Ustad Bismillah Khan

Ustad Bismillah Khan


Ustad Bismillah Khan

The concept of nada is intricately woven into the spiritual fabric of the Indian tradition. Classical music has been viewed as a "sadhana" or search for the Self through music, and this was embodied in the persona of Ustad Bismillah Khan and his shehnai.

Stamp on Bismillah Khan

The Department of Posts issued a five-rupee commemorative stamp on Bismillah Khan on 21st August 2008, on the occasion of his second death anniversary. The multi-coloured stamp was printed by wet-offset process on un-watermarked, adhesive stamp paper at Security Printing Press, Hyderabad.

The stamp was released by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh at his residence. He termed it a token of our nation's and government's respect for him.

The stamp and the First Day Cover portray the Ustad playing the shehnai, and the cancellation has a drawing of the instrument. In the background of his picture on the cover is a typical bathing ghat in Varanasi, hometown of Bismillah Khan.

Life of Bismillah Khan

The legendary maestro, who elevated the shehnai from wedding halls and temples to the centrestage of classical music, was born on 21st March 1916 at Bhirung Raut ki Gali in Dumraon, Bihar. He was the second son of Paigambar Khan and Mitthan Bibi. At birth he was christened Qamaruddin, to rhyme with his elder brother's name, Shamsuddin. However, when his grandfather Rasool Baksh Khan looked at the infant he uttered "Bismillah", and that became his name.

Bismillah came of a family that had a long tradition of music. His great grandfather, Hussain Baksh, and grandfather Rasool Baksh were the shehnai-nawaz at the Bhojpur king's court. His father too was a court musician. No wonder Bismillah had music in his veins.

When he was six years old his mother took him to her brother's place in Banaras. There the child became fascinated by his uncle's riyaz on the shehnai. Observing the child's keen interest, elders in the family put him under the tutelage of his uncle, the renowned shehnai player Ali Baksh "Vilayati". Bismillah received rigorous training under him. Ali Baksh was attached to the Viswanath temple and did his riyaz at the Balaji temple. The young Bismillah too chose the precincts of the temple to practise.

In course of time, Bismillah started accompanying his uncle in music conference concerts; and this continued till the uncle's death in 1940. In addition to practicing diligently and rigorously, he also familiarized himself with the various forms of music of Uttar Pradesh as also, of course, the khayal. In course of time, he introduced innovations (like the cross-fingering method) to produce gamaka-s and tonal modulations and enhanced the range of the shehnai, attaining incredible mastery over the instrument.

Bismillah had his first concert opportunity in 1930, at the Allahabad Music Conference. He was just 14. His skill in playing the instrument received warm appreciation from the enlightened  audience, which included several senior practitioners. However, it was at the Calcutta session of the All India Music Conference held in 1937 that he made his entry in a big way into the concert circuit. It was there that he established the transformation of the shehnai from a folk instrument to a high class instrument of classical music.

The opening of the Lucknow station of All India Radio gave him a good break; his music now reached thousands of listeners through the broadcasting medium.

Independence further extended the reach of his music. He had the rare honour of being invited by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to play shehnai on the ramparts of the Red Fort on the eve of 15th August 1947. He also heralded the first Republic Day celebrations on 26th January 1950. Since then the charming strain of his shehnai marked the beginning of Republic Day celebrations every year.

For about seven decades he kept thousands of people spell-bound with his enchanting melodies. He was also often seen playing at various temples on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. The word shehnai became completely synonymous with the name of Bismillah Khan.

His first trip abroad was to Afghanistan. Captivated by his music, King Zahir Shah gifted his priceless Persian carpets to the visiting maestro. Bismillah Khan has performed the world over, including the U.S.A., Canada, the Middle East, Europe, the U.S.S.R. and Japan. He participated in international music festivals such as Edinburgh Festival, World Exposition in Montreal, Cannes Art Festival and Osaka Trade Fair. He was the first Indian to be invited to perform at the prestigious Lincoln Centre Hall in the US. The World Music Institute, New York, celebrated his 80th birthday.

The Ustad and cinema

Bismillah Khan played the shehnai for Dr. Rajkumar's role as Appanna in the Kannada classic movie Sanaadi Appanna. Similarly, he played for Rajendra Kumar in Goonj Uthee Shehnai (The Call of the Shehnai). He also composed several songs for that film. He had a jugalbandi in it with sitar maestro Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan. He acted in Satyajit Ray's film Jalsaghar (The Music Room). The noted director Goutam Ghose made a 90-minute documentary on Bismillah Khan captioned Sange Meel Se Mulaqat (Meeting the Milestone). Film-maker Nasreen Munni Kabir has also made a 50-minute documentary on his life Bismillah of Benares.


