Bismillah Khan (born Qamaruddin Khan, 21 March 1916 – 21 August 2006), often referred to by the title Ustad, was an Indian musician credited with popularizing the shehnai, a reeded wooden wind instrument.
While the shehnai had long held importance as a folk instrument played primarily schooled in traditional ceremonies, Khan is credited with elevating its status and bringing it to the concert stage.
Bismillah Khan was born on 21 March 1916 into a family of traditional Muslim musicians at the town of Dumraon British India, 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 Bux 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 newborn, 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 Bux ‘Vilayatu’ Khan, a Shehnai player attached to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.
At the age of 14 Bismillah accompanied his uncle to the Allahabad music conference.
Khan attributed his skill to the blessings of Nath (Shiva), 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.
On 17 March 2006, Bismillah Khan’s health deteriorated, and he was admitted to the Heritage Hospital, Varanasi for treatment.
Khan’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 rites. He died of cardiac arrest on 21 August 2006.
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.
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.
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.
In the documentary 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)
- Swathi Sangeetha Puraskaram (1998), Government of Kerala
- T Choudayya National Award (1995), Government of Karnataka
- 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 :
- Was invited by 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
- India Post issued commemorative postage stamps of ₹5.00 denomination on 21 August 2008
- On his 102nd birthday, Google honored Bismillah Khan with a Google doodle.