Bismillah and his Shehanai
Since I gave up my evening clinic work I find some idle time at my disposal. I use it to play golf, badminton, afternoon naps, reading and more importantly, listening to music. Readers of my blog are familiar with my love towards Hindustani classical music.Though my first love is vocal music, I often listen to this music played on Shehanai. Shehanai is a reed instrument and the note produced is smooth and easy flowing. I have found a lot of mental peace listening Shehanai.
Common knowledge is that the instrument came to India along with the invading Muslim armies around the 10th century. I also was under the same impression till I read a well researched article written by Dr Dileep Karanth, [who incidentally is my wife's nephew][Indian Oboe reexamined, published in the journal of Asian studies] Dileep is by profession a physicist and has other interests as one can make out if one reads this article.
Shehanai in one form or the other existed in old India since prehistory and spread from there to other parts of the world and the music played of course came under a lot of foreign influence notably Sufi Islam.
The greatest exponent of Shehanai was Late Bismillah Khan, Bismillah died recently at the ripe old age of 90. Honours came to him aplenty including the Bharath Ratna. Despite all this he remained a simple person managing his large family and dependents. His home was the temple town of Banares and in one of the interviews he said he found the presence of God while playing the shahnai on the banks of river Ganga which flows by Banares. He also often performed inside the Kashi Viswananth temple. He in fifty years transformed shehanai from an instrument performed during festivals and marriages to that of an principal instrument of classical Hindustani music performed on stage like any other.
Though he is no longer with us I have vivid memories of him playing the shehanai. It was a visual and auditory treat. I remember his face with the trimmed white beard and the laugh lines around his twinkling eyes. With black coat and a write cap he had stage presence rarely seen these days. What I liked about his music is that he rarely gave in to musical calisthenics to impress the audience. His was smooth and easy on the ears and played as much for us as for himself.
Traditional music as we have seen is slowly disappearing. Shorter versions with more titillation seem to be the order of the day. But old music like old wine is still available thanks to quality electronic storage devices.