Ustad Bismillah Khan was an Indian musician who single-handedly brought the Shehnai into prominence as a musical instrument all over the world. Shehnai is a small wind pipe like musical instrument of the oboe class which is blown from one end. It was folk instrument and had been used for centuries in traditional ceremonies, especially in marriages. Bismillah Khan brought respectability to the Shehnai and raised it to concert level. He is credited with a virtual monopoly on Shehnai and his name is synonymous with Shehnai.
For his achievements and contribution, he is always addressed as ‘Ustad’ Bismillah Khan, the honorific with which he later became better known. He was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 2001, which is India’s highest civilian honor.
Ustad Bismillah Khan was born on March 21, 1916 in the small town of Dumraon in Buxar district of Bihar. He was named Qamruddin Khan in his childhood. His parents Paigambar Baksh Khan and Mitthan Khan belonged to a traditional Muslim family who were musician by profession. Residing in a nondescript alley called Bhirung Raut Ki Gali, in the mofussil town of Dumraon, little did they realize that one day their son will take Shehnai to the world and become known around the world!
At his birth, his grandfather said Bismillah, as gratitude to Allah, and later this name became more popular than his given name Qamruddin. His father, grandfather Rasool Baksh Khan, and great-grandfather Ustad Salar Hussain Khan were court musician who were employed at the royal Dumrao Palace of the King of Bhojpur. His father played the Shehnai in the Naqqar Khana, or musical chamber of the palace, under the patronage of Maharaja Keshav Prasad Singh of Dumraon.
When he was six year old, he was sent to Varanasi for further training under the tutelage of his uncle. His uncle Ali Baksh ‘Vilayatu’ was a Shehnai player at the famous Vishwanath Temple at Varanasi.
Rise to Prominence as Shehnai Player
Bismillah Khan brought the diminutive music instrument to the centre stage of Indian classical music. In 1937, he started this with his concert at the All India Music Conference at Calcutta.
On August 15, 1947 when India attained Independence, Bismillah Khan performed at the Red Fort; as part of Independence Eve performance. On 26 January 1950; he was accorded this honor of performing at Red Fort again on the eve of India’s first Republic Day ceremony, on 26 January 1950, where he performed the Raag Kafi.
His Independence Day recitals became a part of the cultural celebrations; and were telecast live by Doordarshan, the official national TV network; after the speech of the Prime Minister at Red Fort.
Association with Indian Cinema
Ustad Bismillah Khan also contributed briefly to Indian cinema. For the Kannada superstar Dr. Rajkumar who palyed the character Appanna in the Kannada movie Sanaadi Appanna, he played Shehnai. This movie turned out to be a blockbuster.
He also acted in one of the movies of Satyajit Ray, Jalsaghar.
In the 1959 movie, Goonj Uthi Shehnai, he gave the music of Shehnai.
A documentary on him and his family, called Sange Meel Se Mulaqat, was directed by the eminent director Goutam Ghose.
The 1967 Hollywood film The Graduate, featured a poster displayed in a street in Berkely, California which showed Bismillah Khan.
Bismillah Khan was 90 years old and lived in Varanasi. After a brief illness he was hospitalized at the Heritage Hospital on 17 August 2006, for treatment. Four days later, on August 21, 2016 he succumbed to a cardiac arrest.
He left behind five daughters, three sons and a large number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. National mourning was declared by the Indian government. He was given a 21-gun salute by the Indian army and buried under a neem tree at Fatemain burial ground in old Varanasi.
Bismillah Khan rarely had students as he felt that sharing his own knowledge would restrict their creativity and propensity to experiment and learn new thing. Despite this view, he had a large number of followers. Some of his prominent followers were S. Ballesh, and his sons, Nazim and Nayyar Hussain.
In 2007, a year after his death, Sangeet Natak Akademi, the most respected and authoritative cultural body instituted the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar in his memory. This award is given in the field of music, theatre and dance, to young artists in recognition of their talent.
On 21 August 2008, his second death anniversary, India Post issued a commemorative postage stamp.
Honours and Awards
He received a number of awards and recognition for his Shehnai music, from all over the world. Some of these were:
- Bharat Ratna (2001); Padma Vibhushan (1980); Padma Bhushan (1968); Padma Shri (1961)
- Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship (1994); Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1956)
- Talar Mausique from Republic of Iran (1992)
- Tansen Award from Govt. of Madhya Pradesh
- Three Medals in All India Music Conference, Calcutta (1937)
- Best Performer in All India Music Conference, Allahabad (1930)
Bismillah Khan also received several honorary doctorates from several universities, such as Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi and Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan.
He also participated in several international organization and fairs all around the world such as: World Exposition in Montreal, Cannes Art Festival, Osaka Trade Fair.
World Music Institute, New York celebrated his 80th birthday.
A museum, a town hall-cum-library and installation of a life-size statue at his birthplace in Dumraon, has been planned by the Bihar Government.
Quotes by Ustad Bismillah Khan
“Even if the world ends, the music will still survive.”
“Music has no caste.”
“Music lets me forget bad experiences. You cannot keep ragas and regrets in your mind together.”
“God knows no religion. God belongs to mankind. I realized this while playing at the Balaji temple.”
Besides his musical genius, what was also most inspiring about Ustad Bismillah Khan was that being a pious Shia Muslim, he appreciated all religious beliefs and was a symbol of communal harmony. He also performed for his spiritual master Prem Rawat.
Ustad was one of the finest musicians of Indian classical music. He played and popularized the Shehnai across the world. He was inseparable from his Shehnai and it was buried with him in his grave. He had a vision of spreading peace and love in the world through music.