|It was a special day in June 2003. Ustaad Bismillah Khan was to play the Shehnai at the annual SPICMACAY concert in IIT-Bombay that evening. We were awaiting his arrival in the green room. We ran about to ensure we had enough bottles of Mangola (chilled) and enough packets of Good day biscuits. Ustaad Bismillah Khan loved this treat, we were told.|
We were anxious and nervous. Was the room clean enough? Was the mangola cold enough? Were the biscuits soggy from the stuffy Mumbai humidity? Were there enough chairs? We were rushing about double; triple checking whatever arrangements we could have done to make the old and empty room comfortable.
And then, there was a hush. Suddenly activity stalled. Being brought in a wheelchair was the Ustaad himself. We were shooed away as were most others. Only his core people remained around, till he was safely shifted onto a chair. His dislike and discomfort to be seen on a wheelchair was obvious.
He began sipping on the Mangola and ate a biscuit or two. He was not chatting with many. Seeing our job done, we left to find ourselves good seats in the open air auditorium. It was the first time I had heard him live. And the last.
In the middle of the concert, he suddenly got angry. He shouted at the audience for being inattentive. He thundered he would play just for fifteen minutes for the sake of Mr. Singh who had called him there. We were stunned. Some were meekly looking down, like you do when Grandpa catches you unawares. And then he began playing. He played for almost another one and a half hour.
The next day, Mr. Singh and Pooja were to meet the Ustaad at the hotel he was staying. I requested if I could go too. The request soon turned to begging. She allowed me to accompany.
Ustaad Bismillah Khan. I sat mesmerised, sitting near his feet, almost gaping at the legend. A quaint object hung from his right ear. His two front teeth which peeked out from a gap made his smile all the more endearing. The gleam in his eyes added to his mesmerising aura. It could change from being naughty, angry, sad or blunt with alarming ease.
He was in a mood to talk. And as we heard him begin his passionate diction, we found ourselves getting emotional for no fathomable reasons. On a random note, he began narrating incidents from his childhood.
‘When I was a child, I saw an old man. His skin was a shimmering like bronze. He was roasting vegetables. All kinds of vegetables. It was very hot and flies were buzzing all around. I was getting irritated. But you know what I saw? None of the flies could sit on the old man’s back. They attempted indeed, but simply slipped off his back. I went to him and asked the reason and he simply smiled…’
He too simply smiled when he didn’t want to answer some questions. Interviews were definitely not on his mind. He cracked witty jokes, made wise observations and his voice became emotional when he talked about the Ganga. After over half an hour, he started to wind up the rendezvous, ‘I have one thing to ask of you all. You all pray, don’t you? When you pray next, don’t forget to tell Him, ‘Bismillah jo chaahta hai, use de dena’