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Bismillah Khan

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  • Died: Varanasi, India
  • Years Active: 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s


Biography All Music GuideWikipedia

All Music Guide:

Certain instruments become indelibly linked with particular performers. In the Hindustani realm, the santoor is closely associated with Shivkumar Sharma and the rudra vina with Zia Mohiuddin Khan, but historically, perhaps the closest and most intimate association has been with Bismillah Khan and the shehnai.

Born in 1916, he has raised the status of one of India's most distinctively voiced instruments unprecedentedly. In its folk form this double-reeded instrument is used on a variety of ritual occasions but is especially associated with weddings. Bismillah Khan has recorded extensively and like many Indian classical artists most of his early work was released by EMI India or its overseas partners. His historic jugalbandi with Vilayat Khan was chosen to inaugurate the Music of India series on EMI India's parent company in Britain. This series licensed the work of masters such as Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Nikhil Banerjee. The debut release in the Music of India series, however, featured in the terminology of the album duettos on "Chaiti-Dhun" and "Bhairavee Thumree." The third in the series was another shehnai jugalbandi, this time with violinist V.G. Jog. It was a further indication of the esteem in which Bismillah Khan was held. Time has only reinforced that.


For the Afghan General, see Bismillah Khan Mohammadi.

Bismillah Khan (Urdu: استاد بسم اللہ خان صاحب‎; 21 March 1913 – 21 August 2006), often referred to by the honorific title Ustad, was an Indian musician credited with popularising the shehnai, a subcontinental wind instrument of the oboe class. While the shehnai had long held importance as a folk instrument played primarily during traditional ceremonies, Khan is credited with elevating its status and bringing it to the concert stage.

He was awarded India's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 2001, becoming the Third classical musician after M. S. Subbulakshmi and Ravi Shankar to be accorded this distinction.

^ "Virtuoso musician who introduced the shehnai to a global audience". The Independent. 22 August 2006. Retrieved 8 January 2013. ^ "Indian music's soulful maestro". BBC News. 21 August 2006. Retrieved 2010-01-01. 

Early life[edit]

Bismillah Khan was born on 21 March 1913 in Dumraon, Bihar in northern India. He was the second son of Paigambar Khan and Mitthan. His parents had initially named him Qamaruddin to rhyme with their first-born son Shamshuddin. However, his grandfather, Rasool Bux Khan, the shehnai master of the court of Bhojpur, exclaimed "Bismillah!" ("In the name of Allah!") at the sight of him and thereafter he came to be known by this name.

His ancestors were court musicians and used to play in Naqqar khana in the princely states of Bhojpur, now in Bihar. His father was a shehnai player in the court of Maharaja Keshav Prasad Singh of Dumraon Estate, Bihar.

At the age of six, he moved to Varanasi. He received his training under his uncle, the late Ali Baksh 'Vilayatu', a shehnai player attached to Varanasi's Vishwanath Temple.

Bihar Government has proposed setting up of a museum, a town hall-cum-library and installation of a life-size statue at his birthplce in Dumraon.

Religious beliefs[edit]

Though a pious Shi'ite Muslim, he was also, like many Indian musicians, regardless of religion, a devotee of Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of wisdom and arts, and often played at Hindu temples, including the famous Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, on the banks of the river Ganga. He also performed for spiritual master Prem Rawat.

^ "Bismillah Khan". The Telegraph. 22 August 2006. Retrieved 10 January 2013. ^ Cite error: The named reference Independent was invoked but never defined (see the help page).^ Cite error: The named reference was invoked but never defined (see the help page).^ Bismillah Khan: The Shehnai Maestro by Neeraja Poddar, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2004.^ "Ustad Bismillah Khan's Birthplace in Bihar faces wrath of negligence". IANS. news.biharprabha.com. Retrieved 15 April 2014. ^ "Rediff Slides on Ustad Bismillah Khan". Retrieved 2006-08-21. ^ "BBC on Ustad Bismillah Khan". BBC News. 21 August 2006. Retrieved 2006-08-21. ^ Bismillah Khan Performs Music For Guru Maharaji Prem Rawat on YouTube


Bismillah Khan was perhaps single-handedly responsible for making the shehnai a famous classical instrument. He brought the shehnai to the center stage of Indian music with his concert in the Calcutta All India Music Conference in 1937. He was credited with having almost monopoly over the instrument as he and the shehnai are almost synonyms.

Khan is one of the finest musicians in post-independent Indian classical music and one of the best examples of Hindu-Muslim unity in India. He played the shehnai to audiences across the world. He was known to be so devoted to his art form that he referred to shehnai as his begum (wife in Urdu) after his wife died. On his death, as an honour, his shehnai was buried with him. He was known for his vision of spreading peace and love through music.

