Ustad Bismillah Khan’s No student policy

Updated: Jul 8, 2019

Read up on any legendary Indian classical musician and you’ll see several of their students keeping their legacy alive. But Bismillah Khan’s legacy is kept alive only by himself.

India’s guru-shishya parampara has been in place since ancient times. This was a teaching practice where disciples lived with their teachers, developed their skills and received customised training imparted by their Guru. In Indian classical music too, several maestros become gurus. They impart their knowledge of singing or playing an instrument either to their trusted students or their children.

Shehnai legend Bismillah Khan is an exception…

Bismillah Khan grew up in the city of Varanasi, on the banks of Ganga. His maternal uncles used to play the shehnai. The Shehnai is a wind instrument of the oboe class. But for the typical Indian, it is the instrument played at shaadis (weddings).

Learning the shehnai from his uncles, Khan persevered to be the greatest at it. And soon, he succeeded in performing the shaadi instrument at the concert stage.

While his ageing peers in the classical music world, made close bonds with their students to further their legacy, Bismillah remained a recluse. He was concerned with performing at shows with his self-proclaimed begum, and nothing else.

So, what was the reason behind Bismillah Khan’s no student policy?

A Hindi biography of the musician authored by Murli Manohar Srivastava might give us some answers. It states that the Varanasi Muslim felt all his skills came from Lord Vishwanath, and hence he had little to teach anyone. And if he did share his musical knowledge, he thought it wouldn’t be of use to a student because it would still be ‘little knowledge’.

Whether this belief indicated lethargy or humility, that’s up to the reader.

And it’s not like he didn’t have any students. The shehnai player S Ballesh and his own two sons Nazim Hussain and Nayyar Hussain, see the ustad in the light of a guru.

Unlike Ustad Allah Rakha’s sons and Pandit Ravi Shankar’s daughters winning worldwide acclaim, Khan’s sons could not prove their worth as independent musicians. This might be because Khan mostly used his kids as backup musicians for his shows. A third son, who played the tabla, was known for the same.

While musicians, biographies, newspapers and even CBSE textbooks, would tell you all the nice things about the shehnai player, a writer from Outlook has an interesting take.

The writer, Vishwa Mohan Badola, writes ‘…the artist in Bismillah Khan died long ago. He has provided this huge country with not even a single shishya. And Khan sahib wouldn't have thought of training a disciple from outside his family; and even if he ever did, no sign of any is to be found. What does one make out of this?’.

While Badola is clearly frustrated with Bismillah Khan not tutoring any younglings in shehnai, it brings up the question: Is it really necessary for every classical maestro to have a disciple?

If Khan didn’t want any students, that was just him defying stereotypical notions expected from every ustad or pandit. And in a way, that seems perfectly fine too. It’s just that without any prominent students, Khan’s style and legacy will fade away sooner than that of his peers.

Yet that fading away will clearly take time as he’s still regarded as the best shehnai player of all time. A Bharat Ratna awardee, he was quite a star.

If there’s a heaven, Bismillah Khan might be playing his shehnai up there, still carrying the key to the secrets of his music.

Bismillah Khan hardly shared his shehnai playing skills with anyone, keeping his sons also as just his backup musicians. Image Credits: Reuters

Shaurya Singh Thapa