Monday, August 21, 2006

On the Legacy of Bismillah Khan

Bismillah Khan died Monday at the age of 91. Khan was the renowned master of the shehnai, an instrument that sounds a bit like an oboe. I’ve never mourned the death of a musician before.

My parents had a large collection of audio cassette tapes. When I grew up in Alabama, Indian culture was hard to come by. Back then, we had to drive five hours to reach the nearest Indian grocery store. There was no Netflix or satellite TV. You could not download Indian music from iTunes. People brought back music and video recordings from India, which were then systematically copied and shared. In our family room, there was a cabinet full of these pirated tapes with hand-written labels. My parents had a habit of writing the labels in Gujarati, a language they did not teach me to read. During the languid hours of my childhood – I’m astonished by how much free time I had – I popped the tapes into my Walkman one by one. Usually I was frustrated by them. Most of the recordings were of Hindi film songs or folk songs I couldn’t understand. The Bismillah Khan tape, however, didn’t have lyrics. Just the shehnai.

I listened to that one tape over and over. On one bus trip I took, I tucked myself into a cloth seat and played the tape into my headphones at least three times in a row. The recording was of an hour long performance. Everybody on the bus was a musician. It was an orchestra trip. My friend wanted to know what I was listening to, but when I passed the headphones to him he shook his head. “This isn’t very good,” he said. For my friend, Khan’s music couldn’t stand up to Mozart or Mahler. I realized that he couldn’t hear the subtlety I heard. And that made the listening experience even richer for me. I relished Bismillah Khan’s music all the more because my friend could not understand it. The music gave me a way to draw a line around my Indian identity, which felt so unstable and fragile. Khan’s music itself was tenuous and yet epic. A Himalayan brook flowing into the Ganges.

I later learned that Bismillah Khan was a devout Muslim and that he also worshipped the Hindu goddess Saraswati. He often played in the Hindu temples of Varanasi. His most famous performance was at the Red Fort in Delhi on the eve of Indian independence. My parents played his music before any puja. His recordings were played at our wedding. During a century of horrendous communal bloodshed in India, no one represented the history of dialogue between Muslims and Hindus like he did.

Ultimately Khan's music took on two significant meanings for me. He was the end of my self-loathing as an Indian American and the beginning of my pride and love for my family’s culture. He was also the fluidity and flexibility that gives me strength to step outside narrow definitions of that same Indian culture, the strength to immerse myself in other American cultures without losing my roots. I really want to pass those two, seemingly opposing states of mind on to my daughter.


morton hurley said...

I realyl enjoy music from around the globe. Bismillah Khan sounds like an interesting musician. Did you guys ever listen to Oum Kathsoum (sp)?

"a devout Muslim and that he also worshipped the Hindu goddess Saraswati."

Isn't that a major conflict of Islam?

GreenDaddy said...

I've never listened to Oum Kathsoum. I'll look for that person's music.

About a Muslim worshipping a Hindu goddess. I think for most Muslims it would be a major conflict and there are many, many passages that could be quoted from the Koran against worshipping an "idol". And yet India has a rich tradition of Muslims who engage with Hinduism. Some scholars, like Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, would argue that when you look at Indian history, the tolerance of and engagement with Hindus by Muslims is common. The greatest Mogul ruler of India, Akbar, actually tried to start a new religion called Din-i-Ilahi or "Faith of the Devine."

Although Akbar's religion never took off, many of the musicians he supported and their students did continue to foster the kind of dialogue Akbar sought.

morton hurley said...

About Bismillah's faith:

Am I being too literal or puritanical in my interpretation of the Qur’an and Islam? I am curious to know your thoughts on how a person could cross such spiritual boundaries and not be executed on the spot. Personally, I think it’s very interesting and… how to put this… “worldly” of Bismillah to mix these two religions.

And about Oum:

GreenDaddy said...

There's another factor behind Bismillah Khan's cosmopolitanism that I didn't mention. The city he lived in, Varanasi, is perhaps the holiest site for Hindus. It is located on the Ganges and is home to hundreds of important temples. The city is also famous for the saris produced and sold there. The shops that sell the saris are owned by Hindus, but the weavers are Muslim. So there is a triangle of trade that binds the Hindu and Muslim communities together. The Hindu temples draw pilgrims, the Hindu shops sell the pilgrims goods and also draw merchants, and Muslims make the goods. So Khan's ability to cross boundaries as a musician and public figure has to do, in part, with the city he lived in. Nevertheless, I think he was also farsighted.

Check out this BBC story for more about Varanasi: It explains that even after a terrible bombing, the Varanasi remained peaceful.

Anonymous said...

I will burn a cd of Oum K. for you.