Bismillah Khan

Virtuoso musician who introduced the shehnai to a global audience


Qamruddin Khan (Bismillah Khan), shehnai player: born Dumraon, India 21 March 1916; married (five sons, three daughters); died Varanasi, India 21 August 2006.

It is given to very few musicians that their name should become utterly synonymous with their instrument. Bismillah Khan was that kind of rara avis. The whole world of Indian music knew him as the foremost virtuoso of the shehnai. He was responsible for raising what one bygone dictionary definition called "an Indian wind instrument of the oboe class" to a hitherto undreamed-of status.

As early as 1914, the English musicologist and cultural bridge-builder A.H. Fox Strangways had alerted English-speakers in his groundbreaking Music of Hindostan to "a kind of oboe" called the "shahnai" - and to its South Indian counterpart, the "nagasaram". Oboe perhaps communicates the sense of a more refined instrument from an industrial age with padded keypads and metalwork. Shawm is better. The double-reeded shehnai, also known as shahnai or surnai (loosely the "shah's nay" ), is made of drilled and chiselled teak or sagwan hardwood. It has a brass bell and usually seven finger holes, only the first six of which are opened or closed (the seventh sounds the tonic). In a shehnai party (ensemble) such as Khan played in, the sur or damkash shehnai has all seven holes filled with wax to enable the drone to be sounded.

Between 1965 and 1967 Khan breathed life into the word shehnai. In 1965 he and the sitarist Vilayat Khan appeared at the Edinburgh Festival. In 1967 their remarkable album Duets was the inaugural release in His Master Voice/EMI's highly influential "Music From India" series. For the first time, the greater, non-Indian public got a chance to savour the enduring transcendence that only truly great art of Khan's magnitude delivers.

In the subcontinent's folkways, shehnai had traditionally sounded auspicious fanfares and clarion calls. It blasted from processions, the verandas of the moneyed and well-heeled, and the entrances to shrines and temples. It signalled ceremony and celebration. The shehnai's stridency could slice through hubbub and high spirits. So-called "lip-voiced" instruments had no status as art music instruments, however. Indeed, musicians in general were seen as lower caste or casteless, even if they were Muslim - or "caste Muslims", as in Bismillah Khan's case.

Khan's glory and achievement was to elevate shehnai to the realms of high art and raga. In 1967 the London Evening Standard declared, in a quote that entered the 1986 Oxford English Dictionary, "You are now expected to know about Bismillah Khan and his shehnai." Shehnai and Khan had properly entered the English language. The newspaper accurately called this time "this extraordinary blossoming of Indian music": that was true whether one was Indian or not. Bismillah Khan was part of that influx of musicality and musicianship that shaped a new consciousness. He was part of the pantheon of Indian musicians such as Ali Akbar Khan, Vilayat Khan, Ravi Shankar and M.S. Subbulakshmi that entered the non-Indian imagination. George Harrison, for example, regularly attended Bismillah Khan's concerts.

Accounts of Khan's birth and upbringing agree only to a certain extent. His biographer, Rita Ganguly, provided the official history in her Bismillah Khan and Benaras (1994). His grandfather, Rasool Bux Khan, the shehnai master of the court of Bhojpur, exclaimed "Bismillah!" ("In the name of Allah!") at the sight of his grandson, though his parents actually named him Qamruddin (it was said, to rhyme with their first-born son Shamshuddin). One early account gave his year of birth as 1915 but Indian musicology is blighted with approximations and repetitions of past printed matter; 1916 is the accepted date.

Shehnai surrounded the boys. Their maternal uncles - Ali Bux, Vilayat Hussain and Sadiq Ali - in Varanasi, the holy city also known as Benares, on the Ganges, kept them supplied with musical illumination. It was not as if it was an instrument that the brothers could ignore. Qamruddin practised intently and devoutly. Step by step, he became part of the system known as the "guru shishya parampara", the tradition of handing knowledge from teacher to disciple or pupil. Ganguly reports him saying,

One has to efface himself. Then and then only the assar [the divine union] occurs. Otherwise you will just have the kala [art], but no assar.

Without being humble, without humility, the real learning does not take place.

Qamruddin had a boyhood encounter with an itinerant, saffron-clad holy man who, after hearing him play, announced that he would produce bliss, a prophecy that came true. In 1932, aged 16, he entered into an arranged marriage with his cousin. Peculiarly, Ganguly did not name her, although they were married for 50 years. She was, Ganguly wrote bluntly, "A simple girl with mundane thoughts, she had no great tastes and understanding for music." (She predeceased her husband by a decade.) Two years earlier Bismillah Khan had made his formal public début as a musician but he felt that his career only really took off in April 1938 when he performed at the inauguration of All India Radio's Lucknow station.

Shehnai, as Ganguly wrote so forcibly, needed to be liberated "from that terrible fate of playing in a procession, walking on the street, getting a second grade position in the hierarchy of the musicians". It is a measure of the Khan brothers' achievement that they succeeded. In 1996 India's most influential music critic Mohan Nadkarni recalled seeing a concert broadcast by the Delhi station of All India Radio in 1941. The Indian Listener - the equivalent of the Radio Times - listed it as a jugalbandi (duet) by Bismillah Khan and Shamshuddin Khan. Nadkarni wrote later,

I was wonderstruck by the kind of unity and coherence that marked their presentation. It was difficult to tell who was playing when. Except for a split-second pause, which indicated the player had changed, the joint effort came through like an integrated solo. The jugalbandi was the finest example of mutual understanding, admiration and above all, perfect coordination. In appearance, too, the brothers looked like twins.

Shamshuddin predeceased his brother and Nadkarni once told the story that had haunted Bismillah Khan's career:

"Call it fact or fiction, it was widely believed, by a significant segment of ardent music-lovers, that it was not the elder brother who died a premature death but the younger one, who was always rated as more talented and innovative and even in AIR's journal was ranked higher, contrary to accepted convention. The story went on to say that . . . Shamshuddin Khan, who is believed to have survived, quietly assumed his younger brother's name after his death."

Nadkarni never dared broach the subject, nor did he get to the bottom of the story. Nor did anybody else.

Bismillah Khan recorded extensively. In 1980 he had 19 solo LPs under his name for His Master's Voice, the aforementioned jugalbandi album with Vilayat Khan and three further duet albums with the violinist V.G. Jog. He recorded for a variety of other labels including Chhanda Dhara in Germany, Navras in Britain and TIPS in India. His and Amjad Ali Khan's Ru-Ba-Ru (2004) essayed a rare shehnai and sarod duet while his and Bageshwari Qamar's Shehnai-Jugalbandi (1994) revealed a continuation of the guru shishya parampara, but most interestingly with a female shehnai virtuoso in the making. Khan not only bridged the Hindu- Muslim divide, but the gender gap too.

Khan spoke a dignified Urdu that combined gravitas and a twinkle in his eyes. Nadkarni spoke of him being "a raconteur par excellence" with both a "disarming informality and humorous disposition". I cannot recall him ever speaking a single word of English. Every other major Indian concert act with an international following made some concessions by making some stage announcements in English. On stage Khan would quip in Urdu, as can be heard on his 1994 release Shehnai.

After a 1994 reunion concert with Vilayat Khan at the Barbican Centre in London - Navras released the concert the following year as Eb'adat - Bismillah Khan sat backstage in perfect repose, observing the flutter and clamour with a detached air and slightly quizzical eye, puffing contentedly on a cigarette. He was clearly reflecting on their performance and that was all that mattered. The whole backstage maya (illusion) would soon pass.

Ken Hunt

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