Performances at Red Fort[edit]

Khan had the rare honor of performing at Delhi's Red Fort on the eve of India's Independence in 1947. He also performed raga Kafi from the Red Fort on the eve of India's first Republic Day ceremony, on 26 January 1950. His recital had become a cultural part of India's Independence Day celebrations, telecast on Doordarshan every year on 15 August. After the prime minister's speech from Lal Qila (the Red Fort,) in Old Delhi, Doordarshan would broadcast a live performance by the shehnai maestro. This tradition dated from the days of Pandit Nehru.

Popular culture[edit]

Khan had a brief association with movies. He played the shehnai for Rajkumar's role of Appanna in the Kannada movie Sanaadi Appanna. He acted in Jalsaghar, a movie by Satyajit Ray and provided sound of shehnai in Goonj Uthi Shehnai (1959). Noted director Goutam Ghose directed Sange Meel Se Mulaqat, a documentary about the life of Khan. In the 1967 film The Graduate, there is a poster advertising "Bismillah Khan and the seven musicians" on a busy street of Berkeley, California.

^ Cite error: The named reference rupa was invoked but never defined (see the help page).


Khan seldom accepted students. He thought that if he would be able to share his knowledge it wouldn't be useful as it would only give his students a little knowledge. Some of his followers include S. Ballesh, as well as Khan's own sons, Nazim Hussain and Nayyar Hussain.

^ Lalithaa Krishnan (20 August 2009). "Clear and sparkling". The Hindu. Retrieved 2014-01-14. ^ "Ustad's son chosen to carry on his legacy". The Times of India. 23 August 2006. Retrieved 11 January 2014. 

Personal life[edit]

On 17 August 2006, Khan was taken ill and admitted to the Heritage Hospital, Varanasi for treatment. He died after four days on 21 August 2006 due to a cardiac arrest. He is survived by five daughters, three sons and a large number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and his adopted daughter Dr Soma Ghosh (famous Hindustani shastriya sangeet exponent)

The Government of India declared a day of national mourning on his death. His body along with a Shehnai was buried at Fatemain burial ground of old Varanasi under a neem tree with 21-gun salute from Indian Army. Famous culture critic Veejay Sai wrote a moving personal obituary in The Hindu Sunday Review magazine http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/memories-of-the-maestro/article3232520.ece .

^ "Ustad Bismillah Khan hospitalised". Times of India. 17 August 2006. Retrieved 2007-03-13. ^ "Bismillah Khan". Personalities. webindia123.com. Retrieved 2007-03-13. ^ "India mourns legendary musician". BBC. 21 August 2006. Retrieved 2007-03-13. 


Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, instituted the 'Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar' in 2007, in his honour. It is given to young artists in the field of music, theatre and dance.

^ Sangeet Natak Akademi, Youth Awards, Feb 2007

Awards and recognitions[edit]

Bharat Ratna (2001)Fellow of Sangeet Natak Akademi (1994).Talar Mausiquee from Republic of Iran (1992).Padma Vibhushan (1980)Padma Bhushan (1968)Padma Shri (1961)Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1956)Tansen Award by Govt. of Madhya Pradesh.Three medals in All India Music Conference, Calcutta (1937)"Best Performer" in All India Music Conference, Allahabad (1930)

Bismillah Khan had honorary doctorates from

Banaras Hindu University, VaranasiVisva Bharati University, Santiniketan

Others include

Was invited by the then Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to play shehnai on the first Independence Day (15 August 1947) in Delhi's Red Fort.Participated in World Exposition in MontrealParticipated in Cannes Art FestivalParticipated in Osaka Trade FairHis 80th birthday was celebrated by World Music Institute in New York ^ "Standard IX Textbook – Step to English, Chapter 13: Shehnai Maestro Bismillah Khan" (PDF). National Council for Education Research and Training. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 September 2006. Retrieved 2006-09-21. 


Bismillah Khan: the shehnai maestro, by Neeraja Poddar. Rupa & Co., 2004. ISBN 81-291-0351-6.Monograph on Shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan, by Amar jyoti, Shivnath Jha, Alok Jain, Anjali Sinha. Pub. Neena Jha & Shivnath Jha, 2005. ISBN


Bismillah Khan and Benaras: the seat of shehnai, by Rita Ganguly. Siddhi Books, 1994.Shahnai Vadak Ustad Bismillah Khan, by Murli Manohar Shrivastava. Prabhat Prakashan, 2009. ISBN 9788173157356.Bismillah Khan: The Maestro from Benaras, by Juhi Sinha. Niyogi Books, 2011. ISBN 978-81-89738-91-4.
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