Hindustan Times (Jalandhar)

Are Varanasi’s famed shehnais falling silent?

Bismillah Khan’s family has fallen into hard times. But is Varanasi’s legacy of cultural syncretism — seen at its strongest in the maestro’s lifetime — doing any better?

- Paramita Ghosh paramitagh­osh@hindustant­imes.com

NEWDELHI: As legend has it, shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan first caught a glimpse of the “lord” of Varanasi as a 12-year-old boy.

Little Bismillah was practising on the stone balcony of the Balaji temple when Shiva — the resident god of the sacred city — visited him doused in ittar. “And Shivji told him: Son, play. Your name is joined with mine… Ishwar, Allah, Bismillah,” says Ustad Nazim Hussain Khan, Bismillah’s son.

Fantastic as this story may seem, Bismillah did talk of Hindu gods and goddesses as if he lived with them. “Durga, Parvati, Krishna, Kanhaiya… he knew of gods and avatars that even we had scant knowledge of,” says Krishna Ballesh, Bismillah’s disciple and a shehnai player in Chennai. “The maestro always believed goddess Saraswati helped him play the instrument.”

Today, Bismillah’s family could do with some divine interventi­on. One of his grandsons has sold off his shehnai, and there are reports that the maestro’s descendant­s are in a state of financial turmoil. However, is the legacy of cultural syncretism — embodied by both Bismillah and his city of Varanasi — faring any better?

Bismillah played in temples. He would lead the Muhurram procession with Pandit Ramlal (on the khurdak) and Mohanlal Prasanna (also a shehnai artiste), playing all the way from his home to Karbala Ground. Though music is not permitted during Muharram, Bismillah — a rising star between the ‘50s and the ‘60s — brooked no orthodoxy. “To the maestro, it didn’t matter where he played… Nobody forced him to play in temples, or told him not to,” says intellectu­al Shahena Rizvi.


Though this neat picture of cultural syncretism is — in large measure — still the story of Varanasi, it has to be seen in the proper context. Varanasi made a case for Bismillah. The city as well as its clerics, both Hindu and Muslim, made space for his unique talent.

“The ’50s was also a time when India was interested in the secular tradition,” says vocalist Vidya Rao of the Benaras gharana. However, the carte blanche was not extended to Bismillah or his family — leave alone his community — beyond a few decades.

While Bunkars (weavers of the Banarasi sari) form a majority of the city’s Muslim population, musicians are a minority. Members of the Muslim working class co-exist with their Hindu counterpar­ts in peace but with anxieties.

“Have you come for a programme?” asks little Tanzila, Nazim’s niece, as she stands hopefully by the doorstep of Bismillah’s ancestral house at Sarai Haraha. At this three-storey house near Dalmandi, a mohalla that was home to courtesans until the late 19th century, the Khan family struggles to take the family legacy forward. The objective now is to make a living, humble as it may be.

Inside the house, toy trader Asad Abbas — one of Bismillah’s grandsons — pumps up his middle-aged lungs to supplement the family’s income by playing the shehnai.

On the ground floor, on a four-poster bed curtained with blankets to create a makeshift echo chamber, Akbar Hussain — a blind nephew of the maestro — holds his breath before releasing it forcefully into the instrument. However, his fingers clamp on the wrong holes, eliciting a mumbled curse from his lips.

Nazim says a fellow musician advised him to stop practising at the Balaji temple after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. “The tension would ebb, then rise again. After being warned thrice, I stopped going there altogether.”


Age-old ties in the city fray and mend themselves all the time. When the government awarded the Bharat Ratna to Bismillah in 2001, a few in the city’s artistic community wondered why he was chosen over another Banarasi — Kishan Maharaj.

Social and business relations in Varanasi are participat­ory, but its cultural boundaries are well defined. “The cloth spread over temple idols is woven by Muslim weavers. However, the cloth is ‘purified’ before being put on them,” says an artisan on the condition of anonymity.

Neverthele­ss, a few hope that the city maintains its cultural syncretism. Nazim says artistes from both communitie­s still participat­e in the Muharram procession. “Pyarelal plays the khurdak and Mohanlal Tyagi plays the shehnai. Even if the two don’t bring their instrument­s, they walk with us,” he adds.

Varanasi’s temple festivals have been the testing grounds for its composite culture. Nazim’s cousin Mumtaz Khan was the first Muslim artiste to participat­e in the Sangeet Samaroh festival at the Sankat Mochan temple in the early 2000s. However, Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali’s concert in 2015 flared up into a political controvers­y.

The core of Varanasi society has always been staunchly Hindu. In 2014, writer Kashninath Singh received anonymous threat calls after he portrayed Lord Krishna as bearded and balding in his novel — Upsanghar. “If Krishna was alive now, would he have been a radical? I imagined him as a man and not a god,” says Singh.

Bismillah embodied Varanasi’s composite culture simply by being committed to his art. But does the responsibi­lity to make syncretism work rest only with the minority community? How long will his legacy — or that of his music — even last? Nazim says Varanasi has just over 100 shehnai players today, and they are struggling to make ends meet.

Bismillah Khan’s father’s lack of successors is a comment not only on how society treats its famous names, but also the fate it reduces lesser-known ones to.

› To him, it didn’t matter where he played… Nobody forced him to play in temples, or told him not to. SHAHENA RIZVI, retired professor, Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith Durga, Parvati, Krishna, Kanhaiya …he knew of god sand avatars that even we had scant knowledge of. KRISHNA BALLESH, Bismillah’s disciple and a shehnai player in Chennai

 ?? ALAMY STOCK PHOTO ?? Bismillah played in temples and lead the Muhurram procession along with Pandit Ramlal and Mohanlal Prasanna.
ALAMY STOCK PHOTO Bismillah played in temples and lead the Muhurram procession along with Pandit Ramlal and Mohanlal Prasanna.

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