taj Khan. Records will show that he was a great vocal artist. His nephew was Tasaiuff Hussain Khan who also sang very well, also his younger brother Mohammad Hussain Khan. My ‘Mamu’ (uncle) was a disciple of Mohammad Hussain Khan, and I am the disciple of Ali Bux. He was a great singer, and the shehnai came later.” 

Bismillah spoke very highly of the vocal artistry of his Ustad. Yet it was the shehnai that was a means of livelihood and creative expression. The metamorphosis that would change the future and the fortune of the shehnai had not yet happened; thus its usage was restricted to tradition and the available platforms of the age.

Growing up in Varanasi, the ancient seat of learning and study, did not in any way make the young Bismillah partial to studies. His one interest as a young boy was in music, and as a faithful shagird of his uncle, he followed him everywhere. Ali Bux’s mornings were spent at the temples – three to four hours of beautiful music that serenaded the Gods, and with him was his nephew and disciple. Still as a mouse, impervious to hunger or fatigue, Bismillah let the music flow over and around him, listening and absorbing, impressionable as  a sponge. Even when the duo returned home – there was always one room in the small house devoted to ‘riyaz’, and the notes of the shehnai were all pervasive. Bismillah recounted how it formed the background to all his childhood games – Playing marbles on the rooftop or courtyard, he would listen carefully and wait patiently for the rhythmic cycle to climax at the ‘sam’, and at exactly the same moment, in perfect synchronization with the music his marble would hit the centre marble.

Bismillah’s recollections of his childhood were vivid and sweetened by nostalgia. The many delicacies for which Benaras was, and is famous, were high on the list of his favourites – specially the sweets. On his daily walk through the ’galis’ and streets of Benaras, mamu and nephew would stop and savour the ‘mallaiyya’ – a sweet preparation unique to Benaras. It was a whipped concoction of full cream milk, light and frothy and delicately flavoured with saffron , pistachios and almonds and available only in the winter months. According to Bismillah, his mamu ate it straight from the ‘handi’( earthen pot ), all the while offering  his young disciple , more, even as Bismillah ate from his ‘dona’(a bowl made from a leaf).

Bismillah frequently described the simple pleasures of his childhood. His confidence and comfort level in walking the lanes and by-lanes around his house. Here there were friendly and familiar faces, shopkeepers, rikshawalas, paan and sweetsellers – all ready to indulge the young boy, with smiles and affection. In later years  Bismillah’s comfort level in Benia Bagh was largely due to the warmth of his interaction with the people of the area , and it continued generation after generation with sons and daughters and other family members and it is a major cause for his never wanting to move out of Benaras. He didn’t live in house no.40/41; the entire neighbourhood and the locality had become his family and home. 

There were however a few scary houses in Bismillah’s childhood- there was the house with two  “tigers !“ I avoided passing by the house with the two tigers- they were so large with huge eyes that seemed to stare at me. I knew they were not real, only statues- but when  was a child they terrified me ! ‘ The house with the two tigers belonged to the “Dom Raja" ven today the tigers can be seen on the roof of the house- two enormous tigers at each corner of the terrace. Perhaps it was not only the two  “tigers’, but the awesome reputation of the owners as well. The Dom Raja family is the ruler of the 'burning Ghats‘ –The Manikarnika and the Harishchandra Ghats. The entire proceedings, from the arrival of the family bringing in the dead body, the ceremonies attached to the pyre, purchase of wood, ghee, and the puja material to the final immersion of the ashes – every aspect has been and is still controlled by the Dom Raja families for generations. Dom Raja – the word  itself means rulers of the dead.

On a rainy afternoon, as a small boy, he asked his grand mother for something to eat. She told him to run along to the neighbourhood kirana shop of “Kimam Sav” and get some desi ghee.

“Ka Bachwa – Ka Chahi ?” (So child, what do you want ?)

