Monday, August 21, 2006


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!!?


Wikipedia Profile

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


Tabula Rasa said...

thanks a lot for this post - i may not have known otherwise. but hey, you can't get away with a footnote -- it's not a trumpet! don't belittle the man by setting his apple up against an orange. (fwiw, the bbc says a shehnai can be loosely compared with an oboe.)

km said...

God, his kajris. Or when he broke into a little eastern UP folk phrase in the middle of a concert...

Loved your suggestion about keeping schools open. And all teachers in the world must be made to read about Baba Allauddin Khan's life. How could one man shape *so many* geniuses? I cannot imagine any teacher in ANY field coming close to the Baba.

Will the Shehnai tradition die with this Ustad?

Falstaff said...

tr: okay, okay. the point was definitely not to belittle him - on the contrary, I was trying to expand the scope of the comparison. I could have said the man was the greatest shehnai player of our age, but given that he's the only shehnai player I know that's not saying much, is it. I could have said that the man was the greatest musician of our age, but that might be an exaggeration. I actually considered saying that the man was the greatest wind instrument player of our age, but that just sounded too clunky.

My overall point is that Bismillah Khan was a phenomenal musician whose playing bears comparision not only with the great Indian classical musicians of our time but with the great Jazz masters.

And while the shehnai as an instrument may be loosely compared with an oboe, I hardly think it's valid to compare a Bismillah Khan performance with, say, a Mozart oboe concerto. Stylistically, I've always felt his music was closer to jazz than to western classical, which is why i continue to maintain that the trumpet is the better comparison.

Nikhil Pahwa said...

Sad, yes. I was fortunate enough to have heard his music live...four times, in school.

orion said...

very well written Falstaff! I am going to listen to Ustad's music now; and I dearly regret not having done that until now.
About the closure of schools etc., I totally agree with you. I remember wondering the same myself when kannada actor Rajkumar died - of course, in that case they went overboard, but that's totally off topic (sorry!).
Again, great post and a fitting tribute

Karthik Rao Cavale said...

I don't agree with you when you say that paying homage to the Ustad by maintaining silence for two minutes is somewhat ridiculous.

Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar says, there are three components to music, sur, rhythm, and silence.

You listen to Megh Malhar and then go out in the open. You will find the silence beautiful. The music continues to linger in your ears. That is also music.

After all, finally in this cosmos, the net sum of everything is zero. Someone creates the music, and something else is created somewhere to annihilate it. So why run away from silence?

Starship Enterprise said...

Some of my earliest memories of a festival at home are submerged in bismillah khan's other music could convey that elusive combination of purity, festivity and spirituality better.

Without a doubt, his masterpieces will survive generations.

Szerelem said...

it is sad indeed. his music is gorgeous. was lucky to have heard him in concert a couple of times and help out with the organisation of one.
The shehnai is such a delightful musical instrument it would be a terrible shame if the tradition were to die with the Ustad.

Tabula Rasa said...

i get your point.

but new point -- isn't most hindustani classical, with its emphasis on improvisation, closer to jazz? where in western classical music, apart from the odd "variations" does one hear musicians improvise?

Falstaff said...

km: Yes, on top of everything else the man was a real entertainer wasn't he?

unrest cure: Yes. God bless Spic-Macay.

sach1tb: Thanks

krc: Notice the bit about the silence coming after you've listened to a great musician play. Not silence just generally. The larger point is this - can you imagine Bismillah Khan enjoying the idea of a whole bunch of people, many of whom have never listened to his music standing around in silence looking glum? It's a picture that goes against absolutely everything the man stood for. From what I've seen of him at concerts, I'd say he'd be the first person to say, dammit, stop looking so glum, let's play some music.

starship: Yes, exactly. I think that's the key really (I knew I wasn't saying this well) - it's the combination of the purity and the light-heartedness that makes him so important. We live in a world where perfection and purity are serious, solemn subjects - Bismillah Khan reminded us that they didn't have to be; that absolute commitment wasn't incompatible with having fun. Quite the contrary.

szerelem: yes, well, let's hope it doesn't.

tr: oh, absolutely. I wasn't implying that the comparison was only true for Bismillah Khan - I think in general Indian Classical is closer to jazz. It's just that with the shehnai more than with some other instruments there's a direct parallel with the sound of trumpet / sax musicians. So for instance, it's much harder to compare, say, Kishori Amonkar with Billie Holiday than it is to compare Bismillah Khan with Dizzy Gillespie.

Tabula Rasa said...

... but easier to compare dhrupad with scat than sarangi with bebop. (having said that, i can't see how you can compare dizzy's trumpet with a shehnai. maybe miles.) the larger point is that the spirit underlying the two traditions is similar.

haven't we had this discussion before?

Dev Kumar said...

I logged in to an online store and purchased a CD of his music. That was the best way I could pay tribute to this son of Benares.

Just Mohit said...

"This was a man who spent his entire life trying to perfect sound, and you want to honour his memory with silence!!?"
Well, without him finding the perfect sound is we might as well shut up for 2 minutes!
God bless Spic-Macay & BHU for giving me the opportunity to hear & see the Ustaad a number of times!

Anonymous said...

Best homage to Ustab Saab:-)

Karthik Rao Cavale said...

Let me try to clarify.

You seem to say:

1)People who have not even listened to the Ustad ought not to mourn his death by maintaining silence for two miutes. Instead they ought to go and listen to a bit of Ustad's music.

