Music maestro

March 26, 2023

Ustad Bismillah Khan was influenced by his maternal uncle, Ali Bux, also a shehani player

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everal classical musicians visited Pakistan from India in January to mark the Indian RepublicDay. Pandit Jasraj, Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Shanti Hira Nand, Haleem Jaffer Khan and Zakir Hussain, to name a few, toured Pakistan on these official visits. The most special visitor was Ustad Bismillah Khan. He visited in 1987 and held a number of concerts, at least two in Lahore on consecutive days at Alhamra.

He was staying at the Faletti’s hotel and I went with Haris Noorani a day before the concert to see the icon. It was a visit that inspired reverence. We were in the presence of a man who had received most of the awards that Indian government or institutions had to offer - SangeetNatak Academy Award, Padamshari, Padma Bhushan, Padam Vibhushan, Deshi kottama Award and DLit from Benarus University.

A man of few words the ustad was self-effacing: a picture of humility. He had apparently visited Lahore in the pre-partition days and had performed here as a young and promising instrumentalist. He talked mostly about his elder brother, Shamsuddin, who had died young; remembered him very fondly and stressed the greatsatisfaction he had derived while playing the shehnai with him. The two had inspired each other with their individual virtuosity and he probably never played with more passion, zest and involvement at any other time even when he became known the world over.

Before him shehnai, known by other names was considered a minor instrument. In his lifetime, he took it to the level where a raga could be explored and developed in all the three registers thus placing it at par with instruments like the sarod and the sitar.

According to Rita Ganguly, shehnai had its roots in Iran or territories under the Persian cultural dominance. Later, the instrument was introduced to Peshawar by travellers and became tota (a long pipe).It travelled some more to reach the Punjab and then Delhi. In Delhi, it was called the nafiri or the zafila. In the course of the last couple of centuries, some kind of a wind instrument with a semi-holy status was played in the temples and occasionally in the courts. Once the instrument reached Benaras, it acquired the name, shahnai.

The father of modern shahnai probably was one Chotay Khan of Afghan origin.He was one of the most outstanding shahnai players. He improved the instrument and played it with exceptional skill. Though the shahnai and narsimha were played in various temples and supported by princely states, the people played the high pitched pungi in Delhi. Chotay Khan improved the instrument made from wood that had a natural hollow stem. It became longer and broader than before and seven holes were carved out on the body of the instrument to obtain an impressive sonorous quality.

From the court of Delhi, Chotay Khan was sent as a gift to the court of Lucknow. As the original shahnai players were zealously guarded and patronised by royals who employed them invariably in their temples, these shahnai players were occasionally exchanged between their courts.

In 1916,RasoolBux Khan, the shahani nawaz from the court of Bhojpur Dumraon in Shahbad district of Bihar was preparing to go to court,when the news was broken to him that he had been blessed with a grandson. Remembering God, he uttered the word bismillah.The new born thus came to be called Bismillah though the parents named him Qumruddin to rhyme with their firstborn, Shamsuddin.

Bismillah Khan was influenced mostly by his younger maternal uncle Ali Bux, also a shahani player. He played the shahnai at the Jadau or Vishnu temple in the morning, afternoon and evening and then went to Balaji temple for riyaz. Bismillah Khan would often tag along. He remained Bismillah Khan’s greatest influence.Only after his death, did Bismillah Khan start playing with Shamsuddin, his elder brother.

As his playing of the shahnai became more developed, he had the instrument undergo changes accordingly. Today the shehnai is made from teak wood (sagwaan)is fifteen and a half inches long. The first portion, pyala is made of brass, and measures three to four curis, seven fingers make the middle portion and five fingers the last fraction. The first fragment is left out and the last two parts are equally divided by piercing seven holes.

The nozzle is made of brass measuring four and a half inches. On top of the nozzle, a weed fret is fixed.The lips and the jaws are used to blow the air to produce the required sound. The starting point acquires a half inch spring and the end point where the fret is inserted of a hollow weed called dong narrows down to nearly 4mm. The broader part is made of brass.

The writer is a culture critic base in Lahore

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