Play The Shehnai, a Bharat Ratna has died!

S P Singh

It was the first time I heard Shehnai being played as the death of someone was being announced. And it didn't seem jarring. No. Instead it seemed only so much more appropriate.  

The Ustad was being married with eternity, with eternal peace, the ultimate goal of all music. 

This was the wonder that Ustad Bismillah Khan created for the world – the soulful exploration of every sensitivity with Shehnai.  

Ustad Bismillah Khan, Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan, Bharat Ratna, died of cardiac arrest on August 22. He was 90 and left behind five sons, three daughters, and an extended family of 66 in a three-storey house in Varanasi and a world full of millions of his fans and admirers who would refrain from crying lest the Ustad detects a jarring note and admonishes them at such silly behaviour. Rejoice! For such a man walks this earth to play his tune once in centuries. Governments went out of stock of the awards to shower upon the man, but he didn't run out of tunes. Perhaps because he didn't much care for the awards. 

You need a magician to do things utterly impossible. Like taking a humble instrument into world's top concert halls, getting a Muslim to play at Kashi's temples, playing the light sensual Raga Kafi at the Red Fort on August 15, 1947, or travelling through Varanasi's meandering streets on a rickety cycle-rickshaw even as a Bharat Ratna is tucked at home nicely in a cupboard. 

Ustad! What can we say? Bismillah! 

Shehnai was associated only with marriages but the Ustad used to sit at the Karbala graveyards of Varanasi and play his beloved Shehnai during Moharram. A devout practising Muslim, he spent a lifetime playing in Varanasi's Kashi Vishwanath Temple. And his wish was to play at "Bihariji's mandir" at his birth place in Dumraon in Bihar.

Lucky would be the few who would have seen a little boy and a little girl, waiting for their turn to make a debut for the first time on stage. It was Calcutta. The year was 1924. The boy was Bismillah Khan. The girl was Begum Akhtar. Empirical evidence that the gods were smiling that day. Khan and Akhtar’s lives and achievements are enough to heap shame upon every single communal Indian.
The world heaped awards at the Ustad’s feet, and there was no dearth of the people asking him to cross the seas and see how he could make it much bigger in London or New York or you-name-it where. But he after all was an Ustad in all senses of the term. He knew what they were trying to do. How could he leave his Kashi behind? His Ganges? His dusty serpentine streets? The ghats? The sounds of tinkling of bells? The strains of aarti? The boats returning as a setting sun's rays frame picture perfect postcards? Then where will the music come from? You need the bank of Ganga to play the kajri, the graveyards of Karbala to fill the notes with the pain.
The world was coming to Varanasi all the time. And they wanted to get the Ustad out of it. Obviously, the maestro detected a jarring note and rejected it. He used to recite a couplet: 

Chana Chabaina, Ganga Jal Aur Sookhi Roti Baasi
Dhaat Tari London Ki, Humko Pyari Apni Kashi 

The Prime Minister wanted the Ustad to come to Delhi for better treatment, but the Ustad was wiser. The world came to Kashi as a gateway to heaven, and the Ustad was not going to leave it when he was headed for heaven. No jarring suggestion for Ustad. Only wondrous music! 

Kashi was intertwined with the life of Ustad. The devout Muslim’s music was intertwined with the Hindu temples along Ganges’ ghats. Greatness was intertwined with simplicity. And Shehnai with Ustad.  

You say Bismillah! when you begin. But when an Ustad like the Shehnai maestro dies, you can always say Bismillah! once again. How do we know what all great explorations has he embarked upon? Hear those Shehnai tunes wafting from afar? Someone’s playing at the gates of heaven.

(S P Singh can be contacted at More of his work is available at

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