2)Even other people, his fans for example, ought not to mourn by keeping silence. It is against all that the Ustad stood for.

I agree with point 1, but not with point two. Silence is also music (not necessarily silence that comes after sound, it could be the silence just before the concert begins, or for that matter, at any time.)

You might wonder whether this is really the time to discuss the minutae of musical terminology. I am sorry, it just occurred to me so I posted the comment.

I myself was never a fan of Ustad Bismillah Khan. Maybe it was a prejudice created by his asking the govt. for petrol pumps and free medical seats. I found it in bad taste.

But I have heard that he was a very nice, albeit a very moody man. Not particularly money-minded apparently.

Yet, I have been to his concerts twice, and each time he asked some of the dignitaries to organise his programmes (and stipulated the fees too, and they were quite high.)

I guess his financial troubles forced him to be like this.

Another point I would like to make is that it is not really a good idea to compare Indian music with either Western classical music or jazz. Simply because Indian music is more developed than any other.

It is as simple as this: Jazz can use only a limited no. of scales, nothing compared to the variety in ICM.

Falstaff said...

tr: I don't know - we might have. Completely agree about the spirit being similar - it's a point I've tried to make to enough people over time.

dev: Good idea.

Mohit: Errr..there's always recorded music you know. Though admittedly it doesn't compare to seeing the man live in concert.

anon: Thanks

KRC: Ah! See some of us were focussing on Bismillah Khan's music, not on our petty grouses about his financial rapacity. But if you'd rather sit around in silence and feel bitter about how much Bismillah Khan got paid for a concert (just out of curiousity - when you say his fees were 'quite high' what exactly are you comparing them to?) more power to you.

Karthik Rao Cavale said...

I am a part of the music club, here at IIT Madras, and I was comparing his fees to the pittance (one-hundredth of the Ustad's fees, to be exact) we pay to Sanjay Subrahmanyam for a concert in our institute.

Yes, I know that the Ustad performed for equally low amounts for SPIC MACAY, but the amount is not really the issue.

The issue is that he thought that his achievement gave him a right over public funds. That didn't seem right.

I do not claim that the Ustad was in any way deficient as a musician. I am not qualified to pass judgement on Bismillah Khan's music. Yes, I don't like his music as much as I like the music of other greats (Ustad Fahimuddin Dagar or Gangubai Hangal for example) but everyone has his favourites.

Tabula Rasa said...

i know i shouldn't be doing this (and apologies, falstaff), but karthik rao cavale, have you ever heard (of) ornette coleman? or cecil taylor?

Karthik Rao Cavale said...

No, I haven't.

You'll probably go on to say that I am criticising western music without hearing/ understanding it.

I am not criticising anything. I just said that Indian music is much more developed, which has to be true given that Indian music has developed over a couple of millenia, while jazz is as recent as USA.

Falstaff said...

KRC: Maybe you should try comparing what you were paying the Ustaad to what, say, a Yo-Yo Ma gets paid for a concert appearance. Or, for that matter, to what any of our entirely talentless film stars would charge.

The point is - great talent deserves to be paid. Whether that payment comes from public funds or from private ticket sales is really the organisers choice, no?

At any rate, I can't help feeling we're getting side-tracked here. This is not a post about what musicians should charge or about jazz vs. Indian classical vs. Western Classical (frankly, the question of which is better / more developed is an entirely ridiculous one - how are we supposed to compare?). It's a post mourning the death of a great musician and (incidentally) making the point that meaningless playacting by politicians who don't appreciate his music is ridiculous.

Karthik Rao Cavale said...

Well, I agree with the essence of the post. Most of it at least.

The only comment I had on the content of the post is that for people who really loved the Ustad, keeping silence would not be such a bad idea after all. They will find in that silence more music than in any recording they can listen to.

Yes, I got diverted a bit and wrote about why I personally can't sing his praises the way others do. It is purely a personal sentiment.

The remaining issues (about how much Bismillah Khan was paid etc. and about jazz vs. ICM) were brought up into the discussion quite unintentionally. Maybe I'll explain my stance sometime later in my blog.

snand said...

what a great thought that instead of making children go off and not even know why,they would have been treated to the mastero's shenai.
wish someone would have heard and
atleast take note of it before taking similar decision in future.

dazedandconfused said...

karthik rao cavale,

To avoid getting sidetracked unintentionally in your comments, maybe you could practice silence for two minutes...

Completely in jest, of course!

Crp said...

Karthik Rao Cavale: it might interest you to know that many Western musicians/music lovers consider Indian Classical music inferior because it doesn't contain harmony (2000 year old development of ... what exactly ?). Many (otherwise sophisticated musicians) even consider it boring and stupid. They're wrong of course and so are you -- in fact your comment shows that you don't even understand what a jazz scale is. (Hint: it is not the same as a raga)

BANSI said...

There are and will be many many Sarodiaas,sitariaas, bansuriaas,and gavvayaas.But, alas. There was, is, and will be only one Shehnai-naaz.Aadaab!

BANSI said...

There were, there are ,and will be many many sarodiaas,sitariaas, bansuriaas, and gavvayaas. Alas, there has been only one shehnai-naaz. Aadaab!

Just Mohit said...

Recorded music doesn't quite capture the experience dude! Although am grateful that the notes will live on...


I am confident that more than 98 per cent people who have posted there must had not met the Ustad Bismillah Khan. We request all the music lover around the world to visit or before making any comment on the Ustad.
With high regards, and sorry
shivnath Jha and Neena Jha