It was about 10 years ago in Pakistan. Pandit Jasraj had been invited for a recital. As he was concluding the concert, some of his friends requested him to sing Om Namo Bhagvate Vasudevaya — the bhajan on the 108 names of Vishnu. A bhajan (devotional song) for long has been considered the right finale for a concert, and Pandit Jasraj for years together has ended most of his baithaks in India with this bhajan.
Unmindful of the audience, he agreed. Instead of raising religious passions and triggering walkouts, the bhajan elevated the listeners to a different world. As people were dispersing after the concert, a maulvi walked up to him and said: “Pandit ji, aaj to apne is bhajan mein Allah ke darshan karwa diye.” (You made us see Allah in this song.)
Every time I met Ustad Bismillah Khan, he would say: “Sur maharaj koi jaat paat nahin jante; Sur maharaj to sabke hain aur kisi ke bhi nahin hain.” (The gods of music know not caste or creed; they belong to everybody and none.) Every time he came back from abroad, his shehnai, he felt, was defiled by the touch of the mlechcha (unclean). He would thus cleanse the instrument with the waters of the Ganga in Benaras, the holiest of holy Hindu cities and the place of his residence. Since a dip in the river is supposed to wash away all sins, he would bathe in the river after washing the shehnai. His clothes were always washed in the Ganga and nowhere else.
Another instance: in the TV show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa some years ago, anchor Sonu Nigam would request the judge for the episode to give a performance before the programme ended. I watched the show with great interest for it also promoted classical music. I had seen artistes from Begum Parveen Sultana to Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia and many others judging the upcoming artistes. In the last episode of the series, the channel got five top Hindustani classical musicians — Ustad Vilayat Khan, Girija Devi, Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Pandit Ram Narayan and Ustad Zakir Hussain — to be the judges. All the artistes were very senior and Nigam was in a dilemma — who should he request for the finale recital? He played clever and asked Ustad Vilayat Khan: “Khan sahib, please tell us how to end this programme.” And Ustad Vilayat Khan answered: “I think we should all sing our national anthem.” All of them in the studio stood up and sang Jana, gana, man… and I in my house in front of my TV with tears rolling down my cheeks.
Pandit Jasraj, a Hindu, can create an atmosphere when a Muslim priest can experience the presence of Allah in music. Ustad Bismillah Khan, a Muslim, believes in the Ganga so much that he would dip his instrument in the waters seeking her blessings. It makes me feel proud that I belong to a generation in which all the artistes I have met and revered believe in one religion and that is the religion of music. And their music is above all religions and faiths. They are the true inheritors of Amir Khusro (1253-1325) who enriched Indian music with Persian and Arabic elements, composed poems with equal ease in Hindi and Persian (one even has Persian couplets followed by Hindi couplets) and started the tradition of sufi qawwali at the shrines of Pirs. In recent history, the purest form of qawwali, it is now universally agreed, was sung by the duo of Shankar and Shambhu — Hindus.
Pandit Shivkumar Sharma once told me he was to give a performance in a small town in Poland. In the middle of the night, he heard a song being sung by a villager in a church nearby that was spellbinding. He walked up to his bathroom from where the music could be heard best, without switching on the light so that it did not disturb the singer. Sharma did not understand a word of what was being sung but the music, he said, was soul stirring, something he had never experienced.
At a morning concert in Mumbai a few years ago, Pandit Jasraj was rendering in Raga Bhairav Mero Allah meharbaan, koi bigaar sakat nahi tero…Aulia pir Digambar gaave. At the moment when he was emphasising on Allah, he suddenly started singing Om on the same note. It was music like never before — Allah and Om merged and echoed in the environment while the sun rose before us, as if paying tribute to this merging of the faiths. Similarly, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s rendition of Hari Om Tatsatalways invokes a feeling of peace and being one with the Almighty. One never felt the bhajan was being sung by a Muslim! Pandit Kishan Maharaj once told me Ustad Zakir Hussain was like Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas: “If you hear him once you will forget all other artistes.” This was one Hindu exponent on another Muslim artiste.
Ustad Alauddin Khan, the famous sarod player, would visit the Sharda temple, dedicated to Saraswati, the goddess of learning, every morning and then proceed to the fish market to buy provisions for lunch! Pandit Ravi Shankar, the sitar maestro, was his disciple. Pandit Ravi Shankar had heard Ustad Alauddin Khan’s recital when he was 10 years and decided then and there to become his student. He went on to marry his teacher's daughter, Annapurna Devi. Such are the glorious traditions of Hindustani music — inclusive, unbiased and pure.