Varanasi: Where Bismillah’s shehnai meets Shiva fixation


With its blend of classics and modernity, Varanasi is a tidy city, where Bismillah Khan’s shehnai meets the fixation of Shiva. Here’s a tale to tell.

For a Bengali who happens to be a 90s kid, the name of Varanasi brings back a black and white montage from the depth of memory lane, thanks to Satyajit Ray’s quintessential creations such as Aparajito, Joi Baba Felunath etc. Later on, when the child entered adulthood and learnt romance and gloomy melancholia of Bismilla’s shehnai and also learnt the philosophy of Shiva, all those spices were blended in the same recipe called Varanasi.

Tons of gallons of water passed through the Ganges since the time of Bismillah Khan, the shehnai (clarionet) maestro, and Varanasi’s archaic character has changed as well. The thread that used to tie the knot of religious harmony in the old riverside city, has loosened a lot.

Modern Varanasi is more about religious tourism through a tidy city, where thousands of pilgrims have been pouring in to get a glimpse of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, one of the most famous temples in India, also known as the golden temple dedicated to the Shiva. Despite being one of the archaic temples in India, it has gone through a lot of turmoil. While previously it was in form of demolition by Aurangzeb, in modern times, it is by the government in form of renovation, in an attempt to give it a completely new fascia.


Kashi Vishwanath Corridor

While Varanasi itself still remains one of the most congested and clumsy cities in India, the temple premises itself has gone through a drastic makeover, owing to the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project, the first phase of which has been built at a cost of Rs 339 crore and inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The first phase is spread across an area of about 5 lakh square feet and comprises 23 buildings.

With its foundation stone laid in 2019, the project will cost about Rs 800 crore overall. More than 300 properties have been acquired to implement the grand project. About 1,400 shopkeepers, tenants and homeowners were rehabilitated, as PMO claimed, besides also stating that over 40 ancient temples were rediscovered during the work on the project. They were claimed to have been restored while ensuring there is no change in the original structure.

While critics may call it wasting money on the RSS-fueled philosophy of a new India that is thriving to be a Hindu Rashtra, the temple has actually become cleaner and better undoubtedly. Gone are tidy days at the premises, jostling between the pilgrims and pandas. The movement inside the temple premises has become swifter and more comfortable for sure.


A tidy city

From the Varanasi Junction Railway Station to Kashi Vishwanath Temple, from Nayi Sadak to Banaras Hindu University – everywhere one thing is commonplace. Tidiness. The smelly narrow lanes and bylanes through the old buildings of the Shiva-fixated city deliver a feeling of cringyness. Head for a boat ride on the Ganges, the signature Varanasi landscape becomes even more prominent through the ghats, old buildings with paintings, bathing sadhus, pilgrims flowing flowers, hundreds of boats and small cruises running on the Ganges with tourists etc.

While these snapshots give a picturesque view of the city, contrastingly, there are images that hit the idea of modern India hard. Right beside the main gate of the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor at the Manikarnika Ghat, the open cremations, and dipping of dead bodies in the Ganges in the name of holy tradition are something that doesn’t match the shiny image of modern India, which is urban and suave in front of the world.


Ishwar, Allah, Bismillah

If Varanasi is known for being the Shiva-fixated city to the whole of India, a city of madness and sadhus and colours to the world, it is also the pilgrimage to the people who consider music as their religion. Because, it is the land of Bismillah Khan, the legendary shehnai doyen who mesmerized the world through the tune of intoxicating melancholia. However, the maestro’s house in Sarai Haraha lies in an abysmal situation. No respect, no special marking, nothing. In order to find that house, even Google Map can’t be of much help. Finding the house amid extremely narrow lanes through the busy and tidy markets is a tough task.

Even if someone finally finds the house, recognizing it amidst the other buildings without asking the locals becomes difficult. One good thing is the house still remains well-known in the neighbourhood as “Bismillahji ka ghar” (Bismillah Khan’s house). There are no special markings though that can make it recognizable. The house, constructed in the 1930s, was once the tallest building in the neighbourhood. However, dwarfed today by multi-storeyed structures, it struggles to get even a little bit of sunlight. The only point that makes it recognizable is the post box with the lettering Ustad Bismillah Khan.

Enter the house, a few torn old and dusty lifesize posters from his programs overseas and in India along with some paintings and photographs lies scattered here and there. A small dimly lit 8×10 room on the rooftop, where the late shehnai maestro spent most of his life, remains there without any glory. A wooden shehnai, a few large portraits, fading photographs, and a moth-eaten citation of the Padma Vibhushan, awarded to Bismillah Khan, dated 22nd March 1980, are the only remaining in the room. It is learnt that Bismillah Khan had multiple shehnais, of whom five have been stolen by one of his grandsons.

The next two generations of the doyen took music as their profession, but not the third one. Ghazi Abbas, son of Bismillah’s grandchild shehnai artist Nasir Abbas, is not so keen on continuing his great grandfather’s tradition. Instead, he wants to continue his education and get a regular job for livelihood earning. This is how the stream of shehnai is drying in the vein of Bismillah’s Varanasi.

With his shehnais gone, music seems to have died long ago at Bismillah’s home.


A communal undercurrent

Varanasi appears very much normal, but there is an undercurrent of communalism. This is not visible, can only be understood if you talk to people there, try to dig a bit deeper. At 70.11%, the majority of the old city’s population are Hindus, while 28.82% are Muslims. Visibly, the city appears like a tension-free one. But, if you visit the areas with Muslim majorities, the tensions among the minorities can be understood.

Bunkars or weavers of the Benarasi sari, comprise the majority of Muslims in the city. While I was talking to one of the Bunkars, it became evident that they live in fear. Fear of being suppressed, fear of losing livelihoods and everything. Overpraising certain political party and its leaders don’t actually show the reality. Instead, it appears that overpraising may be hiding the deep fear.

Varanasi can be described as a cocktail of religion, aggressive Hinduism, colours, and retro charm. Every ghat of the city along with the river and narrow lanes tells a lot of tales. Cultural syncretism in Varanasi is both present and absent at the same time. In the majority of the cases, it’s a matter of giving and taking. The bottom line here is the relation of economics. While social and business relations are participatory between the two major communities, cultural boundaries are visibly well defined between them.

Also Read: Sustainable tourism: Why is it important?


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