Just as we cannot think of Michaelangelo without thinking of the city of Florence, we cannot think of Ustad Bismillah Khan, without thinking of the ancient city of Varanasi, situated on the banks of the Ganga. Born on March 21, 1916 in Dumraon, in the state of Bihar in India, Bismillah Khan went to Varanasi to study under his uncle, Ustad Ali Bux at the tender age of seven. Since then he lived in this holiest of holy cities all his life. All the men in his family were players of Shehnai, a kind of double-reeded oboe, which in those days was considered an instrument of minor importance in the hierarchy of Indian musical instruments. His uncle played the Shehnai in the most important temple in the city, the temple of Kashi Vishwanath, and young Bismillah joined him as an accompanist.
The Shehnai was an instrument of festivity, heralding all auspicious moments, used to unify worshippers in a temple, to welcome a bride to her home or to celebrate the birth of a son. It was rarely considered at that time as an instrument that was capable of producing the subtle and delicate cadences of classical raga music. Bismillah Khan, whose name means ‘in the name of God’, changed all that.
With precocity and musical inventiveness, the Ustad gave to Shehnai a sound that paralleled the human voice, both in passion and integrity. His technique of interpretation was as good as that of any singing voice. Under his fingers, the Shehnai grew to equal established concert instruments. Audiences listened with attention and absorption to his various Ragas. The Shehnai and arrived in Indian classical music and its one and only maestro was Bismillah Khan. He had a style that had a provocative purity of intonation. His musical expertise was immense, his elaboration of a Raga meticulous in detail and structure. The Bismillah Meend, a kind of portmanteau, which included in its transit all the intermediate frequencies between each note, became a signature of his instrument. It is the delicacy of touch; a gentleness and warmth that is almost healing that were the hallmarks of his style.
Needles to say, Ustad Bismillah Khan has been hailed as one of the greatest musicians of India. And in his passing away, the rich world of music has been rendered poorer by one. He has been the recipient of several prestigious awards- the Sangeet Natak Academy award for Hindustani Instrumental Music (The National Academy of Arts, Music and Dance), the Padma Shree, the Padma Bhushan, the Padma Vibhushan as well as India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna. Despite these laurels, Bismillah Khan remained a humble man, who lived for his two supreme loves –the shehnai and the Ganga.
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