Fantastic bard of Benaras: A filmmaker remembers Bismillah Khan

New Delhi: Shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan had "music on his face", remembers Britain-based filmmaker-writer Nasreen Munni Kabir, who struggled to bring out a documentary on the famous bard of Benaras until the intervention of composer AR Rehman.

The 50-minute documentary, ‘Bismillah of Benaras’, made by Kabir with support from the BBC will be distributed by Sony Music. Kabir collaborated with Rahman, a Bismillah fan, who helped her tie up with Sony for distribution. He also is the presenter of the movie.

"I conceived it in 2002 and worked for nearly nine months on it. It was a desire I cherished since the 1990s when I saw Bismillah Khan at a concert in the British Museum," Kabir told reporters from Mumbai.

"There was music on his face...I had not seen it on anyone`s face. He was so utterly connected to his music. It took 20 years for the dream to come true," she said of Khan, who died five years ago.

"I did not add any archival material, but just interviewed Bismillah Khan saheb. To me that was very important; he was a fantastic man. It was a privilege just to hear him speak of his life," Kabir said.

She added the making of the movie was difficult because for several years, she could not find a producer and distributor.

"I pitched the idea to BBC in 2002, but I could not find a distributor because no one was willing to distribute a classical music DVD. It is easy to market a pop star. I had to wait for five years. No one was willing to take it till I met AR Rahman while shooting a documentary on him. I showed the DVD and he agreed to present it and find a distributor," Kabir said.

The documentary, which explores the life, work and warm personality of Bismillah Khan, is based on interviews and exclusive concert footage filmed at the Khan family home by Kabir and her crew.

The documentary charts Khan`s journey as a musician from his childhood, which he spent learning the shehnai, an ancient wind instrument, from guru Ali Bux. It also features contributions from musicologist Sandeep Bagche, who knew Khan and his music.

Khan brought the shehnai to mainstream classical music at a concert in the ‘Calcutta All India Music Conference’ in 1937.

Born in 1916 to a Dalit Muslim family of court musicians in Bihar, Khan moved to Varanasi at the age of six where he trained under his "guru", a musician at the Vishwanath Temple. A devotee of Saraswati, Khan, a Shia Muslim, often played in temples.

Honoured with the Bharat Ratna, he was one of the few exponents of the instrument the world over. On his death in 2006, his shehnai was buried with him.

"The shehnai used to be considered a folk instrument - it was Khan saaheb, who elevated it to the concert stage. This was an enormous achievement. Shehnai is a tough instrument- it requires power of the lungs and tires the musician," Kabir said.

The filmmaker-writer lamented that classical music was losing popularity among younger listeners.

"More people should write about it and talk about it on television," Kabir said.

Kabir, associated with Channel 4 of BBC, has made a 46-part series on Indian movies, ‘Movie Mahal, In Search of Guru Dutt’ and ‘Follow that Star - a profile of Amitabh Bachchan’.

In 2005, she produced a two-part documentary on Shah Rukh Khan, ‘The Inner and Outer World of Shah Rukh Khan’.

Kabir is currently working on a book on dialogues of Bimal Roy`s ‘Devdas’ - the fifth in a series of Bollywood dialogue books, she said.


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