'Vedantic mind in Islamic body': A living example
Ustad Bismillah Khan, the Shehnai maestro, is the embodiment of the Swami
Vivekananda's syncretic message - "VEDANTIC MIND IN ISLAMIC BODY".
By Jay Dubhashi
Music is timeless. It knows no boundaries - of religion, caste, colour or sex.
Bismillah Khan, the shehnai maestro, told a reporter recently that he would
like to be the first to play at Ayodhya, but he does not want the police to be
there while he plays. The Khansahab is a permanent fixture at the Vishwanath
temple in Varanasi where he goes and plays practically every day when he is in
This is as it should be. In Madras, a 'Muslim family plays mridangam regula
rly at a famous local temple, and has been doing so for generations. Don't they
feel odd doing so, they were asked by an ignorant reporter who apparently knows
as little about mridangam as he does about other things.
"Certainly not", came the prompt reply. "My body may be Muslim but my soul
is Hindu." This is also what the great Khansahab meant when he said that he
would like to be the first one to play his heavenly shehnai at Ayodhya, just as
he does and has been doing for almost three-quarters of a century in the
heavenly Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. The Khansahab may be a Muslim, but his
soul is Hindu. What else can it be when you and your ancestors have lived on
the banks of the Ganga for generations? When you lived as close to the holy
river as you have, your soul cannot but be Hindu no matter who and what you
are, what clothes you wear and which religion you profess?
It is pity that our Muslim friends, at least some Muslim friends, do not
realise this basic truth, about India and the so-called 'communities' which
make up this great country. They say that the Ayodhya dispute is a matter
between two communities and is based on a question of fact about the origin
of Babri structure.
This is ridiculous. There is no dispute about Ayodhya, and if there is one,
it is certainly not between two communities. The dispute is between Babur and
the Hindus of this country, not between Hindus and Muslims. If there was a
dispute, would a proud Muslim like Bismillah Khan wish to be the first to play
the shehnai there? The shahnai, like mridangam, is essentially a Hindu sound.
Play it away from a temple, and it loses half its timbre. It sounds empty,
soulless, just as an organ does away from a church.
Music is an ode to the gods. It is Khansahab's good fortune to have been
born in Varanasi. Has he been born elsewhere, he would still be a good shehnai
player, but not a heavenly one. It is Varanasi and the Vishwanath temple that
has made Bismillah Khan what he is today nd he knows it. That is why he plays
there and that is also why he is dying to play at Ayodhya.
This body-and-soul business is an important one. You notice it as soon as
you visit Indians outside India. There are thousands of Indians, possibly
millions, living in Britain and the USA, all good Indians, making great deal
of money and leading, outwardly at least, very prosperous lives. Many are
American and British carrying US and British passports. But they know that they
are not American in the way Bill Clinton is American or Margaret Thatcher is
Their bodies may be American - or British or Canadian - but their soul is
Hindu, the same soul that resides in the body of a Bismillah Khan in Varanasi
or our mridangam player in Madras. And it is this soul that brings them to
India, to Varanasi and Puri, to Dwarka and Haridwar, to Nasik and Kanyakumari,
though their bodies may hover the Potomac in Washington, the Thames in London,
or the desert sands in Dubai.
When I am in Rome I try and visit the Vatican and its St Peter's cathedral.
It is a magnificent church, a beauty in marble. You walk around the cloisters
at dawn and listen to the organ as its sound rises majestically to touch
Michelangelo's ceiling. It's all very empty. I am touched but spiritually it
leaves me cold. Even if a similar structure were built in India, it would still
leave me cold.
This has little to do with the fact tht I am a Hindu and the cathedral is
Christian place of worship. In Goa, there is a large Catholic community,
bustling and prosperous, with Portuguese names and, until very recently,
Portuguese manners and customs. But it consists largely, if not wholly, of
converts to Catholicism, though the conversions go back a few centuries. But
the community still has its affiliation with local Hindu temples, some of which
were destroyed by the Portuguese, in the same way Babur and his progeny did
in other parts of India.
In most temples, a day is set apart for a ceremonial visit by the community
leaders who approach the temple in all reverence and make solemn offerings of
local produce - rice, sugarcane and the choicest of fish, fish being to Goans
what wine is to the French - in the same fashion as Hindus.
I asked a wizened old fisherman who was returning home after such a visit
how he felt about it. "Three hundred years ago", he said, "my ancestors were
Hindus. I go back three centuries and become a Hindu again, if only for one
day. And I feel I am back home again. And he removed a tear from his moistened
This is what Bismillahsahab means when he says that he would like to play
at Ayodhya. What he is saying is that he would like to go home again, if only
for an evening, for one's soul is always dying to go home, not the artificial
home of brick and mortar and marble, but the real home where you are one with
the gods and your past.
I want to be there when the Khansahab will take out his precious shehnai
in Ayodhya, in the glittering new temple that will soon come up there, put the
instrument to his lips and let out that glorious sound that seems to come
straight from the heavens. On that day, he will have come home again, and so
will his music, for what is our music worth without the blessings of the