Kashi of Ustad Bismillah Khan

In this age of electronic media over-kill almost anything can be made a ‘breaking news’, and the latter flashed to a breaking-point. ‘Parachute-jumpers’, yet another terminology used for non-resident candidates made fashionable by the highly fertile group of media reporters, become a natural target of hunters looking for TRP enhancing bytes. No wonder, even a gentle-refusal by Ustad Bismillah Khan’s family to be part of a group of proposers of the nomination of the BJP Prime Ministerial Candidate became such a hot topic of discussion, given the background under which such an offer was made to the musician’s kins and equally because the general reader or viewers lack of appreciation of Kashi –culture, when it comes to interacting with such groups. Of ‘ heavy-weights’, of course, there is no dearth in Kashi, for every Ustad Bismillah’s kin in exchange there would be a Giridhar Malviya, the grandson of the builder of the BHU. Without going any further into such a unsavoury interlude this writer would like to dwell a bit on what Kashi offers to the world of art and culture, to remove any unintended harm that may have been caused by this all-pervasive political-diarrhoea this country suffers, come Election-times.                                                                                                                                                                              

Ustad Bismillah Khan

Ustad Bismillah Khan represented a cosmopolitan Kashi which looked at the world from a fundamentally different perspective – a deeply devoted musician for whom his art meant every thing to him and the rest was just peripheral. He was not alone and he symbolized and represented such an eclectic group through him, associated with Kashi, who looked at Kashi exclusively from such a point of view. During his near three-year stint in Kashi this writer has had the privilege of knowing a large number of such human beings. This list included, other than the Ustad himself, Pandit Ravi Shankar ( sitar ), Kishenji Mahraj ( tabla ), Mrs Rajan ( violin ), Gudai Mahraj ( tabla ), Birju Mahraj ( Kathak), Girija Devi ( classical singer, Kajari in particular ) and scores of their disciples who were being groomed by each of them in a typical ‘guru-shishya parampara’ of training. It would be quite instructive, especially in the present transitional and difficult times, to re-live some unforgettable moments, one was privileged to share with each of them, either as a guest or simply as part of appreciating audience of their excellence. One trait common in all of them was that each of them was an emancipated human being, courteous almost to a fault. Each revelled in the magnanimity of heart and absence of his or her individual greatness. One never felt small in their presence but felt really proud that one happened to know them and chanced to share their dedication to their field of dedication. Further, their dedication and reverence for Kashi was unalloyed, regardless of their faith or background. This supreme dedication and love for Kashi was reflected in their performances and events that they organized by way of their own tribute to repay what they owed to this great city.

This writer recalls at least three small occasions when the late Ustad, the shehnai maestro, contributed through his participation without charging anything for his performance. The inaugural ceremony, opposite the Dr Rajendra Prasad ghat, where he performed with Pundit Kishen Mahraj on the table and Mrs Rajan, on the violin, at the launching of the Ganga Action Plan, has already been mentioned. Nothing more befitting could have been organized that day and the trio, led by the great Ustad, just made the day for lakhs of spectators crowding around the ghats and both banks of the Ganga. The bajra, on which the trio sat and performed, was tethered to the ghat, ghat was fresh awashed with a late night rain-shower, and there was pin-drop silence when the trio heralded the ceremony.

The second occasion, when again the same trio played their composition, was when the UP Government was hosting the President of the World Bank, Wolfenson, who was on a visit in connection with his tour of India. Benaras was selected to show them two sites, first where some results were visible of some World Bank financing and another, which showed, in Mirzapur, where India could still do with sizeable Bank assistance. After, visits to field where the visitors were treated to the best of Indian summer, drenched in sweat on return, they were treated to the balmy effects of Kashi music, in the hotel where they were staying. In Varadrajan, UP had an APC, who himself was a great connoisseur or performing art and also played sitar, who was quite impressed by the fact that such a high-level ensemble of world-class artists could be assembled at such a short notice. I distinctly recalled Varadrajan comparing the presentation himself, said something to the effect-“ Gentlemen, you have seen the impoverished body of the Indian rural life, now what we present to you is the eternal soul of India!”. That one hour recital, led by the Ustad, was enough to convince the fatigued guests to fully revive and recharge themselves, was quite evident from their faces and exchanges with the artists, whom they felicitated and thanked profusely. Curious, Vardrajan asked this writer, how much are they going to charge us for the presentation, as he knew how difficult and expensive it was to get them perform anywhere in the country, if they were available. ‘ A marigold garland, a modest shawl and a genuine appreciation,’ was my response before I requested the guests to do the honours of garlanding and covering them with the shawl-of-honour, at the end of the performance. The Ustad and the other artists considered it as their duty to welcome such honoured guests to the City with their performance and refused to accept any honoraria other than the usual ‘garland and shawl’ bit’, and of course rounds of Benarasi pan, by a majority of them.

The ‘genuine appreciation’ on the part of the administrative set-up consisted of very small gesture by way of following traditional participation on their part. Once in a year, during one of the religious ceremonies, the Ustad used to entertain guest at his Nai Sadak residence to a feast, where the guests had to join him before the day-break, just before the time of the first morning prayers, for which he would depart from his residence playing a very small shehnai, about two feet long, which he played, walking with the guests for say some hundred yards. This was his only fixed programme , every year, and on that day no amount of payment offer could draw him  away from Benaras. One repayed all his courtesies by being present and partake of his lavish feast, and join some distance on his musical offerings to the Almighty. Benaras, had a large number of such unwritten events, almost each of them combined with some performance or the other, associated with all the great names known to the world of art and music. This writer had the privilege of participating in almost each and every unwritten event which left the participant with a joy which no amount of money can buy.


