21 August : The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, released a commemorative postage stamp on Shehnai legend Ustad Bismillah Khan in New Delhi today. Union Minister for Telecommunications and IT, Shri A. Raja and Union Minister of State for Telecommunications and IT, Shri Jyotiraditya Scindia were among dignitaries present on the occasion. Following is the text of the Prime Minister’s speech on the occasion:
“I consider it a privilege to be present here today on the occasion of the release of a commemorative postage stamp on the Shehnai legend, late Ustad Bismillah Khan, who was a unique personification of India’s composite culture. Bharatan Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan Saheb became synonymous in the public imagination with the Shehnai he played so much that we remember him every time we hear the Shehnai. It is reported that he would say that, “…a musician can play beautifully…. but unless he strives to meet God, he will only have kala (art) but no assar or mystical union…. He will always stand at the edge of the ocean but never reach the heights of purity.” Ustad Bismillah Khan Saheb was the very embodiment of this noble sentiment that he expressed and through his music elevated his listeners to a sublime state of higher consciousness.
Ustad Bismillah Khan’s life and art were not separate compartments for him. He received his initial education from his uncle Ali Bux ‘Vilayatu’, who was the official Shehnai player at the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple at Varanasi. From his first public appearance at the age of fourteen, his music led him through several gates of fame and glory leading to the conferment of Bharat Ratna, but he remained what he always was – as somebody trying to reach out to his God through his music.
It is no exaggeration to say that his music was divine, soothing nerves and having a balming effect on people who listen to that. The transformation of the Shehnai from a mere accompanying piece in concerts to a respected instrument owes a lot to the creative endeavours of Ustad Bismillah Khan Saheb. The seven decades of his eventful and artistic life were inseparably woven with the Shehnai and the marvel of his music was deeply rooted in our composite heritage and culture.
A devout Muslim, he did not find any contradiction between his faith and music. Many questioned his love for music on the ground that it tarnished the holy name of Islam. It is reported that during one of his visits to Iraq he was confronted by some orthodox Ulemas who accused him of compromising the tenets of Islam by playing a musical instrument. Ustad Bismillah Khan with his characteristic simplicity kept quiet and recited Allah-ho-Akbar in Raga Bhairavi and later is said to have asked “Is it a sin to pray to God in the form of a song?”
We live in times where the richest in the Indian tradition, exemplified in the lives of people like Bismillah Khan Saheb, sometimes get challenged. There cannot be a closing of the Indian mind howsoever much a few people may try because that is against the very grain of being Indian. At the root of the Indian tradition is a mind that is comfortable with difference and plurality. This Indian way, which has been nourished by the soulful strains of the Shehnai of Bismillah Khan Saheb and people like him, will survive and it will constantly continue to surprise and motivate others.
Ustad Bismillah Khan’s life and work are an inspiration to us to realize how every serious pursuit of a chosen vocation can transform oneself into a deeply enriching and inspiring spiritual journey. The release of this commemorative postage stamp in memory of Ustad Bismillah Khan Saheb is a token of our nation’s and our government’s respect for him and the noble tradition he represented. His music lives and endures beyond the boundaries of religion, caste, language and nation. I respectfully pay homage to this great son of India. I compliment the Department of Posts for taking this initiative in bringing out a postage stamp in honour of this musical genius of our time. His legacy which is an integral part of our composite culture will continue to inspire many many generations to come.”