Ustad Qamruddin “Bismillah” Khan (21 March 1916 – 21 August 2006) (born as Qamaruddin Khan), often referred to by the title Ustad, was an Indian musician credited with popularizing the shehnai, a subcontinental wind instrument of the oboe class. While the shehnai had long held importance as a folk instrument played primarily schooled intraditional 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. On his 102nd birthday, Google honored Bismillah Khan with a Google doodle.
Khan was born on 21 March 1916 into a family of traditional Muslim musicians in Bhirung Raut Ki Gali, Dumraon, in what is now the eastern Indian state of Bihar, as the second son of Paigambar Baksh Khan and Mitthan. His father was a court musician employed in the court of Maharaja Keshav Prasad Singh of Dumraon Estate in Bihar. His grandfather Ustad Salar Hussain Khan and grandfather Rasool Baksh Khan were also musicians in the Dumraon palace. He was named Qamruddin at birth, to rhyme with his elder brother’s name Shamsuddin. Upon seeing the new born, his grandfather Rasool Baksh Khan, also a shehnai player, is said to have exclaimed “Bismillah”, or “In the name of Allah”, and thereafter he came to be known by this name.
At the age of six he moved to Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh, to be apprenticed to his maternal uncle, Ali Baksh ‘Vilayatu’ Khan, a shehnai player attached to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.
In 1932, at the age of 16, he entered into an arranged marriage with a cousin.
Khan was a pious Muslim, and was also a symbol of communal harmony.
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, known as Kolkata in All India Music Conference in the year 1937. He was credited with having the almost monopoly over the instrument as he and the shehnai are almost synonyms.
Khan is one of the finest musicians in Indian classical music. 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
Khan had the rare honour 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 Jawaharlal Nehru.c
Khan had a brief association with movies. He played the shehnai for super star Rajkumar’s role of Appanna in the Kannada movie Sanaadi Appanna which became a blockbuster. 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 street of Berkeley, California. He as a five year old, played gilli danda near a pond in the ancient estate of Dumraon in Bihar. He would regularly go to the nearby Biharji temple to sing the Bhojpuri ‘Chaita’, at the end of which he would earn a big laddu weighing 1.25kg, a prize given by the local Maharaja.
Khan attributed his skill to the blessings of Lord Vishwanath, and believed that there was little that he could teach his disciples.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.
On 17 August 2006, Bismillah Khan’s health deteriorated and he was admitted to the Heritage Hospital, Varanasi for treatment. Ustad’s last wish – to perform at India Gate, could not be fulfilled. He wanted to pay tributes to the martyrs. He waited in vain till his last ritesHe died after four days on 21 August 2006 because of a cardiac arrest. He is survived by five daughters, three sons and a large number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and his adopted daughter Soma Ghosh (a 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 Fatemaan burial ground of old Varanasi under a neem tree with a 21-gun salute from the Indian Army.
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.
Bismillah Khan was commemorated on his 102nd birth anniversary by Search Engine Google which showed a special doodle on its Indian home page for him on 21 March 2018.
The Government of Bihar has proposed setting up of a museum, a town hall-cum-library and installation of a life-size statue at his birthplace in Dumraon.
In the film, Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars. Clapton cites Bismillah Khan as an influence and how he tried to use his guitar to imitate the music of Khan’s woodwind instrument.
Awards and recognitions
Bharat Ratna (2001).
- Fellow of Sangeet Natak Akademi (1994).
- Tahar Mausique 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)
Bismillah Khan had honorary doctorates from
- Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi
- Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan
- 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 Montreal
- Participated in Cannes Art Festival
- Participated in Osaka Trade Fair
- His 80th birthday was celebrated by World Music Institute in New York.
- India Post issued commemorative postage stamps of ₹5.00 denomination on 21 August 2008.