News that a grandson of Bismillah Khan sold four of the Ustad‘s shehnais to two goldsmiths in Benares for Rs 17,000 will surprise nobody.
For decades, the maestro’s large family lived off his genius and, now that the Ustad isn’t around, the rodents are attacking what little he left behind.
But more surprising—or, maybe, not at all surprising—is the lackadaisical attitude of the Varanasi MP, Narendra Damodardas Modi, to preserving, protecting and promoting the legacy of an amazing jewel of his constituency.
Having made more trips to Benares than its honourable MP, I wrote about this a couple of years ago in a diary in Outlook magazine:
There are many pit-stops to tank up on humility in the race-track of life, but there is no better address than C.K. 46/62, Sarai Haraha. The place conforms to every known stereotype of a poor Muslim ghetto. The dirty lanes are not wide enough for two 56-inch chested men to cross each other without one of them having to perforce turn around to say ‘adab’. The cackle of screeching kid emanates like piped music from every shack and shanty. Bicycle-mounted knife-sharpeners do roaring business in front of wall-mounted urinals. The odd goat flees its suitors who in a short while will be its slayers. Ice-candy sellers invite the glare of youngsters vrooming on bikes to impress their beaus.
It boggles the mind, no, make that it blows the mind to think that Ustad Bismillah Khan perfected his inspiring music in this cacophony of sights, smells and noises. In another country, in another city, the home of an emblem of our syncretism would be a shrine, preserved and protected to remind two-bit stars what true genius is. That it doesn’t depend on who you were born to, where you grew up or who you sucked up to. But Modi is too busy calling a skills-development programme for the minorities ‘Ustad’ while the real one is in the backyard crying out for attention. “He goes around the world trying to build bridges,” says a tourist guide. “Here’s one ready and waiting. He just needs to tell his driver, ‘gaadi mod lo’.”
Actually, it is not that difficult to make the course correction. I counted 14 pictures of Bismillah Khan with Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray on the wall of the Ustad’s ‘living room’.”
The accompanying video shows what how empty all our slogans of preserving our “culture” and “heritage” are on the ground—and how the Ustad’s craft was in spite of the narrow-mindedness of politicians of every hue.