Diamonds sparkled through those twinkling eyes, and the sun shone through those broken teeth. When he spoke, shehnai emperor Ustad Bismillah Khan could make any magician go into hiding.
Today is the legendary Bharat Ratna’s birth anniversary. There is some confusion over how many years. Many seniors believe he was born in 1913, but Wikipedia insists it was 1916. Anyway, his birth centenary was celebrated twice.
On my third interaction with Khan-saab, I asked him which year he was actually born. As usual, he spoke in Uttar Pradesh Hindi style, which I shall loosely translate. “What difference does it make? It’s written in my passport but I don’t carry it in Mumbai. Whichever year, my parents would have been happy, no? The date, March 21, is correct.. so I think.”
Khan-saab’s wit just flowed like the notes of his shehnai. Allow me to cover that aspect in detail, though I shall bring his musical contribution in between.
I first met Khan-saab at Hotel Sahil near Mumbai Central station in 1997. He was to do a jugalbandi (duet) with sitar legend Ustad Vilayat Khan at the Brabourne Stadium the following day.
I was a bit lost for direction, and was actually accosted by pimps with some weird offers – the notorious Kamathipura red light area was just across the road. Somehow I found the hotel. Nothing fancy, but the receptionist told me Khan-saab always stayed there when in Mumbai.
I managed to reach his second floor room. The servant, who came with him on most shows within India, welcomed me.
Khan-saab was weak, having crossed 80 by then. He greeted me. He ordered water which was followed by sharbet. Told me to ask questions, so he would give ‘uttar’. Hindi for both north and answers. “I am from Uttar Pradesh so I know how to give uttar,” he joked.
I asked him why he chose this hotel. He responded, “The first time I came to Bambai some 45-50 years ago I requested a hotel near the railway station. They gave me this. The father ran it then, the sons manage it today. I don’t get this kind of service anywhere. And I hate taking taxis. After 24 or 30 hours in a train, who wants to sit another three hours? I am talking about those days, today it is worse. Tomorrow it will be a nightmare getting to Brabourne Stadium.”
Khan-saab had arrived the previous night by train. He said, “In India, I don’t take planes. While travelling abroad, I have no option. But these planes make my breath stop. People ask me how a shehnai player’s breath can stop. But the take-off and turbulence give me shivers. Thankfully nobody has asked me to play my shehnai on a plane. I would never manage it. In trains we can have a proper mehfil and get pedhas or pakodas on the way.”
These are just some excerpts of his wit. The serious interview began. Much of it had been written about before – his family history, upbringing in Varanasi, training under Ali Baksh, his recitals at the famous Vishwanath temple. But he answered all that patiently, besides how he got breaks with All India Radio and Doordarshan, his shows at Red Fort and Rashtrapati Bhavan, his encounters with sitar great Pandit Ravi Shankar and melody queen Lata Mangeshkar, his collaborations with Vilayat Khan, and violinists V.G. Jog and L. Subramaniam, and his film forays like the Hindi ‘Goonj Uthi Shehnai’ and Kannada ‘Sannadi Appanna’.
A namaz break was taken at 1 pm. Once the interview was over, he requested me to join him for lunch. He laughed, “I can survive on dal-roti all my life but if people offer me mutton roganjosh or butter chicken, I don’t know how to resist.”
The lunch over, Khan-saab wanted to give me a surprise. So he asked his son to bring his toy, which turned out to be his shehnai. He suddenly began playing raag Bhimpalasi. Just 20 minutes, but a memorable experience.
Some interviews give you that total high. As a journalist, you just don’t want to stop. This was one of them.
My second encounter was rather brief, at an event where he was being honoured. There were too many people. It took him a while to recognise me. But I reminded him of things he had said, and had also taken a newspaper cutting of my earlier interview for an autograph. “You’ve taken my childhood picture,” he joked, though the photograph was definitely taken many decades later.
Our last meeting was in 2002, but this time he was at Juhu’s Hotel Sun N’ Sand, because he had come for a family wedding. He had been awarded Bharat Ratna by then and his sons had arranged media interviews. I reminded him again about Hotel Sahil. He said, “They parcelled me lunch here yesterday. Tomorrow I have 11.30 morning train, so will go there for breakfast.”
A few years flew by. On August 21, 2006, I got a call from Hindustan Times informing me of his demise. Sadly, I was on some assignment which wouldn’t let me off till late night. With great regret, I had to say no to writing the obituary. But memories kept flashing by. They still do. That was Ustad Bismillah Khan, the man, the musician, the monarch. Wish I had met him much earlier.