A Blessed Life

Bismillah Khan in dialogue with Yatindra Mishra

Originally published in Hindi as Sur ki Baradari

Imprint: Penguin/Yatra, 2009

Author: Yatindra Mishra

Translator: Ira Pande

About the Book

It is increasingly difficult to come across personalities like Bismillah Khan in this day and age, someone so immersed in the syncretic traditions of India, that he so easily navigated the contradictions that now seem insurmountable to us. Perhaps we need a little more music in our lives.
In this lilting narrative, Yatindra Mishra draws out the Bismillah Khan on his life and work. While the shehnai had long held importance as a folk instrument played primarily during traditional ceremonies, Khan is credited with elevating its status and bringing it to the concert stage.

About the Author

Yatindra Mishra is a poet, editor and music aficionado, and a critic of arts and cinema who has three collections of poetry to his name. Besides this, he has written a book on the classical singer Girija Devi and a book of conversations with the dancer SonalMansingh. His book on UstadBismillahKhan , Sur kiBaradari (2009) was published by Penguin Yatra Books , excerpts from which have been included in the CBSE (NCERT), Delhi and Bihar boards’ syllabi. In 1999 , he founded the VIMLA DEVI FOUNDATION NYAS , to promote literature and the arts, and since 2006 he has been organizing an annual festival of music called ISHWAR ALLAH TERO NAAM aimed at highlighting India’s ‘Ganga —JamuniTehzeeb’ —- sounds of harmony and integration.

About the Translator

Ira Pande‘s first book, published in 2006, was Diddi: My Mother’s Voice; a memoir of her mother, the famous Hindi writer Shivani. Ira is also an accomplished translator; her translation of Manohar Shyam Joshi’s T’ta Professor, won the Crossword and the Sahitya Academy Award for best translation. Other translations include Apradhini: Women Without Women by Shivani and A Life Apart, a translation of PrabhaKhaitan’s autobiography.


First translated from the Hindi by Ira Pande and published in IIC Quarterly, Volume 33, Number 2, Autumn 2006.
My work is still unfinished, I am in search of the true note, and I seek
God’s grace to find it

YatindraMisra: Considered the king among Persian wind instruments (shah-e-nai), the shehnai is widely regarded an auspicious instrument. It’s very mention instantly evokes scenes of joyous occasions and rituals in one’s mind. Therefore, one is led to believe that certain ragas or raginis were specially created to mark auspicious occasions and that some ragas can be considered auspicious by nature. PuriyaDhanasri, for example, is performed at dusk, when Nature seems to be quietning down. The sun begins to set at this hour, and birds return to their nests. Yet, while it can evoke a mood of peace, the raga does not evoke an atmosphere of joyous celebration. Can you tell us how music can create the appropriate mood to suit a particular occasion?

Bismillah Khan: There are many ragas in music, and countless raginis that arise from them. Music has many sons, and these sons have many wives, and together they have produced many children, grandsons and granddaughters. So, thousands of ragas and raginis have been created from ragas. In my ustad’s words, it is not so important to remember the raga as it is to see how much later the rishabh should follow the shadaj (sings).
If you sing shadaj ten times, then when you sing it for the eleventh time rishabh will speak so eloquently to you that the listener will be prepared to hear it. You have to pursue this for months before the raga acquires the connotations of a celebration. And yet, it is not as if each raga is innately beautiful, or that you can make it sound the way you want it to. Our ustad taught us that whatever the raga we played or sang, whether mellow or virile, we can mould it to suit the occasion by imbuing it with emotion, in the same way that we can coax out ragas and raginis by blowing into the shehnai. The essence of music is whether or not we are capable of endowing a certain taseer to our notes. This is the quality for which we seek Allah’s grace.

YM: Does this mean that nothing is possible in music without God’s grace?

