We all remember his Shehnai, and the most vivid memory is of the one that he played on the Independence Day. I am not sure how many of us have heard a Shehnai play in a concert or anywhere around us. But his name was synonymous with the instrument, almost inseparable. Your eyes cannot visualize the one without the other. So it was a pleasure to have Bismillah Khan biography in coffee table format in my hands.
As I sat down to read the book on a lazy summer morning, it was like being transported to Benaras in Benia Bagh and by the ghats of Ganga, with music all over in the air. It was like experiencing the city waking up to the Shehnai of Khan Saheb. As he played the Bhairavi in the courtyard of a temple or was it on the steps of his favorite ghat. It was like Chaiti being sung describing the heat of the season. It was like playing the colorful Holi during the day. And enjoying a fragrant Mehfil in the evening.
The book is as much about Benaras as about its renowned son Bismillah Khan. Benaras is a city where Ganga flows looking towards its own source. As if metaphorically inspiring the inhabitants on its banks to also look towards their source and to seek to merge with it. It is a place with a distinct culture of its own. A culture which has existed uninterrupted for the longest known time and which over a period of time has absorbed the culture of those who came from other lands and settled at its banks. This is where holy men and seekers choose to live and preach.
It is a place where the common man is a connoisseur of art and music. It is where people live in the present without worrying too much about the future. And it is known as much for its food as for its silken weaves. As much for its spirituality as it is for its music. The author has brought Benaras alive brilliantly through her narrative. You almost feel you are there. For what is that we do not know already about Benaras. But still, if the writing can make you feel the maahaul right there in your own chair, it speaks volumes about the writer. She does not tell you facts and figures. But she connects with the city and its ethos and helps you establish the connection. You want to get up and be there in that city. And get soaked in its myriad colors.
There is far less about the Maestro himself than you would expect in a biography. In fact, his affinity with the city and his life in Benaras is the highlight of the sketch that the author etches out. Either the data was not available or the life was lived so ordinarily that there was not much to write about. Wherever there was a possibility of a lesser-known fact I guess there were apprehensions about those details being shared. Bismillah Khan comes across as a simpleton, who has just one devotion in life, his Shehnai, and his music. And that is what he lived with and lived for. She does take you through his childhood, his grooming as a Shehnai player by his maternal uncle, his marriage, and his concerts. But none of them looked at in detail.
The focus was on him as a person, a devotional soul, and a fakkad Benarasi, who sought an Asar in his music. Who would worship the Saraswati and also read his daily Namaz. The author talks briefly about his rendezvous with films. And there again I guess he comes across a simple person who wants to do his job and be back home.
Pictures in the book add to the feel of the biography. You would have seen most of those pictures. Barring a few like the one with Khan Saheb on the terrace of his home and all his felicitations on the wall behind him. There is only one place where I felt the author went overboard. And that was when she narrated the complete stories of the movies that Khan Saheb was associated with.
Juhi, I do not know if you have done any travel writing, you would be brilliant at that. You paint the place so well that the reader wants to be one of the colors with you. I look forward to reading more of you.