The first thing that comes my mind may seem unimportant, but somehow it seems to be the key to much more. I once saw him smile on a concert DVD, and the smile of that 80-year-old man was more radiant than that of a beautiful actress or an adorable child. I still rewind that DVD just to see that smile. It expressed joy in the sound of the music he had just produced, and a sense of playfulness, but was totally lacking in ego or self-congratulation. It was a smile of gratitude that he had been blessed to be the vehicle for such beautiful music.
Music was the center of his life, and the only thing that really mattered to him. But this was only because he saw music as his pathway to the Divine, and his way of leading other people to the Divine. His pursuit of that pathway was deeply personal and caused him to make great changes in the traditions that he inherited. But these changes were always made in response to a deeply inner and unique aesthetic conscience, never in response to social trends, fashions, or the desire for fame and financial gain.
Bismillah Khan’s family had played shehnai for generations, but their position as musicians was both exalted and obscure. They were exalted because the shehnai was played in a tower called a naubatkhana, which overlooked palaces and temples, and enabled their music to be heard across the countryside. But they were obscure because no one actually saw them when they were playing, and they never performed concerts as such. They were meant to be background music for other auspicious occasions, such as weddings, pujas, and triumphant military parades. Some of the maharajas in the princely states kept shehnai players and drummers permanently located in all the main rooms of their palaces. Their job was simply to play a triumphant fanfare every time his highness entered that room. Shehnai players did not even have artisans who devoted themselves exclusively to making their instruments. Most shehnais were made by the woodcarvers who made hookahs, and for many years Bismillah Khan made his own instruments.
But although they were not given the high status they deserved, Bismillah Khan’s family were nevertheless highly skilled musicians. The young Bismillah was fascinated by the playing of his uncle and grandfather even when he was very young. He would often accompany his uncle to the nearby temple in Banaras, and sit for hours listening to him practice, sometimes even forgetting to eat. He was begging to play the shehnai almost as soon as he could talk, and eventually mastered all of the different styles of his family lineage: the masterful layakari and tans of his elder uncle, the powerful tone and stamina of his grandfather, and the lyrical sweetness of his uncle and guru Ali Bux. Tradition demanded that he study only the music of his own instrument and lineage. He even felt guilty about picking up techniques from his grandfather and elder uncle, because only Ali Bux was officially his guru. Nevertheless his heart and conscience were pulling him towards classical vocal forms like khayal and thumri. Bismillah Khan resolved this tension, and many others throughout his long life, by following a maxim that might be described thusly: “Break from tradition and custom only when it is absolutely necessary to reach great artistic and spiritual heights. At all other times keep the old ways, religious, social, and aesthetic, with purity and orthodoxy.”
Bismillah Khan’s fascination with classical vocal music inspired close friendships with many great Indian female vocalists, including Siddeshwari Devi, Begum Akhtar, and the great filmi singer Lata Mangeshkar. He even attended mujrahs to hear the courtesan singers of Banaras. But his marriage was arranged by his family, and he remained scrupulously faithful to the mother of his nine children throughout his life. After she died, he slept beside his shehnai. What he learned from classical musicians revolutionized his instrument. His vocally inspired ornaments included innovations such as microtonal slides that went as far as an octave. He also incorporated the picking techniques of stringed instruments by manipulating staccato breathing and tongue positions.
This remarkable new sound created many opportunities for him. He was one of only four musicians to receive the Bharat Ratna from the Government of India. He wrote a popular song for an Indian film, and performed on camera for another, which resulted in a flood of offers for further film work. He was the only Indian musician to perform at New York’s Lincoln Center, and received seven curtain calls. But he refused to do any more film work, and rarely accepted tour offers, because he did not want to lose touch with his beloved city of Banaras. When an American millionaire offered to build him an exact replica of Banaras if he would relocate, he said it would be impossible to duplicate the Ganga. The money he did make from performing was spent almost entirely on supporting an extended family of over 60 people. He ate and dressed simply, traveling through Banaras on a cycle ricksha. He would not have air conditioning in his home, or even an electric fan, during the hottest summer months.
Although he was a devout Shia Muslim, he received visions of Hindu Gods during his riaz, and defiantly stood up to Iraqi mullahs who argued that music was forbidden. But he prayed five times a day, abstained from pork and alcohol, took the pilgrimage to Mecca, and regularly gave alms to the poor. He also abstained from beef to honor the values of Hinduism. He is most famous for having brought the shehnai out of the naubatkhana and into the concert hall. But those who knew him well honored him not only as a great artist, but also a great soul.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.