BK: Exactly. Let me recount an incident from my youth. There was an artist in Punjab called Ghulam Mohammed Khan who used to play the sarangi as an accompanist to a singer whose name I don’t remember. One day, after a quarrel between the two, the singer said, ‘Who do you think you are? You merely accompany me on the sarangi!’ So enraged was he to hear this that he dashed to smithereens his oldest sarangi with which he would accompany her. The singer was terrified and tried her best to mollify him, but he said, ‘Go away! Did you think that I came here for you or to play for you? The reason why I accompanied you was because I felt a divine presence in your notes. That is what drew me here, bai, not you.’ And he left in a huff.
Eventually, Ghulam Mohammed Khan washed up at the door of Tajuddin Baba in Nagpur, where he discovered the Baba, sitting in his hut that was deep inside the jungle, playing only one raga, Dhunkali. Khan sahib stayed on and spent all his time in the service of the Baba. Lost in the contemplation of his Dhunkali, the Baba remained seemingly oblivious to the presence of his uninvited guest. Ghulam Mohammed performed the household chores when the Baba went to the jungle to forage for wood and food: he made the Baba’s bed, swept the floor, stored water in the earthen pot, and spent the rest of his time in listening to the Baba’s music.
Baba had decided to accept Ghulam Mohammed as a
disciple. One day passed; two days; then a whole year passed; Baba kept practisingDhunkali. After a year and a half, Baba said, ‘Ghulam Mohammed, you have served me well. What do
you seek?’ Tears flowed down Ghulam Mohammed’s cheeks and he was unable to say anything. Baba asked once more, ‘Why do you cry? Tell me, what is it that you want?’
‘I seek sur, Baba,’ Ghulam Mohammed replied.
Just reflect on this strange request. So the Baba said, ‘You
clean everything in this hut so carefully every day, yet you don’t seem to have noticed that dusty bag, hanging from a nail in that corner. Why have you never cleaned it?’ ‘That is a very old
bag, Baba,’ replied Ghulam Mohammed.
‘Just go and see what is inside it,’ Baba commanded him.
When Ghulam Mohammed did so, he found a beautiful red
apple, with two tender leaves on its stalk. ‘It is an apple, Baba,’
he said in wonder.
And Tajuddin Baba said, ‘Yes, Ghulam Mohammed, it is
an apple. Now eat it, leaves and stalk and all, then go eastwards and never return.’
My uncle, Alibaksh Khan sahib, who was my teacher as
well, told me that after this no one could surpass Ghulam Mohammed’s performance at any mehfil even if it had luminaries such as Maujuddin Khan sahib and Faiyyaz Khan sahib. Once,
my uncle and I attended a performance given by Khan sahib. My uncle had told me: ‘Listen to Ghulam Mohammed’s song carefully,’ so I listened very attentively. It was two o’clock in the afternoon and he sang the same raga that he had learnt from Baba Tajjudin–Dhunkali. Now, this is a morning raga, normally sung at dawn and here it was being performed at two in the afternoon. But with what a difference! Raga Sarang or Multani are usually performed in the afternoon, but here was Ghulam Mohammed singing Dhunkali.
As soon as he began his performance , even the connoisseurs in the audience were silenced. With his very first meend, the audience was enraptured. A hush descended on the entire assembly and no one moved or spoke or got up. The whole atmosphere was pervaded with the magic of Ghulam Mohammed’s Dhunkali.
As no one had the courage to perform after him, the mehfil ended with his performance. When we came home, my uncle asked for my opinion of the programme. ‘I think he sang well,’ I responded. My uncle turned on me in fury. ‘Wah, miyan!’ (Well done, my dear!) he said sarcastically. ‘What a great assessment! Of course he sang well, you fool! His music has the blessings of a fakir.’ Now, at that time my uncle did not know that he did
really have the blessings of a saint, he discovered that fact much later.
This is why I always say that music knows no caste or creed: all you need is the grace of God, because then you are destined to discover the sur. He is the real Giver (points heavenwards): we are merely His instruments. And nothing separates the singer or his song from God except practice and service. If you are blessed by God’s grace, then your music can turn day into night or night into day.

YM: If you had your life to live all over again, what would you like to change? Is there some unfulfilled desire left in your life?

BK: I grew up from childhood amid the princely states. That is where we were brought up and nourished. Sadly, all that is gone now. The government gives me awards and I respect them deeply just as I am profoundly touched by the love of my listeners. All I wish to say is that in those days even if I went uninvited into a court , I never returned empty-handed. Where is such generosity to be found any more? This is what I regret losing. I have no hesitation in declaring that the princely states played an incomparable role in the nurture and promotion of our classical arts. Those days are gone forever, but whenever I remember them my heart turns heavy with sorrow.

It was time for his afternoon namaaz and despite the many unasked questions that remained, he excused himself most politely to pray. ‘I rest after that,’ he went on. ‘Please come another day. It is wonderful to remember the past.’

For translation rights please contact Jaipur BookMark at: jaipurbookmark@teamworkarts.com

Share This: