One Of A Fate: Bismillah and Banaras

by Arush Tandon - Mar 21, 2015 01:00 PM +05:30 IST
One Of A Fate: Bismillah and Banaras(Bismillah Khan)

21st March is the 99th birth anniversary of Bharat Ratna recipient, Bismillah Khan. This gives us an excuse to reminisce about the master in the context of his beloved city, Banaras.


There is an oft-repeated anecdote about the late Ustad Bismillah Khan which goes like this: On one of his tours of US, an American gentleman came up to Khan sahab after one his shows. As it appeared, he happened to be a man of wealth and fortune. The gentleman was moved by Khan sahab’s music and had a simple proposition. He offered a home to Bismillah Khan and requested him to shift to United States. When Khan sahab replied that he couldn’t stay without his family and students, the gentleman promptly offered to host them too. However, Khan sahab had one other condition.

He said that when he was beyond the shores of India, he missed India, and when he was in India but out of Banaras, he missed Banaras. Thus, he would happily move to US, if the American admirer could create a Banaras there. Complete with the Ganga, ghats, and all things Banaras.

The gentleman had nothing more to say.

Perhaps, nothing describes the relationship between Bismillah Khan and Banaras as well as this anecdote. Maybe that’s why, there are many versions of it, each differing with the other in some nuance, mostly brought about by the bias of the narrator. (I chose the one above because that is the one Khan sahab himself narrated for this documentary.) 

If one delves on the life of Bismillah Khan and the history of Banaras, one gets a feeling of the artist and the city sharing the same fate. It almost seems like he and Banaras were two forms of the same thought. The Creator up there had an idea; the city he created from it was Banaras; the person, Bismillah Khan.

At a concert in a younger age (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
At a concert in a younger age (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps it was because of that, that the qualities which define Banaras are also the adjectives necessarily required to narrate the story of Khan sahab.

For example, no discussion of the history of Banaras can happen without a reference to its divine origins. Myth or history, it doesn’t matter. There are simply too many layers of either in Banaras to entangle one from the other.

Similarly, the birth of Bismillah Khan’s musical genius is also the stuff of legend. And like the story of Banaras, that story too, is incomplete without a reference to divinity.

As a young student of his uncle’s, Bismillah Khan used to do his riyaaz (daily practice) at a Balaji temple. Here it is best to quote the master himself on what that space came to mean to him:

“Balaji temple. . . that was the designated place of riyaaz [in our family]. And there, my uncle did his riyaaz for 18 years. At one spot.

. . . all of us have done riyaaz at this spot itself. And the way it was done was that I used to practice for three, three-and-a-half hours at one stretch. And. . what feelings I’ve experienced here, how do I tell you about those? Once I told [my uncle] so I was beaten. I told him what I saw here, so my uncle hit me and asked me to never repeat it. [After that] At two other occasions I witnessed the same, I did not tell anyone about it.

It is only now that I feel vindicated. . . there is a gentleman here. . a son of my friend’s, he said that he too saw the same twice. “You too are fortunate then, that you saw Him”, I said.

I told you, right? That a spot should be chosen. . an artist should chose a spot. . there is the practice at home, at school, but there should be one spot [apart from these] from where energy is derived.

This is one such spot.

If you look at it, there’s nothing. But there’s everything.” [emphasis mine]

But it’s not only in their origins that the stories of Banaras and Bismillah are similar. The main body of either story too, is akin to the other. Of course, one narrates the tale of a city across generations, another the tale of a single artist; but, in the essence of their content, the two are similar; in form, they are the same.

Just like Banaras hides profound reserves of history, philosophy, and the arts beneath an unassuming skyline, Bismillah Khan too, covered a rare mastery of music underneath an unpretentious demeanour. If a panoramic image of Banaras was shown to a person ignorant of Indian history, it is unlikely that he would identify that place as an intellectual centre of a civilisation. Much in the same way, if you did not know Bismillah Khan by face and you ran into him in a market, it is unlikely that you’d think you just bumped into a once-in-a-century artist.

And talking of demeanour, a discussion on either of Bismillah Khan or Banaras cannot be complete without a mention of that great quality found in each– sense of humour.

In Banaras, a sense of humour is not a trait for an individual to possess. It is intrinsic to one’s consciousness, and so ubiquitous, that it seems non-existent. What I mean is, you can’t point at something in Banaras and say, “that’s funny”, only because you can’t point at all directions at once. Bismillah Khan can be well regarded as an archetype of this Banarasi phenomenon. 

The following example alone should be enough to prove that. In this interview from 2005, journalist Shekhar Gupta begins by saying to Khan sahab, “I am grateful to you for speaking with us” (translated).

Bismillah Khan replied, “haan, haan, main bataaun aapko. . khaali bakwaas karne ke liye hum thodi si Urdu jaante hain” (of course, see, let me tell you, I know a bit of Urdu for the sake of blabbering).

Of course, then he went on to say that if he would be questioned on music, then he had lots to share. But you get my point.

However, you might say that these are all superficial parallels. What about the real thing? What about, music? That one word which defined Bismillah Khan. Apart from the fact that he learnt his music in Banaras, is there any deeper aspect which connects his music to the city?



One of the views regarding the purpose of Indian classical music, both Hindustani and Carnatic, is this. Notes by themselves are not the end. However perfect one might be in them, the purpose of music lies beyond. The notes, arranged in a particular order in a raga, are considered only the means to an abstract experience. The nature of this experience is contingent upon the raga being rendered.  The greatest of artistes do not stop at producing the perfect note at the perfect pitch. They create a road with the notes, take you by the hand, and lead you through it to that desired state of abstractness.

How long does that world last for and how long you stay there depends, of course, on the artist.

Once that is said, allow me to claim that there was a convergence between the abstract states-of-experience borne out of the moods of Banaras, and those experiences as created by the shehnai of Bismillah Khan.

If you’ve looked at Banaras, if you’ve observed it, if you’ve lived there and eaten there, and if you’ve listened to Bismillah Khan’s music, you’ll get what I’m saying.

A clarification though, is in order. When I say if you’ve looked at Banaras, I don’t mean from the eyes of a tourist. Least of all from the eyes of a tourist whose knowledge of Banaras began from pictures from coffee-table books on India. I also don’t imply at simply observing present-day Banaras. What I mean is if you really know the place, if you know the historical significance of the city. Specially, if you’re a Hindi-speaker and if you know enough about the place to envision a part of your roots when you gaze around from, say, the ghats. Then, I think, you’ll surely understand what I’m hinting at.

The experience of envisioning a particular mood of Banaras, is the same as the experience of listening to a corresponding raga rendered by Bismillah Khan. The dawn of Banaras was his bhairav, its dusk, his hamsadhwani. Its late-evening was Bismillah Khan’s yaman, a raga he played often, and the extreme devotion of the city, since time immemorial, was in his bhairavi.

The Ustad (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Ustad (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

But why only Bismillah Khan?”, one might ask. And that would not be a wrong question. After all, Banaras by itself has produced numerous greats of Hindustani music in the past few decades.

I am not qualified or learned enough to answer that question. At best I can offer conjectures. Perhaps its just the fact that Ustad Bismillah Khan was an instrumentalist and not a vocalist. The absence of words sung means one less obstacle to that abstract experience. The lyrics of a musical composition necessarily draw the mind to the imagery being depicted in them. Lyrics create a specific image in mind, while the abstract is abstract partly because it is not depicted in words. Perhaps that is why dhrupad moves primarily in alaap. Perhaps that is why all great vocalists use the alaap extensively. Perhaps.

Or maybe, its just that I’m biased towards Bismillah Khan for x, y, or z reason.

Whatever the reason be, if ever I have to describe to someone a normative snapshot of Banaras that I have in my head, I’ll stay mum and play a Bismillah Khan raga complementary to that vision.


One of a fate. The main idea of this piece is that Banaras and Bismillah Khan were one of a fate. But isn’t fate also about the bad times as much as the good ones? As much about the ‘lows’ as the ‘highs’?

Sadly, yes.

And that is why I believe that the artist and the city were of the same fate. If Bismillah Khan was a part of the boons fate bestowed on Banaras, he was also a microcosm of everything wrong with the city. One of a fate.

Despite being a holy city for the Hindus, and an intellectual and cultural centre of north India, Banaras today is in a decrepit state. Roads exist not for transportation but for providing the physical space for a traffic jam. Footpaths and alleys are not for walking but for being adorned with garbage. At any point of time, either this road, or that, or the one next to it, is dug up. And no one seems to know why.

It’s not that it’s chaotic. Most of India is. Banaras is in shameful chaos. It is shameful that a city which is revered throughout the country exists in that state. If cities have a collective consciousness, then Banaras would be at a tenuous spot, right at the edge of sanity.

And yes, him too. One of a fate. For all his global and national fame, Bismillah Khan somehow never managed those luxuries of life which other of his contemporaries, even those less accomplished than him, did.

Till the end of his days, Khan sahab lived in the same narrow lanes of Banaras as he lived in before fame caught up with him. I don’t wish to write much about this. If you see that interview with Shekhar Gupta you’ll understand what I’m saying.

But, and here’s what seals the one-of-a-fate claim, like Banaras never seems to get enraged about its state, Khan sahab never complained about his. Just like you could trust Banarasi wit to whip up magic in a choc-a-bloc jam, you could trust Khan sahab to break into a melody regardless of his surroundings or what might be ailing him.

One, of a fate.


Bismillah Khan loved his Banaras. He loved everything about it. And it wasn’t to prove something to anyone. That was just the way it was. Today, he is in a far better place than the one he left. And we’re all the poorer for it. But we still have his Banaras. Why, India’s Banaras. If in this new drive of urban renewal, we can provide a solution for Banaras, if we can make it the city it should be, the city it sounds like in legends, that then, would be an abiding tribute to the memory of Ustad Bismillah Khan.

Happy birthday Khan sahab!

Arush Tandon is interested in icons of history, history of independent India and, Indian culture.

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