Bismillah Khan and the Kabir Tradition

Ustad Bismillah Khan passed away in Varanasi today.

What struck one about the Ustad was his life of simplicity and the tradition of syncreticism- also called the ganga jumna tehzeeb that he upheld. He lived and died in the city of Varanasi- also the place associated with Kabir. In both his vocation and life, he represented the continuation of that tradition.

The novelist Dr. Rahi Masoom Raza had illustrated this tradition in the names given to towns like Aligarh- a combination of an Arabic name ‘Ali’ and a Sanskrit word ‘garh’ (fort).

This tradition has been particularly strong in Hindustani music and the Ustad embodied this syncreticism in our age, perhaps the tallest one to do so. He lived, ruefully, to see how precarious this tradition is- it often seemed to be on the verge of collapse in the last two decades of his lifetime.

That it has managed to be resilient is because of people like the Ustad.

Brecht summed up the tragic contradiction in great heroes we look upto in times of need: Unfortunate is the land that needs heroes.

Following is a compilation from a few news reports, obituaries and editorials following his demise.

He lived his 91 years out in Varanasi, the temple town, where he often played at the famous Vishwanath Temple.

While several people saw a rift between his religion and the music he played, the Ustad saw the dichotomy as a divine one. A devout Shia, he also worshipped Goddess Saraswati. “Music has no caste,” he often said.

…from rediff site

While paying his heartfelt tribute to Ustad Bismillah khan, Singh says no other artiste after Sant Kabir has achieved so much in creating a fusion between Hindus and Muslims. Samsher Singh pays his tributes:

We will remember the Ustad like Sant Kabir

Speaking of his love for the city Kishan Maharaj the famous tabla player, who often accompanied him on the tabla, pointed out that he and Bismillah Khan continued to live in the Varanasi city while the other artists from the city gradually moved to bigger cities like Mumbai, Kolkatta and Delhi.

A family friend and a senior correspondent with a national channel Rajesh Gupta recalled a couplet by local poet Bhiya ji Banarsi which Bismillah Khan was fond of quoting,

“Chana Chabaina, Ganga Jal aur sookhi roti baasi; Dhaat tari London ki, humko pyaari apni Kashi” (Roasted grams, Ganga jal and stale dry bread Who cares for London, I love my Kashi)

Recalling his sense of humour Gupta said when he met the Ustad at his hospital bed two days ago he not only recited his favourite kajri but also reprimanded his grandson Bande Ali for being “out of tune” as he rhythmically stroked oil into his grandfather’s grey hair! Performing for as little as a rupee for a night -long performance, he was now commanding a fee of Rs 5 lakh per performance but continued to be his humble self, pointed out Gupta.

Known as a man of impeccable secular values, old-timers narrate that he not only refused to migrate after partiition but instead rejoiced by playing the shehnai at the Red Fort on August 15, 1947. According to his son Mehtab Khan one of his last unfulfilled wish was to play at the India Gate.

From The Tribune

Varanasi, from the Wikipedia:

The culture of Varanasi is deeply associated with the river Ganga and its religious importance; the city has been a cultural and religious center in northern India for thousands of years. Varanasi has its own style of classical Hindustani music, and has produced prominent musicians, philosophers, poets, and writers in Indian history, including Kabir, Munshi Premchand, Jaishankar Prasad, Pandit Ravi Shankar, and Ustad Bismillah Khan.

Editorial in The Hindu

His house contained a minimum of furniture and little else by way of ornamentation aside from photographs of him being honoured by dignitaries from various corners of the world. It was a cheerfully bare kind of place, in keeping with the maestro’s character. Much has been written about the Ustad as a devout Muslim who also worshipped Saraswati, the muse of all artists. His pluralism and tolerance were not learnt. They were instinctive and non-didactic, something that flowed naturally in the context of his being. He belonged to a generation that worshipped naad, the abstract principle of the perfectly tuned note. It was the pursuit of this goal in a culturally composite context that defined his greatness.

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Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

4 thoughts on “Bismillah Khan and the Kabir Tradition”

  1. Dear Mr Singh,thank you so much o provide the link.I always thought, most of the great writers all over the world have a website of their own made either by themselves of or by their fans.whenenver i used to do a google search of Indira Goswami, lots of materials used to be available but in a very unorganised manner..So i started this small project, with my meagre resources.I’m stil a student now.May be later, i’ll be a in position to develope this into a full fledged website.Thank you again for linking it.

  2. Thanks for this write up. Brecht’s observartion applies so well to the India we live in. With divisive forces gaining more foothold than ever in the country, the passing away of people like Bimillah Khan isn’t just a loss for the musical world. It is truly a national loss.

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