Sunday, May 22, 2016

Remembering Dumraon’s Bismillah

It’s heartening that the Narendra Modi government has plans to celebrate the life and music of late Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan. The Centre gave him Bharat Ratna 15 years ago and  later instituted a stamp, but the two states—one his janmbhumi and another karmbhumi—did little to honour his memory.
Five-year-old Bismillah had his first audiences at Dumraon, the place where he was born a hundred years ago. Every time he played the Shehnai at Bihariji Temple in Rajgarh — a sprawling campus on which the headquarters of the erstwhile Dumraon Raj in Bihar stand — the tunes mesmerised people, including members of the royal family.
There was a definite touch of brilliance in the boy’s performances, but not everyone would have imagined that he would become a maestro, bringing accolades by single-handedly raising the stature of the ‘obscure wind instrument’ he even then played with élan.
His father Paighambar Bux alias Bachai Miyan, grandfather Rasool Bux, great grandfather Hussain Bux were court musicians of Dumraon Raj. They played in Naqqar Khana.
Bachai and Mitthan initially named him Amiruddin, to rhyme with their first son Shamshuddin’s name. Rasool  exclaimed “Bismillah!” (“In the name of Allah!”) when he saw him. It stuck. My late grandfather, a member of the royal family, would tell me that when Bismillah sang the Bhojpuri ‘chaita’ Ehi matiya me bhulail hamar motiya he rama (It’s in this place that I lost my pearl), the temple priest would reward him a ‘laddoo’.
Born in Bhirung Raut Ki Gali, he spent his childhood playing ‘gilli-danda’ near the famous Chhatiya pond. He went to Urdu School near Naya Talab. He was fond of Dumraon’s daals. He was often accused of shying away from introducing himself as a native of Dumraon once he had made it big as a Shehnai player. It is not true. He would often think of his place of birth. Bismillah wanted to visit Dumraon, but could not.
The kid was taken to Banaras when he was six and lost his mother. He trained under his uncle, Ali Baksh ‘Vilayatu’, a shehnai player attached to Vishwanath Temple.  He and the shehnai were synonyms. He referred to the instrument as his begum after his wife died. He was a Shi’ite Muslim, a symbol of communal harmony.
As Banaras, now known more as Modi’s constituency, became his workplace and Bismillah’s stature rose manifold, not many in Dumraon recognised his contributions towards the Shehnai’s journey from raj darbars and social functions to the realm of classical music worldwide.
Perhaps most people in Dumraon — especially those raised in the feudal environment — could not fathom the meteoric rise of the son of an ordinary person. The Bihar government made several promises to honour him, but did little. Reports of the UP government’s reluctance to settle his hospital expenses were painful.
The Centre now plans yearlong birth centenary celebrations which include performances and special programmes, and may also build memorials for these icons and institute stamps and coins and publish books in their remembrance.
Khaan Saab deserves all this and much more!

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