Tuesday, August 22, 2006

VIDEO : Bismillah Khan the great Shennai player dies

I got a phone call yesterday from Greece to tell me that the great Shennai player from India, Ustad Bismillah Khan, had died of a heart attack. His health had been bad for a while and his playing had naturally reached it's peak a few years ago.

The gentle genius of Bismillah Khan is perhaps single handedly responsible for making Shehnai a famous classical instrument. Traditionally used to play music during marriages, Shehnai is the counterpart of south indian nadaswaram. It is also used to play music in temples.

Born in a small Bihar village in 1917, Ustad Bismillah learned shehnai from his uncle who used to play in the famous Vishwanath temple of Varanasi. He brought Shehnai to the center stage of indian music with his concert in the calcutta All India Music Conference in 1937. There was no looking back.

Ustad Bismillah Khan is the third classical musician after Pt Ravi Shankar and Smt M S Subbulakshmi to be awarded Bharath Rathna, the highest civilian honour in India. However even though he was well respected and used by the government as part of the Indian culture promo list he wasn't really kept in the manner he should have been and he even threatened to hand the award back if he didn't get a cheque....he got one eventually. Bismillah had the onus of feeding a hundred persons, ten sons included. He travelled across the world but didn’t like flying. In India he would mostly travel by train.

Bismillah had a retinue of 8-10 accompanists - quite a large number. He would travel to the railway station by cycle rickshaw, heading a caravan of 4 or 5, waving to familiar passersby, no less happy than a prince in a Rolls Royce! He was very well loved by the people and his healthy perspective and example on the overlap of being both Muslim and Hindu was well noted by the people.

I myself was touched by his playing and his rendition of Multani at the banks of the Ganges was what inspired the ElectroRaga Version of Multani recently in Manchester. You can hear me triggering and chopping his Shennai playing.

And here is the original performance that I took it from as hosted on Patrick Moutal's excellent website on Indian music.

This news of his death didn't make it to the UK newspapers or websites as far as I could see. Let us not forget this link with the old world of magic as handed to us in the form of Bismillah Khan. His kind are less every year.

Rest ye well.




SikhsRus said...

Great tribute to a great musician! I had read a new article a while back ( I wish I could quote the newpaper source) that there are no more shehnai players left in India, since bollywood directors and weddings have been using recordings instead of real musicians. I just hope and wish that to be not the case.

Drongomala said...

Thanks for reading and writing - when I was living in Kerala for a bit the musicians there were bemoaning the lack of young musicians coming through. I recorded with some great Nadaswaram players when I was out there - that sound really hits me too and in some ways it's better for more sonorous ragas in the lower registers. As to Shennai players getting passed over for stock music - I'm sure the great film composers like A.R.Rehman must use real players but you are right about the profileration of people just 'bunging' existing music onto the visuals rather then composing for it.

Acutally I like the Hindi way of doing the music first - it's actually a more superior art form than the moving image of video.