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The Rediff Special/ Sharat Pradhan in Varanasi
'When he plays, the soul reverberates'
August 24, 2006
"Who says music is banned in Islam?" This was the common refrain of India's music legend Bismillah Khan, who passed away on August 21.
Brushing aside suggestions that Islam was opposed to music, he said, "That is the misconception created by some people -- even the holy Quran does not oppose music."
In an interview sometime back, Khan had told rediff.com, "It is a misnomer that Islam has no room for music."
He was strongly of the view that music needed to be propagated in society. "If music were to be incorporated in the daily curriculum, I can assure you children would grow up to be better and healthier human beings," he asserted.
And with his eyes wide open he exclaimed, "I am sure you cannot tell me one example where music has been the cause of clash between man and man."
The maestro who was as particular about offering his 'namaaz' five times a day as he was about practicing his 'shehnai'. There was nothing more satisfying for him than playing on the banks of the Ganga
"Music transcends all barriers, more so that of religion; in fact, music is religion in itself, it binds people -- and so does the Ganga," he observed. And went on to add, "Sangeet hi mera mazab hai, sangeet hi mere jan hai, sangeet hi mari zindagi hai." (Music is my religion, my life).
He also recalled that world famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin once commented after attending one of Bismillah Khan's shows, "When we play, bodies shake; but when he (referring to Bismillah Khan) plays, the soul reverberates."
Overwhelmed with nostalgia, Bismillah Khan went about humming a 'raga', that literally seemed to bring the instrument alive. As a critic had aptly put it, "Even his vocal chords could produce the sound of the shehnai."
August 15, 1947 -- the day of India's Independence has an added significance for Bismillah, who describes it as one of his life's "most memorable" days.
"I was accompanying my elder brother Shamsuddin Khan to play the shehnai on that epoch-making event at the Red Fort. We had assembled at the 'Diwan-e-Khas'. Somehow the idea of our marching down while playing the shehnai from 'Diwan-e-khaas' to the ramparts of Red Fort did not appeal to me and I registered my protest to my brother. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who was within hearing distance just turned around and with a smile told my brother to make me understand that it was a highly privileged occasion as we were to be walking ahead of India's first President Dr Rajendra Prasad and Prime Minister Nehru."
Few are aware that Bismillah received little formal education. "I was in class VI, when my Mamu (maternal uncle), Ustad Ali Bux told me to join him to play the shehnai at a concert in Allahabad; initially I was reluctant and said that at my examinations were just round the corner; but I changed my mind when Mamu said, "so what, you can appear in the examination next year also."
"Mamu was my uncle, my teacher, friend, philosopher and guide -- all rolled into one," he said.
That was the last he saw of school. He spent more and more hours playing what was then a folk instrument which he would elevate to a classical one.
And how were his shehnais crafted? "The best of my shehnais have been made from old and used wooden railway sleepers," he says, while showing a 25-inch long neatly crafted magic wand, from which he creates unparalleled symphonies.
Music, he felt could make world of a difference to anything and everything in life. No wonder therefore came his parting shot to this scribe, "Whatever you write, do remember to write in 'sur' (tune), please do not make it 'besura' (out of tune)."
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