A new auditorium, named as "Kalamandira", was constructed in the city of Mysuru nearly four decades ago. A magnificent structure on a prominent location in the city was due for inauguration. A series of befitting functions were arranged to open the auditorium for public use and as a center for music concerts, dance performances, stage plays and important functions. The organizers deemed it fit to arrange a "Shehnai" concert by Ustad Bismillah Khan as one of the events. Shehnai has been associated as a "Mangala Vadya" since a long time and hence it was indeed appropriate. Mysuru and Ustad Bismillah Khan shared pleasant memories of the past as well. During the times of the Late Maharaja Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, the Ustad had given a concert in the royal palace which is still remembered for its divinity. The maharaja had presented a special "TopI" (cap) to the Ustad in appreciation of the divinity of the concert. The Ustad had kept this topi as a prized possession and used to wear it on important occasions. He was naturally delighted to be invited for the inaugural concert at Mysuru.
Ustad Bismillah Khan came from a family of Shehnai masters from Bhojpur in north Bihar. He enhanced the popularity of the wind instrument even further and came to be identified with the instrument in total. He regularly played on the instrument at the Kashi Viswanath Temple. There was special place for his concerts in All India Radio and Doordarshan on Republic day and Independence day. A Kannada film by name "Sanadi Appanna" (1977) was released a few months before the inauguration of Kalamandira. Sanadi is the Kannada name for the Shehnai. The role of Appanna in the film was played by the popular Kannada film actor Dr Rajkumar. The film became a runaway hit due to the twin factors; Dr Rajkumar's acting and the shehnai score by Ustad Bismillah Khan. Dr Rajkumar is reported to have said that the true hero of the movie was Khan Sahib himself. The Ustad also is said to have often quoted of a lunch he had with Dr Rajkumar during the filming of the movie. The respect between the two was mutual and spontaneous.
The auditorium was filled to capacity on the day of the concert. People were sitting on every available space and even on the steps. As the Ustad began his concert and reached the crescendo of the first piece of the concert, some in the audience who had occupied the front seats started throwing coins on the stage and around the artistes. They did it to show their appreciation, but the damage was done. The Ustad was disturbed from his deep involvement and concentration level. He abruptly stopped playing the instrument and kept it aside. Everything came to a standstill and it took a few minutes for many in the audience to understand as to what had happened.
The Ustad spoke softly but firmly. He admonished those who threw the coins at him and other artistes on the stage. He said that artistes perform in a place like Mysuru not for money or material rewards. What the artistes look for is the affection and appreciation of their efforts by connoisseurs of arts and music. He chided the miscreants and advised them to leave him and the art lovers to enjoy the bliss of shehnai and music. The elderly among the audience had now taken charge and cleared the miscreants from the auditorium. They apologized to the Ustad who readily resumed his concert. The resumed concert went into extra time and those present at the event still remember the quality of that concert.
Ustad Bismillah Khan was a rare artiste who was awarded all the high civilian awards, the "Padmashri", "Padma Bushana" and "Padma Vibhushana", one after the other. He was also awarded the highest civilian award of "Bharata Ratna" in 2001. He lived a full life of 90 years and played the instrument till his last days in the year 2006.
Situations like this crop up now and then in our lives. Performing before people who do not understand the subtlety and do not have the refined maturity level is one of the biggest pains for performers. Teachers are also confronted with such situations often in their classes; a few disinterested students disturb the decorum of the classes to the detriment of the interested majority students. Despite such disturbances one has to carry on with his sacred duties by dealing with the miscreants firmly.
A subhashita from "Samayochita Padyamalika" aptly sums up such situations. A poet stands before Lord Brahma, who is credited with the writings on one's forehead about the punishments he has to face during his lifetime. The poet begs thus:
इतर पाप फलानि यथेच्छ्या शिरसि लिखे सहे चतुरानन |
अरसिकेषु कवित्व निवेदनम् शिरसि मा लिख मा लिख मा लिख ||
"My dear Lord Brahma, Please write all other punishments for any sins on my forehead to your full contentment. I have no objections or complaints about them. But please spare me from one greatest punishment - the one of reciting my poems before those who are incapable of understanding their content and finer points. Do not punish me with this please, please, please!"