India@75: Bismillah Khan’s Family Love For Ganga & Why They Hated Rabid Muslims

The New Indian visited the relatives of Ustad Bismillah Khan to rekindle the legacy of the Shehnai maestro 

VARANASI | Updated: 15 August, 2022 8:01 pm IST
Ustad Bismillah Khan's grandson Nasir Abbas

They say the narrow, labyrinthine lanes of Sarai Haraha in Nai Sadak once reverberated with the sound of shehnai that the maestro used to play. But as the memories of late Qamruddin Khan, whom the world knew as Ustad Bismillah Khan, lingered in the mind, even the hustle and bustle of the local market could not stop it from wandering into the era gone by. 

As the country celebrates the 75th year of independence, The New Indian visited the shehnai maestro’s house to rekindle the memories of the man who swayed the nation to his tune on ‘Independence Day’. 

The search ended at the house that looked like it belonged to a forgotten era – with the walls finding it difficult to weather the storm of the modern age. Quite unexpected for someone who was a jewel of India – Bharat Ratna. 

It was the nameplate outside the house that bore the legacy – ‘Carrying the tradition of Bharat Ratan Ustad Bismillah Khan. Inside, every room of the now nondescript house is filled with the memories of a legend – the Khaan Saab, as Ustad Bismillah Khan was respectfully addressed. 

“This is the same room where he used to practice,” Nasir Abbas, grandson of Khaan Saab, said while welcoming The New Indian to a dark room that was once the baithak, or the drawing room. 

When Dadaji used to play his shehnai, people would stand outside the room. They would just listen to him as the tune of his shehnai gave them calmness and cast a spell on them,” Abbas recalled the glorious past. 

“There was a time when this whole drawing room was filled with his photos. But then termites ruined them all,he rued. 

Being close to the Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, a lot of people used to visit the house to pay their respects to Khan Saab. “People used to visit our house after Kashi Vishwanath Temple when Khan Saab was alive. But they only come on two days now – on his birth and death anniversaries,Nasir said. 

Despite the dwindling interest, Abbas praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his effort to preserve the legacy. “Modi ji had asked if he could have a shehnai of Ustadji. I gave him one that Khan Saab used to play. Modi ji accepted it and placed it at Bada Lalpur’s Handicrafts Museum to preserve it,” Abbas said, while proudly showing a picture of him giving the shehnai to PM Modi. 

Abbas also supported PM Modi’s Har Ghar Tiranga initiative. “India is ours and we were born here, and every single citizen of this country should hoist the Indian flag at their home on I-Day,” Abbas said. 

Recalling the proud heritage of Khan Saab, Abbas said, “Dadaji played shehnai in August 1947 (first Independence Day) and January 1950 (first Republic Day). Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first Prime Minister) especially invited him for his performance in 1950. “Nobody has played shehnai at the Red Fort except my grandfather. We feel proud of this fact,” he said.   

Abbas also explained why Ustad Bismillah Khan did not move to Pakistan after the partition. “He (Ustad Bismillah Khan) used to say that whatever he is today, it is because of Varanasi. He said that he had achieved everything on the land of Kashi, and he could not leave it,Abbas said. 

Narrating an interesting incident where Khan Saab was invited to settle in the US, Abbas said, “When they said that they would settle the whole family in the US, Khan Saab asked if they could move Ganga too, as it is the inspiration behind his music.” “When they said that it is impossible, he said then it is impossible for me to shift,” Abbas said, highlighting the importance of the Ganga river in the life of Ustad Bismillah Khan. 

Ustad Bismillah Khan’s eldest daughter Zarina Begum

Recalling the days of her father, Zarina Begum, Khan Saab’s eldest daughter, burst with emotions. “We always miss him. We remember the days when he used to play during Muharram and Ramzan. People used to flock to the house to listen to him. There is a unique power in his shehnai that it can attract anyone,” she said with moist eyes.  

Strongly refuting that music is a sin in Islam, as many propagate, Zarina said, “There is music in azaan. Music is never a sin in Islam. But yes, when there is azaan, everything else stops as the prayers are read in a way that used to  mesmerise everyone. So, out of respect, people stopped playing anything else. But it was never a sin.” 

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