For one paisa , the shopkeeper scooped up a large helping of ghee , placed it on a ‘mahua’ leaf and gave it to the boy. Back in the house, Bismillah watched his grand mother sitting in the verandah, cooking a ‘parantha’ for him. “After frying the parantha ” She cut up some onions, and fried them in the ghee – to eat with the parantha . I sat there –savouring the snack, listening to the pitter patter of the rain drops – even today the delicious flavour of that morning lingers !”

It is obvious that Bismillah the boy was greatly loved and pampered, but the ‘shagird’ had many a lesson to learn, and his Mamu and Ustad, Ali Bux was then transformed into a strict teacher and disciplinarian. After days of listening to his Ustad play and practice at the Balaji temple on the ghats of the Ganga, Bismillah was finally given a shehnai to practice on. And so began his journey that would   continue  for the next eighty years.

Practising in a small room in the house, Bismillah felt discriminated at, by his Mamu’s   insistence that he should do his riyaz at home. He too wanted to practice at the Balaji temple where his uncle had practiced for nearly eighteen years. Surprised by the young Bismillah’s persistence, his Mamu   agreed, and Bismillah began his riyaz at the small room adjoining the Balaji temple. It became his world. High up above the world (there are 508 steps from the river and ghat to the Balaji temple) in the stillness of late night and dawn, the young boy played his shehnai. It was a ritual that provided the foundation for many of his beliefs in life.

“Every morning, at 3.30 or 4 a.m., I would get up  - there was a man, a gadiwala whose job it was to come and wake me up.  I would then go to the Balaji temple- nearby, there was the Mangala Maiyya temple. In between the two, in a small space a Babaji had set up another temple. Every morning he and his wife would come to perform the puja and arti there. I would  listen to their  arti -  it was sung in perfect ‘sur’  and when they finished I would also take up the same melody on my shehnai ! This pleased Babaji, and he would give me some ‘prasad’ – a little panjiri or a peda - which I readily ate !”

Bismillah was well aware that after the morning arti, sweets were often distributed as prasad, and as a young boy he would go to the Gopal Mandir (where in later years he was to play many, many times) and knowing that the sweets offered were his favourite pedas, he would wait and after the arti ask for the prasad. “ A little more”, he would coax the Pujari, before running off. Despite his innocence at that age, Bismillah was intuitively aware that ‘Pedas’ were not the only gift that he would get from the many temples and deities that were such an integral part of his life.

After a year’s practice at the temple, Bismillah went back to Dumraon to visit his father and grand father. He had learnt much, and was keen to impress them, specially his grand father. In the grounds of their house, Bismillah  played his shehnai. His grand father brought out a silver rupee and handed it to him. But as Bismillah began to play again, his grand father stopped him, and to his surprise, reprimanded him- “Bismille !! what are you playing – you are the inheritor of a great legacy of a potent instrument like the shehnai ! Why then are you ‘mewing like a cat’ – your destiny is to roar like a lion !!”

Rasool Bux then took the shehnai and began to play, and as a chastened Bismillah listened to the music emanating from the shehnai, he felt that his grandfather had a point. The strength and power that his grand father brought to the shehnai was of a calibre that seriously diminished his  own efforts. Rasool Bux explained to his grandson that what he had just demonstrated was the importance of lung  power which was crucial to a wind instrument like the shehnai. His advice was simple and succinct “ No health, no breath, no music”.

Bismillah came back to Benaras   with a new determination. He needed a health regimen with exercise and a new diet. And Benaras’ ancient tradition of Kushti was ready and waiting for its newest apprentice. “Dangal” was a kind of wrestling contest like none other in the world. Stripped to the bare essentials and with well oiled  bodies, after a prayer to Lord Hanuman, the wrestling contests began. These were primarily to help in body  building. Under the guidance of a local teacher and Pahelwan, early morning sessions went on for a couple of hours. There were parallel bars, ropes to climb and exercise with a ‘gada’ a metal or wood implement {mace ?}(similar to the ‘weapon’ carried by Hanuman). Even today Benaras is dotted by such ‘akhadas or wresting rings, many of which are on the banks of Ganga.

