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His shehnais gone, sons say music died long ago at Bismillah home

It was in this room, in a house located in a congested lane of Hadah Sarai area in Varanasi where the late shehnai maestro spent most of his life, that his shehnais were kept.

Written by Maulshree Seth | Varanasi |
Updated: January 16, 2017 9:45:48 am
padma vibhushan, bismillah khan, bismillah khan shehnai, bismillah khan, india news, indian express news The shehnais were kept in this room. Maulshree Seth

AFTER struggling with the switch several times, Nazim Husain realises there is no light bulb in the 8X10 ft room. The 53-year-old takes out his mobile phone. It’s a basic model and as Nazim fumbles and almost apologetically waves it around, in the dim light of the mobile torch is revealed a room covered in a thick layer of dust. As the light falls upon some fading photographs and a moth-eaten citation of a Padma Vibhushan, awarded to Bismillah Khan, dated March 22, 1980, Nazim finally breaks down. “Wah re mere Abbaji ki kismat (What a fate for my father)!” he cries.

It was in this room, in a house located in a congested lane of Hadah Sarai area in Varanasi where the late shehnai maestro spent most of his life, that his shehnais were kept. Recently, one of his sons, Kazim, moved them to a new house he had bought. Some days later, five were stolen by Kazim’s son Nazre Hasan. Four of them were silver, and 23-year-old Nazre took them to a goldsmith, who melted them and gave him Rs 17,000.

Only two of Bismillah Khan’s shehnais remain, one silver and one wooden, and are now in the possession of police. In the two-storey house in Hadah Sarai, where at least 35 of Bismillah Khan’s family members live — not all of whom are on talking terms anymore — there is sadness, but no shock.

Of the six rooms in the house, separated by large verandahs, one is kept locked for Bismillah Khan’s belongings. The residents include his and his elder brother’s children and grandchildren. While Bismillah Khan was alive, they say, he took care of around a hundred relatives. Many of them would travel with him as part of the “music party”. After his death, the invitations to concerts, and the money, recognition have dried up.

The house, constructed in the 1930s, was once the tallest building in the neighbourhood. Dwarfed today by multi-storeyed structures, it struggles to get even a little bit of sunlight. After Bismillah Khan’s death, two of his sons, Mehtab and Naiyar, died. Kazim, the father of Nazre, who has been arrested for stealing the shehnais, is the fourth of Bismillah Khan’s five sons. In his 60s, Kazim, who studied till Class VIII and doesn’t do any work, admits that he and his three sons never had any interest in music.

Kazim invested some of the money that had been left by Bismillah Khan equally among his sons to buy a small house in Varanasi, but his attempts at starting a business failed. Kazim and his family divide their time between their new home and the ancestral house.

“All of us regret what has happened,” Kazim says, “but one has to understand that there were about 80 people dependent on Abba’s income. Unki death ke baad sab bikhar gaya (Everything fell apart after his death).”

Another son of Bismillah Khan, Zamin, who is in his 70s and also a shehnai prayer, lives in another house in Varanasi with his family. The relatives say Zamin, a diabetic and kidney patient, doesn’t keep well, and that none of his six sons and five daughters is married.

Zamin’s son Ashfaq Haider is one of the only three grandsons of Bismillah Khan who chose playing shehnai as a career. He says, “Things were different till dada was there. Now, people do not even call us to programmes and events organised in his name. Some of us have moved to other businesses like opening a cloth shop, or taken up jobs. But many who did not have proper schooling are struggling.”

Of Bismillah Khan’s four daughters, 60-year-old Zareena Khan, also lives in the ancestral house with her children. Zareena was married to the son of Bismillah Khan’s elder brother, who used to play shehnai with him and died after his death.

Sitting in the main room of the house, where seeping moisture is rotting away many old photographs of Bismillah Khan, Zareena laments that others have benefited more from her father’s name than his family members. The flickering yellow bulb suddenly goes out. The family explains it is routine power failure, and someone gets up and opens the door leading to the lane, to let in light from the adjoining shops.

Nazim, the youngest of Bismillah Khan’s children, is a graduate in Arts and the most educated of his siblings. A tabla player and a recent recipient of the Uttar Pradesh government’s Yash Bharti award, he moved out of the house following differences with his elder brothers and lives with a friend in Varanasi. Nazim, who never married, admits he is visiting the house after years, on hearing the news of the theft.

Nazim sighs that with Bismillah Khan gone, the house is not what it was. Blaming the “non-music” background of elder brother Kazim for the theft of the shehnais, he says, “It is a mistake by a young boy, who didn’t think about what he was doing. No one from a musical background could have done it, not even for money. Those goldsmiths melted the shehnais into a mere silver block! Abbaji used to play one of them every Moharram.” Nazim received Rs 11 lakh for the Yash Bharti award. The money is welcome, he adds, as he hardly earns enough playing the tabla.

Both Nazim and Kazim want the government to set up a museum to hold Bismillah Khan’s belongings, including a Bharat Ratna in 2001, Padma Bhushan in 1968, Padma Shri in 1961 and the 1980 Padma Vibhushan, apart from rare photographs of his concerts in India and abroad. Ashfaq hopes for just a petrol pump in the family name, in order to survive.

The younger brother of Nazre though has decided enough is enough. Sitting in the house that still remains well-known in the neighbourhood as “Bismillahji ka ghar”, 10 years after the sitar maestro’s death, 20-year-old Razi Hasan says it’s time to leave.

A third-year student of B.Tech at Punjab Technical University in Chandigarh, he says, “Nazre made a mistake and each one of us repents it, including him. The place itself suffocates me, and thus I pleaded with my father to let me go. I do not want limelight from music, like my grandfather. I wish to earn a basic living and not plead before the government to take care of me.” His next goal, Razi adds, is to get his younger brother, who is pursuing his graduation, “out of this place”.

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