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Saturday, June 3, 2023

Ustad Bismillah Khan- Maestro of Shehnai

Ustad Bismillah Khan (born Qamaruddin Khan, 21 March 1916 – 21 August 2006), was a Bharatiya musician who was instrumental in popularizing the Shehnai, a reeded woodwind instrument.

He was born into a family of traditional Muslim musicians in Dumraon, Bihar, as the second son of Paigambar Bux Khan and Mitthanbai. His father was a court musician employed in the court of Maharaja Keshav Prasad Singh of Dumraon Estate in Bihar. His two grandfathers Ustad Salar Hussain Khan and Rasool Baksh Khan were also musicians in the Dumraon palace.

He was named Qamruddin Khan at birth but came to be known as Bismillah Khan as his grandfather Rasool Baksh after seeing the new born child exclaimed “Bismillah” and thereafter the child came to be known by this name. At the age of six, he moved to Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), and was groomed under the tutelage of his maternal uncle, Ali Bux ‘Vilayatu’ Khan, a Shehnai player attached to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.

At the age of 14 Bismillah Khan accompanied his uncle to the Allahabad music conference. In 1932, at the age of 16, he was married. At a very early age, Bismillah Khan mastered various forms of music such as Thumri, Chaiti, Kajri, Sawani and Khayal music.

His Shehnai performance at the All-India Music Conference in Kolkata in 1937 gained him public respect, and the Shehnai, traditionally used only in a ceremonial capacity hitherto in marriages and other functions, came to be seen as a classical music instrument. Thereafter years of concerts and radio performances and recordings followed making both Bismillah Khan and his instrument Shehnai very popular.

In the documentary film, Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars, Clapton acknowledges Bismillah Khan’s influence and how he tried to use his guitar to imitate the music of Khan’s woodwind instrument Shehnai. Khan had a brief association with films in Bharat. He played the Shehnai for Kannada film hero Rajkumar’s role of Appanna in the Vijay’s Kannada- film Sanaadi Appanna which was a blockbuster.

He acted in Jalsaghar filmed by Satyajit Ray and provided sound of Shehnai in Vijay Bhatt’s Goonj Uthi Shehnai (1959). Noted director Goutam Ghose directed Sange Meel Se Mulaqat (1989), a  Bharatiya documentary film about the life of Khan.

Bismillah Khan performed in the ceremony at Delhi’s historic Red Fort as the Indian flag unfurled on Bharat’s independence on August 15, 1947. He also performed on the country’s first Republic Day ceremony on January 26, 1950. His recital had almost become an indispensable part of the Independence Day celebrations relayed by All India Radio and Doordarshan for many years.

Initially he turned down invitations to perform in other countries and in 1966, on the Indian government’s insistence he played at the Edinburgh International Festival which gained him a following in the West. Thereafter, he continued to visit Europe and North America.

He was a practicing devout Shia Muslim, who gave equal respect to other religions and beliefs and a staunch devotee of Hindu goddess of music Saraswati. In the hands of Ustad Bismillah Khan, Shehnai which was earlier considered to be sub continental oboe class folk instrument, transformed into a classical instrument.

In the process it not only attracted Asian music lovers but also made millions of Westerners recognize and appreciate the potential of Shehnai. Ustad Bisimiilah Khan went on to play in many countries including Afghanistan, USA, Canada, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, West Africa, Japan, Hong Kong and in various parts of Europe.

During his illustrious career he played in many prominent events throughout the world. Some of the events that he played in include World Exposition in Montreal, Cannes Art Festival and Osaka Trade Fair.

He was not fascinated by wealth or materialistic possessions and lived in humble surroundings in the holy city of Benares and loved to travel by cycle rickshaw. He loved his city so much that he even declined an offer of permanent Visa for settling down in the US.

There is an interesting tale attributed to the Shehnai maestro’s possible interaction with Bhagwan Krishna Himself!

The story begins in a train journey, when Bismillah Khan was traveling from Jamdshedpur to Varanasi, where he was to perform in a religious concert. During the train journey a young boy with a dark complexion, holding a flute in his hand enters the train in intermediate rural railway station.

To the surprise of Ustad Bismillah Khan, the boy starts playing his musical instrument, but the maestro himself couldn’t recognize the ‘raaga’. Bismillah Khan was mesmerized by the divinity in the young boy’s music and asked him to play the same tune over and over again. After reaching Varanasi, Bismillah Khan is said to have played the same tune, which he had learned from the young and mysterious boy.

When contemporary musicians and music lovers asked him about the new ‘raaga’, the Ustad told them the ‘raaga’ he played is called ‘Kanhaira’.

He shared a special bond with his Shehnai and called it “Begum” after his wife died.

Awards and Achievements

Ustad Bismillah Khan was honoured by innumerable awards and some of the major awards conferred on him are:

  • Bharat Ratna, Bharat’s highest civilian award in 2001.
  • Padma Vibhushan, the country’s second highest civilian award in 1980.
  • Padma Bhushan, Bharat’s third highest civilian award in 1968.
  • Padma Shri, the nation’s fourth highest civilian award in 1961.
  • Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in1956.
  • Talar Mausiquee – This award was given to him by the Republic of Iran in the year 1992.
  • Fellowship of Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1994.

The government of Madhya Pradesh honored him with the Tansen Award for his contribution to the field of music. He also received honorary Doctorates from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi and Visva Bharati Universiry, Santiniketan.

He died of a cardiac arrest on August 21, 2006 A day of national mourning was announced by the Government of Bharat on his death. He was buried, along with a Shehnai, at Fatermain burial ground, Old Varanasi with a 21-gun salute from the Indian Army.

‘Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar’ was instituted by Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi in 2007 as a tribute to Ustad Bismillah Khan. This award is given to young artists excelling in the fields of classical music, dance, and theater.

He had a large family with his five daughters, three sons and many grandchildren. His adopted daughter Dr. Soma Ghosh is a famous Hindustani shastriya sangeet artist. The government of Bharat released a stamp in his honour in 2008. A Street in Hyderabad, Telangana is named after him as Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan Marg in 2013.

Bismillah Khan’s life is an example that music can integrate people irrespective of differences in language and religions.


  1. https://prasarbharati.gov.in/ustad-bismillah-khan-vol-2/
  2. http://music.indobase.com/instrumentalists/ustad-bismillah-khan.html

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Dr. B.N.V. Parthasarathi
Dr. B.N.V. Parthasarathi
Ex- Senior Banker, Financial and Management Consultant and Visiting faculty at premier B Schools and Universities. Areas of Specialization & Teaching interests - Banking, Finance, Entrepreneurship, Economics, Global Business & Behavioural Sciences. Qualification- M.Com., M.B.A., A.I.I.B.F., PhD. Experience- 25 years of banking and 16 years of teaching, research and consulting. 200 plus national and international publications on various topics like- banking, global trade, economy, public finance, public policy and spirituality. One book in English “In Search of Eternal Truth”, two books in Telugu and 38 short stories 50 articles and 2 novels published in Telugu. Email id: [email protected]


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