Ustad Bismillah Khan was one of the finest human beings I have ever met. He was a great musician – we all know that. But he used music to transcend it. “Yeh to ek ibadat hai (This is just a prayer)”, he would say. He was on a different level, and it showed on his face – almost childlike and smiling. At namaaz time, he would request all guests to leave. He was one of the most beautiful examples of our composite heritage. Sitting with him in his small barsati room in Varanasi, he once told me that he was playing the shehnai on the banks of the Ganges one day when the Goddess Ganga rose out of the waters and blessed him for the lovely note that he had played. He narrated this with such conviction and glow in his eyes that I was moved to tears. Almost every time that I have sat at his feet and interacted with him, he has shaken me to the core. His complete faith in the spiritual domain irrespective of the religious order has always inspired me. Some of his quotable quotes are: “Hame paisa chahiye, par sirf paisa Nahin (I want money, but not just money)”; “Insaan ki pehchan hai uski jaban (A person’s character is determined by how she keeps her word)”. And he was one who lived by what he said. At the SPIC MACAY annual convention at Dehradun in the early nineties, Ustad Bismillah Khan was scheduled to give the concluding recital of classical music overnight. The whole group had been booked by a train reaching Dehradun, one day earlier. The tickets were waitlisted, but we had contacted the Railway Board to get them confirmed. This did not happen and the group could not board the train at Mughalsarai. We were very taken aback. Many people coming solely to listen to Khan sahib would go back disappointed. In those days, there was only one flight from Varanasi to Delhi (there were no flights to Dehradun), and there were no SUVs. The only way that we could have the whole group reach on time was to fly them down to Delhi and have a matador take them from the airport on a whole night journey to Dehradun. Very hesitatingly, I suggested this to Khan sahib on the phone. His reply was: “Jab hamne vayda kiya hai, hum use nibhayenge (When I have given a word, I will honor it).” He reached Dehradun in the early hours of the morning just in time for his concert. I suggested that we postpone his program to the afternoon so that he could rest a little. He asked me if people were there in the hall. When I replied in the affirmative, he decided to go straight onto the stage. He gave a memorable concert. That was Ustad Bismillah Khan.
I first met Khan Sahib in 1978 in Crown Hotel, Fatehpuri in Chandni Chowk. I had expected him to be staying at a five-star hotel, but when I went there, I found this unshaven man wearing a lungi and a baniyan, sitting on the floor. I had gone to request him to perform for the students. He heard me out, at the end of which he asked, “Par paisa kitna doge? (But how much money will you give?)” When I told him that we had only a small dakshina to offer, he immediately refused. I tried hard to argue with him, but he would not oblige. He said that he had a large family of his own and of his musicians to look after and that he would not perform unless he was paid properly. I had given up and was preparing to leave when he asked me to sit down. He talked to me some more, and realizing the genuinity of the effort, he finally gave his consent. This gave SPIC MACAY a boost. After that, he performed all over India for this movement. In fact, probably his last public appearance was at the SPIC MACAY convention in Jaipur on June 19th, 2006.
Like all human beings, he had his failings. His temper scared many people including his family and accompanists. However, he would become normal very soon and would never harbor any ill feelings towards anyone. The Padmashri, Padmabhushan, Padmavibhushan, Bharat Ratna and yet the ‘no airs attached’ Ustad Bismillah Khan will be remembered by us for a long long time.