Ustad Bismillah Khan was a great Shehnai player from India. His name was and will forever be associated with shehnai, the musical instrument that he made famous with his talent and deliberation in the post independent India. Khan belonged to a family of traditional musicians of Bihar who used to play in the courts of the princely states, which is why playing shehnai came very natural to him. He was brilliant at what he did - the reason why he had always played at the important national events for national audience like the first Indian Independence Day and first Republic Day. Khan with his simplicity, love for music and straightforwardness did not only become a national favorite but also gained a lot of popularity and love from the west. For his creativity and mastery in his art, Khan was bestowed with the title of ‘Ustad’ and earned many accolades like the Bharat Ratna, Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan, Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, honorary doctorates from Banaras Hindu University and Viswa Bharati University.
Khan learnt the art of playing shehnai and mastered it in a short span of time. It is not farfetched to say that he was the one who made shehnai a famous classical instrument with his natural talent and great devotion.
With his concert in All India Music Conference in 1937 (at Calcutta), Khan brought shehnai at the forefront of Indian classical music. He played so well that his name got attached to the instrument in no time.
In 1947, on the occasion of India’s celebration of its first independence day, Khan was invited by the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to come and perform live at the Red Fort in Delhi. This performance became one of his most celebrated ones.
He again performed in 1950 - this time on the occasion of India’s first Republic Day at Red Fort in Delhi.
Khan did not just perform for the Indian audience but on many occasions performed for the global audience as well. He took part in Cannes Art Festival, Osaka Trade Fair and World Exposition in Montreal.
Khan had a deep association with the world of cinema as well. He played beautiful shehnai symphonies for a kannada language movie named Sadaadi Appanna. He also acted in a Satyajit Ray’s movie Jalsaghar in 1958.
He did some other movies as well - Goonj Uthi Shehnai (1959), Sange Meel Se Mulaqat, a documentary on his own life and also appeared in the capacity of a musician in Dustin Hoffman’s The Graduate (1967).
Khan’s whole life was devoted to playing shehnai with all his passion - a tradition he helped in keeping alive in the post independent India. If it was not for him, shehnai would have been redundant in the newly independent India. He made shehnai one of the most popular musical instruments from Asia.
Bismillah Khan was born in Bhirung Raut Ki Gali at Dumrao, Bihar, in 1913 to Paigambar Khan and Mitthan into the family of musicians.
His forefathers were musicians in the courts of the princely states of that time like Bhojpur, Bihar and his father was a shehnai player in the court of Maharaja Keshav Prasad Singh, Dumrao.
At the tender age of 6, Khan was shifted to the city of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, where he received training in music under the supervision of his uncle Ali Baksh, who was a famous shehnai player and used to play for Varanasi’s Vishwanath Temple.
Khan was survived by his five daughters, three sons and many grandchildren and great grandchildren. He also adopted a daughter named Dr Soma Ghosh. She is a famous Hindustani shastriya sangeet exponent.
He died in 2006 due to cardiac arrest. He was buried in a national ceremony along with his shehnai at Fatemain burial ground, Varanasi.