Bismillah has played jugalbandi-s with Ustad Vilayat Khan (sitar), Ustad Amjad Ali Khan (sarod), and Prof. V.G. Jog and Dr. N. Rajam (violin). Probably the only jugalbandi he had with a Carnatic musician was with Dr. L. Subramaniam, the internationally renowned violinist, at the Festival of India, Geneva, in 1987. Shahid Parvez, then a young talented sitarist, played a duet with Khan Saheb. Learned critics are of the opinion that the music created by the Bismillah Khan-Vilayat Khan pair was unparalleled and "is of timeless quality".

Awards and honours

The Government of India honoured Bismillah Khan (and Lata Mangeshkar) with Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award, in 2001. (M.S. Subbulakshmi and Pandit Ravi Shankar had received it in 1998 and 1999 respectively.) He was also the recipient of the Tansen Award from the Government of Madhya Pradesh and the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award. The Rajiv Gandhi National Sadbhavana Puraskar was conferred on him in 1994. He was awarded honorary doctorates by Banaras Hindu University and Visva-Bharati University ("Desikottama").

Visits to Madras

Bismillah Khan's first visit to Chennai (then Madras) was probably in 1943 to give a recital for the  Music Academy, at the Sundareswara Hall, on 24th December. Among his subsequent visits was one on 8th April 1962, when he gave a performance at Raja Annamalai Manram under the  auspices of Sri Kala Niketan. The visit was memorable because, during that visit, the Sadasivams played host to the maestro and his party with a sumptuous breakfast at the Kalki Gardens.

Bismillah's last performance in Chennai was for the Amir Khusro Sangeet Academy on 20th  October 2002. On that occasion he is reported to have told Munna Shaukat, the noted ghazal singer based in Chennai, that he was visiting Chennai after a long time and that in his next visit he would like to come two days in advance as "Chennai is the centre of music"

Among his innumerable admirers in the South was his illustrious counterpart, T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai. According to T. Sankaran, TNR "worshipped Bismillah Khan and his shehnai"

His end

The genius who brought international fame to the shehnai breathed his last on 21st August 2006 (this month four years ago). In the Heritage Hospital, Varanasi, where his end came, he had his shehnai by his bed. On his demise, a one-day national mourning period was declared by Government of India. He was given a 21-gun salute farewell by the Indian Army. He was laid to rest under a neem tree in the Dargah Fatimaan burial ground of old Varanasi. His shehnai, which he used to fondly call his "begum", after his wife's demise, was buried with him. He left behind five sons, three daughters, and a large number of grandchildren and great grandchildren.

In 2007 the Sangeet Natak Academy instituted the "Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar" in his honour to encourage deserving young talent in the field of performing arts.

Embodiment of simplicity

Bismillah was the personification of nobility and humility. He was a pious Shia Muslim, doing namaaz five times a day, and a staunch devotee of Mother Saraswati, the goddess of learning and fine arts. He led a simple and unostentatious life in the manner of a true Sufi. He never owned a car, and liked to go around Varanasi in a cycle rickshaw. He preferred second class train travel, and stayed in ordinary hotels without star status, while visiting places for performances. He had no materialistic possession worth the name. With his extended family of sixty members, he lived in humble surroundings in the Sarai Harha locality of Benia Bagh in Banaras. The best part of his personality was his"infectious hypnotic smile".

All the innumerable awards and honours sat lightly on his shoulders. Indeed he considered playing every morning at Kasi Viswanath temple his biggest honour and achievement. He therefore declined an offer of permanent settlement in the US, because there is no Ganga there, nor the temple of Kasi Viswanathji nor the holy city of Banaras and its culture.

Khan Saheb had great respect for Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Begum Akhtar, Lata Mangeshkar and M.S. Subbulakshmi. (Incidentally, both MS and Bismillah were born in the same year.)

In a talk with Gautam Chatterjee, a well known writer on Indian heritage, a few days before his death, the great Ustad said. All my life I have been seeking the pure note ("sahi sur"). If I managed to play it, it was by the grace of God. I will be back, next time, with more pure notes.

In his death an era came to an end. He elevated the shehnai to the pinnacle of its glory. And his shehnai will remain unsurpassed for a long time to come, like Mali's flute and Rajarathnam's nagaswaram.