Pundit Ravishankar’s RIMPA

Pundit Ravishankar, that great sitar maestro, who popularized the classic Indian music in the West, thanks to his close association with the British Beatles had his own way of repaying the debts he owed to the City. He visited his residence he had built on the road approaching the city once every year, ahead of the event that he sponsored to promote the young and promising artists, sitar of course accompanied with young table players. This three days event held at the “Prekshagrah” or the city auditorium became a major event announcing the arrival, and also the progress of, younger generation of sitar and table playing musicians. The entire cost of organizing this mega event was borne by Pundit Ravishankar and he himself performed towards the end of the event. He used to acknowledge the great debt he owed to this city of culture.  Many a budding sitar and table artists owe their eminence and reputation gained through performing in this great festival celebrating centuries old tradition of Benaras-gharana. Needless to say, table maestro like Pundit Kishen Mahraj, Gudai Mahraj as well as other musical instrument-players participated in this annual event. The way this event was organized also symbolized, as was the case with the Ustad of shehnai, the way the great Indian Classical Music maestros looked at Kashi, quite opposite to the way our politician tend to look at every individual, trade or profession. The way the giants of the classical performing art world of the day greeted each other, treated their apprentices and all performers on stage, could have been a living example of running any world class academy set up to sustain what has been bestowed by the ancients to the current generation. Such experiences simply humbled all those who came in their live contact.

Kishen Maharaj and his Tanga-Race

One of the great tabla –masters who passéd away a few years back was Pundit Kishen Mahraj. Pan-chewing, with an ever smiling face and curly long locks he epitomised the other side of Benaras, the fun-loving and ever merri-making maestros that one came across. Beneath a veneer of great excellence in their chosen field of art, this group did not waste his time only in further honing their redoubtable command over the musical-instrument but enjoyed every living moment to the hilt. One such maestro was Pundit Kishen Mahraj. He organized an annual Tanga-race ( horse-driven cart ) between the district Collectorate and Sarnath, where we have this great Buddhist Stupa. Tongas from far and wide, a large number of them from the muffasil towns and some even from neighbouring district of Mirzapur looked forward to corner the glory of winning this Annual Tonga Race. Kishen Mahraj would personally supervise all arrangements and of course bore all expenses. His house was always a great refuge, say for civil servants and friends like this writer, when dog-tired from a long official day they would reach his house almost un-announced, for sheer relaxation, be welcomed by his white-turboned young Sikh-apprentice, being trained in a typical Guru-shishya parampara tradition and be treated to some light-hearted Benarasi jokes, followed with table play by the young apprentices while enjoying rounds of Benrasi pan ! Young apprentices were part of the family, taught at home, performed outside and came back for learning newer nuances. Once during such a visit I saw one big sound equipment of foreign-make and enquired about it, placed at the window sill. Oh, that is the “Guru-dakshina” offered by one apprentice, when he had returned from an internal performance in West Germany. An eight-feet statue of Lord Ganesh dominated the hall where Kishen Maharaj honed the skills of his resident –apprentices.

Then finally, there were those like say Birju Mahraj, who on a hurried visit to the city would organize a dance performance for the appreciative audience in a well-known place, with an open invitation to all comers. Usually the venue would be say Nagari Natka Prekshagrah ( a small auditorium ) established by the doyen of Hindi literature, ‘Bhartendu’ Harish Chandra himself. Those fond of Indian classical dance styles like the Kathak would arrive late, as it never started before 9 pm or so and the performances by the Maharaj would go till the wee-hours of the morning, left with the hard-core admirers of the dancing form, at times just a few dozens of them. This writer still recalls one such performance, with Birju Mahraj, sweating with incessant dancing, wiping his pouring sweat with the help of a Benarasi “gamcha” while continuing with his swivelling round, in the midst of “wah-wahs” from an adoring small crowd. Reminded that he might miss the train he was supposed to catch early morning, he preferred to continue with his marathon dance performance. “Crowd” to these masters meant not the arithmetic numbers but the number of art-connoisseurs who knew what is taking place in front of them !  


One could go on adding to this brief description of Ustad Bismillah Khan, Pundit Ravishankar, Pundit Kishen Mahraj and Birju Mahraj the likes of Gudai Mahraj, Girija Devi and so on, who were institutions into themselves, a vital link of the great cultural heritage that Kashi, or modern day Varanasi represents. For them, their chosen field of art was every thing to them, performance was like a prayer and while doing prayers one does not count the numbers who are doing it with you. In these days of electioneering our politicians are looking at the numbers , the crowd, the head-count, that counts ultimately for them. For the players like the Ustad, and his ilk, the crowd is different. No wonder the greats like Ustad Bismillah Khan have always stayed away from political allegiances. They are a national heritage and it is the duty of all, including our time-serving politicians, not to play with what the entire country would like to share, as common heritage. Their political neutrality must be respected by one and all.

R S Tolia

Late Dr. R.S. Tolia, Ph.D., was former Chief Secretary ( 2003-05 ) and Chief Information Commissioner ( 2005-10) of Uttarakhand. He also served in various voluntary positions after retirement and devoted his time for Mountain Development Agenda.

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