Bismillah made exercise part of his regular routine – after his early morning riyaz   he would head for the ghats of the Ganga, exercise and then bathe in the river. In summer he said he would bathe in the Ganga at least three times a day, and even in winter at least once in the morning. The Ganga was to become another aspect of his life and he could never bear to be away from it for too long.

The strict adherence to exercise and diet control yielded quick results, and Bismillah noticed the change in his music. The training of Ali Bux had given him melody and sweetness, and now his grandfather’s advice gave him the power and strength, so that the music poured forth in deep sonorous notes. Of course Riyaz had by now become a religion and his Mamu made sure that Bismillah practiced at least six to eight hours a day. The Guru- Shishya parampara, deeply rooted in the ancient traditions of Benaras, ensured the student’s complete surrender to the Guru ; unquestioning and complete. Having benefited from this himself, Bismillah often deplored the lack of commitment and trust in students of a later age. The distractions of the world are many, but true sadhana demands a  transcendence from all material diversions. Ali Bux had given his student the great advantage of solitariness of the room adjoining   the Balaji temple.

He himself had played there for 18 years, and had been deeply moved by several mystic experiences. His advice to his nephew was stern – whatever he felt or experienced during his riyaz in the temple precincts were intensely personal – never to be discussed or shared casually with anybody.

Bismillah, even at that young age had begun to experience the transcendental quality of his music, when the world ceased to exist. The quality that his Mamu had called ’ assar ‘ where music ceases to be ‘ art ‘ and becomes divine – a means to explore man’s ecstatic union with God. Over a period of five years Bismillah had many mystic experiences when he ceased to be of this world; he had no recollection of time, place or self. But there was one instance that left the deepest impact on Bismillah, and one he never forgot. As was his wont, he was playing in the early , pre-dawn quiet at the Balaji temple. Many decades later when he recounted the incident, his words and imagery were still crystal clear, sharp with a recollection that had not faded with time.

“I was playing, intent on my riyaz when I noticed a sudden fragrance. It was like ‘ittar  ’ (strong perfume) but I was not wearing any. I thought it might be ‘dhoop’ or agarbatti (incense) that had been lit on the banks of the Ganga although I was surprised that I could feel it in the closed room. I also realised that the Ganga was far below me, but I continued to play.  Of course it was no ordinary place where I did my ‘riyaz’ – on the one side is the Ganga and the Jadau temple – on the other, Mangla Mayya and the Balaji temple. I was surrounded  by holy sites. I closed my eyes and tried   to concentrate  on my riyaz because it was a difficult piece that I was playing. But when   the fragrance became overpowering, I opened my eyes. And there was Baba – standing next to my shehnai – a more handsome visage I have never seen – even till today. I was very young, and I began to tremble uncontrollably. Baba asked me to play something, but I was unable.   Then he laughed and said “Maza Karega, Maza Karega !”. When I could collect my senses, I ran out to look for him – but the streets were silent and empty. I peered down the steps to the ghat – but there was no body to be seen. I was suddenly terrified and began to run as fast as I could, till I reached home – there I awakened my Mamu.”

Ali Bux took one look at his nephew’s face and demeanour and knew instinctively that Bismillah had experienced a vision, a darshan that was not of this world. Every time Bismillah opened his mouth to recount the experience, Ali Bux tried to pre-empt him from speaking – “Go to the market –go and fetch me my jawahar waistcoat from the other room – go.. and…”. Each time Bismillah unheeding would break in with an impatient, “Mamu”, eager to share his  …. experience. Finally Ali Bux lost patience and planted a resounding slap on his cheek. Had he not specifically told him to never speak to anyone about any mystic experience that he might have had  ? By now a more collected Bismillah was just beginning to assimilate the import of all that he had gone through. Silently he left the room. But all through his life, Bismillah was convinced that he had been blessed by Baba – who was none other than Balaji himself.


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