“Bismillah Khan — Maestro from Benaras” is a book that gives the reader an insightful look into the home and heart, muse and music of one of the greatest artists that India has produced. It traces his journey from the small town of Dumraon to Benaras and thence to the world. The book follows Bismillah Khan as he grows from child to man, shagird to ustad, pupil to legend — from his early days when he charged five rupees for a programme to the days when each performance commanded anything between five to ten lakh rupees.
Bismillah Khan’s life is played out against the streets, galis and muhallas of Benaras, its ghats, temples, mehfils and musicians, bringing to life an era that has since passed. The author recreates in delightful detail the moves and manners of twentieth century Benaras, its wealthy aristocrats and courtesans and the many artists who interacted with both. The colourful strands of Benarasi society are seen as the perfect background for the extraordinary genius of Bismillah Khan.
The book also lovingly portrays the whims and foibles of Bismillah Khan—an artist, whose stature as a musical legend could never quite overshadow the wit, humour and charisma of the man.
Juhi Sinha is a filmmaker and author. She runs her own production house and has written, produced and directed programmes that have been telecast on both Doordarshan and satellite channels and have been screened at film festivals in India and abroad. Besides writing articles for leading newspapers and magazines in India, she has written for children, (Scholastic India) as well as several short stories for general readership, which have won international acclaim. Her last book “Beyond the Dunes — Journeys in Rajasthan” was published by Penguin India in 2007.
In July 2007, my film Bismillah and Benaras was screened at the Oberoi Hotel in Delhi for the delegates of the annual Osian Film Festival. Bismillah and Benaras had been made for the Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry of External Affairs, which had also hosted a dinner for delegates, diplomats, media and others, after the screening. It was here that I met Bikash Niyogi and his wife Tultul, of Niyogi Books. Their appreciation of the film generously translated into the belief that I could do justice to a book — one that would follow the thematic structure of the film. I was enthusiastic for although the film had the advantage of Bismillah Khan’s charismatic presence, there was so much more that I could present in a book. Every meeting with him had been like a charming nostalgic glimpse into the historic and colourful mosaic of the cultural ethos of Benaras in the twentieth century.
When I met him for my first interview, I was shooting in Benaras for a film on the Benaras gharana. I had been shooting for six days and had covered most of the script, including sequences with many eminent artists.
Unfortunately, this list did not include Bismillah Khan. I had called his house every day and talked to a number of people in his household – secretaries, nephews, sons-in—law—but my request for a meeting had not met with any success. Nobody said no, but nobody said yes either. My team was getting restive and there were comments about money being a deciding factor in any meeting with the shehnai maestro. Senior members of my unit advised me to stop pursuing Bismillah Khan—the film they said could be made without him. I knew I could make the film, but to my mind a film on the Benaras gharana without Bismillah Khan was like a favourite dish without salt. In desperation, I made a number of calls for help and luckily, one of them yielded results.
The next day, I went to meet Bismillah Khan. He was at the time nearly ninety years old, but his memory was sharp, his anecdotes crisp (owing no doubt also to their frequent retelling!) and his words painted a vivid picture of a town and its people, its unique celebration of music, dance, festivals and a deeply ingrained sense of joi de vivre that was intrinsic to the Benarasi temperament. If there was an objective in life, it was to enjoy life and living, and the pursuit of such a seemingly hedonistic goal in the holy city of Benaras was somehow perfectly compatible with its image as a centre of spiritualism.
The interview was done on the rooftop terrace that adjoined his room. Khan Sahib sat on a charpai on the bare unadorned terrace. Initially, it was difficult for me to reconcile this image of the world renowned artist, the recipient of India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna (The Jewel of India of which there are till date only a handful), with this smiling, homespun, unassuming person. I could almost forget the endless and futile calls to his coterie for a meeting with him and the unkind insinuations that had hinted at monetary demands. Surely, this gentle and charming man with a wonderfully welcoming smile would be above such mundane considerations. If at all there was any truth to them, it must surely be laid at the door of greedy and unscrupulous relatives and hangers on.
As he talked, Khan Sahib’s courtly ancestry was obvious—he was an entertainer through and through. He laced his stories with wit and humour, sometimes humming a short piece to illustrate the magic of the singers of Dal Mandi, sometimes imitating the tone of the shehnai to describe a recital, and at others narrating an anecdote complete with dramatic vocal inflections and sudden changes of expressions. Needless to say, I was completely charmed and exonerated him almost instantly of any kind of material avarice. Here was a man of inspirational creativity, unique in his achievements with that once lowbrow and neglected instrument, the shehnai, and he sat before me disarming in his childlike enthusiasm, with a twinkle in his eye that seemed perfectly at home in his creased, mobile, life-enriched face.
Writing this book was made difficult because there was so little concrete research material to work with. There was a shocking paucity of records, photographs, letters or invitations. Of his childhood there was nothing except what he personally remembered. Of his contemporaries there were few. Even photographs of his children’s childhood, marriages, performances, ceremonies, and so on were missing. This was partly due to the period of which he was a product, his background and the social milieu that he lived in.
In Bismillah’s home in Benia Bagh, there was convenience but little comfort and certainly nothing that might remotely speak of affluence. This may have been due to the family’s longstanding lifestyle commitment but there was also Bismillah’s personal preference for the spartan—a stern frugality that refused what some might consider even basic comforts. When an admirer wanted to fit a cooler in his room upstairs during the torrid Benaras summer months, Bismillah refused, saying that the money would be better spent on an indigent widow. This trait of Bismillah’s character, later in life, became an eccentricity that the press frequently highlighted with empathy, admiration, amusement, disbelief or sarcasm, depending on the convictions of the reporter.
I met Bismillah Khan a few more times and at the end of these sessions as I continued my research, I felt that I was dealing with an enigma. The man I had met was quite unlike the man the press sometimes portrayed. ‘Was he the man who (if not personally, through his family) reportedly demanded and haggled for higher remuneration? If money was so important and his earnings therefore substantial, why was there so little evidence of these in his home, person and lifestyle? The man I had met was so relaxed and comfortable in his own skin and space that he seemed totally at peace. What then of the reports of the querulous and petulant artist who grew impatient on stage? What were his compulsions to continue to perform in the face of certain inevitable limitations of health and breath? Was it for his family, or was it because of the creative impulse? Both seemed improbable — within his family he was the autocratic patriarch who few had the temerity to question, and his performances towards the end of his life often left him dismayed and frustrated, for he knew, none better, when he fell short.
Perhaps it is fitting that Bismillah Khan—his life, lifestyle, music and muse—should remain in the realm of mystery. A legend in his life time he has inspired awe and reverence and as we struggle to find his successor, the mystique surrounding him grows daily. And the ineluctable question needs to be faced — when will there be another Bismillah Khan?
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