Ustaad Bismillah Khan (March 21, 1916 - August 21, 2006)
The greatest trumpet player of our age died today.
And no, it wasn't Dizzy Gillespie or Wynton Marsalis or Miles Davis. It was this wizened old man, exponent of a centuries old tradition, performer of such extraordinary grace and power that to listen to his music was to hear the perfect marriage of rigorous discipline and endless, electrifying improvisation; the coming together of raw energy and exquisite form. Each time Ustaad Bismillah Khan put that shehnai to his lips what came out was music as revelation, as a life force, music that transcended itself to become something even more elemental, music (to use the exact urdu word) as ibaadat. To hear Bismillah Khan play was to lose sight of the boundaries between man and music, so that it was no longer clear whether the shehnai was the instrument of the player or the player was the instrument of the shehnai. Music erupted from this man as a metamorphic force, a sort of beautiful magma. It wasn't just the silence that was torn apart, it was the music itself.
Ralph Ellison once wrote of Louis Armstrong that with Louis the notes didn't go do re me fa so la ti, they went do re me fa so la ti peee! You could say the same for Bismillah Khan, except that with the Ustaad the music was far more likely to go do raaaaay me fa la so pee! tiiii. The sheer perfection of this man's improvisations is breathtaking - it's like listening to Bach jam. Performance after performance, Bismillah Khan would render the raag perfectly, and then just when you thought it couldn't get any better he would laughingly, almost mockingly, elevate you to an even higher plane. To say that this man was a genius would be an understatement. He was more. He was a daimon, sound incarnate, and what spoke through him was the voice of music as it was always meant to be heard.
Or played. As anyone who has ever attended a Bismillah Khan concert knows, the Ustaad's delight in music was mischevious, almost childlike. What you heard when Bismillah Khan played the kajri was a purity of joy equalled only in Mozart, a complete and unconditional surrender to the thrill of the sound (cummings writes - "joy so pure / a heart of star by him could steer"). This was a man who lived on and for his music, it inhabited him, possessed him, belonged to him only because he belonged to it first. It's difficult to believe that this man is dead, that such a man could die.
Not that he has to, or should, as long as his music lasts.
Look, I know I'm saying this badly. And while part of that is my own fault, I'm not sure it's possible to express in words the splendour of Bismillah Khan's music. Hell, it shouldn't be. So stop reading this blog, forget about mourning, and go listen to his music. Even better, get other people to listen to it. It's the only thing to do.
Meanwhile the government, I'm told, has ordered the closure of all government schools and colleges, as a mark of respect. Here's what I think they should do. Instead of shutting down the schools and colleges, they should keep them open. But instead of holding regular classes they should spend half the day making the students listen to Bismillah Khan's music. Giving them the opportunity to hear the consummate perfection of his notes, the passion of his joy, his absolute zest for life. There's more to learn - about life, about beauty, about God - from Bismillah Khan's rendition of Malhar than there is in every crummy NCERT textbook ever written.
P.S. Yes, yes, I know, the shehnai isn't technically a trumpet, but it's close enough.
P.P.S. Who came up with the ridiculous idea of paying homage to a great musician by observing a two minute silence anyway? I can't think of anything more absurd. This was a man who spent his entire life trying to perfect sound, and you want to honour his memory with silence!!?
Some Indian classical recordings, including a number of Bismillah Khan pieces as well as his recording with Vilayat Khan (hat-tip: KM). If you're looking for more Bismillah Khan recordings on line I recommend e-music.com.