Sunday, 5 February 2012

Bharat Ratna Bismillah Khan's last interview

The death of his wife fourteen years ago had left Bismillah Khan, the shehnai maestro, shattered and inconsolable, but he came to terms with the tragedy by treating 'shehnai' as his 'begum'. ''Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan used to keep his shehnai on his bed and under his pillow. It inspired him. It gave him power to think about 'ragas' and music,'' says the couple-- Neena Jha and Shivnath Jha - who took possibly the last interview of the maestro before his death early yesterday. The Jha couple, who has set up 'Bismillah'', an NGO dedicated to the welfare of forgotten artists, spent over 16 hours with the Ustad on August 18-19 to inquire about his health and other issues, including his desire to perform at the India Gate -- a wish that remained unfulfilled. ''I am still practising...I am trying to produce a new 'raag'' -- ''raag bhadai'' -- at India Gate,'' he had told the Jha couple while lying on the bed in Room No 101 of Heritage Hospital in the temple town of Varanasi.

The Jha couple was to be the organisers of the August 9 concert that could not materialise. Terribly weak and fragile, the shehnai meastro, during the long-drawn interview, cried, slept, reminisced his past and talked about his yearnings and dreams. In particular, he wanted to meet melody queen Lata Mangeshkar before his death. ''...woh (Lata) meri choti bahan hai. Uski awaaz mein jaadu hai. Kash main mil pata", (She is like my younger sister. Her voice has magic. I yearn to meet her) he said.

Asked about his favourite singer, Bismillah Khan said, ''I like Begum Akhtar...Lekin Lata to Lata hai. No one can replace her even today. She has a magic in her voice that very few have.'' He also recounted an event in this connection that happened two decades ago. ''We (me and my wife) were asleep. It was midnight. Somewhere, someone was playing one of the Begum's records -'Deewana Bana De.' I suddenly woke up and started enjoying the song. I woke my wife up. Kafi gussa ho gayee (she got incensed)...'aadhi raat mein kya ho raha hai (What is happening at this ungodly hour ?' ''I told her: yeh tumhare samajh se baahar hai...Jahannum mein jao (This is beyond your comprehension. Go to hell.'' Asked whether he used such a language for his wife, he said, ''Yes. She was my wife. I loved her very much. Next day I came to know that what I heard in the midnight was not a record but Begum Akhtar was herself singing. I can't forget that night.'' Bismillah Khan also regretted that he had not been able to visit the Vishwanath temple and Mangla Devi temple.

About his family members, he said his eldest son Mehtab Hussain was a good player of shehnai. Nayyar, according to him, was also good. But he doted on his granddaughter Kehkashan. ''She is a good girl. She cares a lot for me.'' To a question why he did not want to leave Benaras, Bismillah Khan said, '' Yaah Allah...Can you live without your mother? Can you live without your relatives? I like Benaras. I like Vishwanath temple, I like my family, I like my sons and daughters and their children. I have a big family and I want to die before them.'' In fact, the Ustad used to look after a family that has 66 members. In a sense, he was running the 'Bismillah Hotel'', said one of his sons.

Asked what would happen to his shehnai after he was gone, the maestro said, ''My sons. Mehtab bahut achcha bajata hain. Nayyat bhi achcha hai. But they will have to concentrate on sur and riyaaz (melody and practice.'' A man with impeccable secular credentials, he said his message to the people of the country was that all of them - Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians - were the creation of the Almighty. ''It is our social system that has divided them in various castes and creeds. Samay badal raha hai...jis din logon ko yeh baat samajh mein as jayegi hamara paidaish ek hai tabhi shanti aur prem aayega...intezaar karo (we are in a phase of transition. Once we realise that we all are the creation of one, harmony and unity will come. Let's wait)''.

The throne he left will be vacant forever. Enjoy the divinity.