Vikram Srinivas, Ustad Bismillah Khan and Dr. Rajkumar during the silver jubilee function of Sanaadi Appanna. Picture courtesy: http://www.chitraloka.com/
The great shehnai maestro USTAD BISMILLAH KHAN IS NO MORE. He breathed his last in the wee hours this morning. The Bharata Ratna awardee, the third classical musician after Smt M S Subbulakshmi and Pt. Ravi Shankar to be awarded the highest civilian honour in India, was 91.
The gentle genius of Bismillah Khan was perhaps single handedly responsible for making Shehnai a famous classical instrument. Traditionally used to play music during marriages, Shehnai is the counterpart of South Indian Nadaswaram. It is also used to play music in temples. And I have read that he used to play at the Kashi Vishwanatha temple in Benares every morning since ages.
I remember Bismillah Khan’s soulful music in Dr. Rajkumar’s film Sanaadi Appanna. It is sheer joy to listen to him. I remember reading in an old Rajkumar interview how difficult it was to bring him from Kashi to Bangalore to play for the movie. When the plan to make the film Sanaadi Appanna was going on, close friends told Rajkumar it would be good to do the film after he ages a little more. Raj told them, “I have already aged, please let us do this film now. it is a good story”. Remember, the film was made in 1977. And Rajkumar was already 48 by then. Rather, he was just 48!
Rajkumar asked the director that if they roped Ustad Bismillah Khan to play the Shehnai for the movie, it would be great. Film Producer Vikram Srinivas told that Bismillahji had had a bad experience working for a movie (Goonj Uthi Shehnai?). So he may not agree. But Raj insisted and told why not give it a try. Vikram Srinivas went to Kashi and stayed for 8 days. He visited Ustad Bismillah Khan everyday at the temple and requested him to come and play for the movie. Everyday the Ustad refused saying his health did not permit him. Finally, Vikram Srinivas told he was a very religious man and that he would fast unto death in front of Ustad’s house if he did not come as he could not go back without the Ustad. He also told it was none other than Rajkumar who would be acting in the movie. Only then did the Ustad agree. Vikram told the Ustad to get his full troupe and offered him air tickets. The Ustad told he was comfortable travelling by rail. They all came by rail and Rajkumar spent a week with the Ustad learning the nuances of playing Shehnai.
Rajkumar says in the interview that the Ustad used to simply close his eyes and play mesmerising music from morning 7 till late night. And not once did he show any hint of tiredness. It seems he used to become one with the Shehnai and the music he played. And Raj says,”I cried at the end of my training as I had become so close with him and his troupe. The thought that I would miss this lovely music and this lovely human being brought tears in my eyes.”
Later, when the shooting was in progress, the Ustad was in Bangalore for a show. It seems he wanted to meet the film crew and phoned the film producer. Vikram Srinivas told this to Rajkumar, who too was wanting to see the Ustad. The scene being shot was where Appanna’s grandson asks his thatha to play the Shehnai. Appanna refuses initially, but gives in and plays lilting music. Later Appanna’s son comes and throws the shehnai, as he is against music. The music is really good in this particular scene.
Ustadji was sent a car and Vikram himself went to bring him to the Studio. When he came, he spoke to all the members there and had a chat with Rajkumar. Ustadji was shown whatever was shot till then. He was amazed how Rajkumar learnt the Shehnai in such a short span and played so beautifully the Raga Behag in which the song KAREDARU KELADE was set to tune. There are a couple of other pieces in Raga Marwa and Sindhu Bhairavi which are excellently played by the Ustad. Notable point is that Rajkumar was not only a singer, but also took keen interest in the composition of music in his films. The Ustad greatly appreciated the music talent of Rajkumar. He was also greatly impressed by Rajkumar’s acting in Sanaadi Appanna. The film ran to packed houses and broke box office records. The Ustad was invited for the silver jubilee function and was felicitated by Rajkumar himself.
A Rediff tribute says swimming in the Ganga was the Ustad’s pastime in his younger days. And despite his fame, Bismillah Khan’s lifestyle retained its old world charm and he continued to use the cycle rickshaw as his chief mode of transport till his death.
Music world has indeed lost a noble soul and a musical genius. RIP, Bismillahji.