Ustad Bismillah Khan was the third classical musician after Pt Ravi Shankar and Smt M S Subbulakshmi to be awarded Bharat Rathna, the highest civilian honour in India.
The gentle genius of Bismillah Khan was perhaps single handedly responsible for making Shehnai a famous classical instrument. Traditionally used to play music during marriages, Shehnai is the counterpart of south indian nadaswaram. It is also used to play music in temples.
Simplicity was the way of life for Ustad, It retains the old world charm of a Benaras life... his chief mode of transport was a cycle-rikshaw, even after he became one of the most respected musician !
The legendary shehani maestro, a man of tenderness, a man who believed in remaining private and who believed that musicians are supposed to be heard and not seen. Bismillah Khan was born on March 21, 1916 at Bhirung Raut Ki Gali, in Dumraon as the second son of Paigambar Khan and Mitthan. He was named as Qamaruddin to rhyme with Shamsuddin, their first son. His grandfather, Rasool Baksh Khan uttered "Bismillah" after looking at the newborn, thus he was named Bismillah Khan.
His ancestors were court musicians in the princely state of Dumraon in Bihar and he was trained under his uncle, the late Ali Bux `Vilayatu’, a shehnai player attached to Varanasi’s Vishwanath Temple. He brought Shehnai to the center stage of indian music with his concert in the calcutta All India Music Conference in 1937. There was no looking back. It was Khan Sahib who poured his heart out into Raga Kafi from Red Fort on the eve of India’s first Republic Day ceremony.
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 January 26, 1950. His recital had almost become a cultural part of the Independence Day Celebrations telecast on Doordarshan every year on August 15th. After the Prime Minister's speech from Lal Qila (Red Fort) in Old Delhi, Doordarshan would broadcast live performance by the shehnai maestro. And this tradition had been going on since the days of Pandit Nehru.
Where others see conflict and contradiction between his music and his religion, Bismillah Khan had seen only a divine unity. Music, sur, namaaz is the same thing. His namaaz was the seven shuddh and five komal surs. Even as a devout Shia, Khan Sahib was also a staunch devotee of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of music.
His honorary doctorate from the Benares Hindu University and Shantiniketan bespeaks of his fame. He was bequeathed with the Sangeet Natak Academi Award, the Tansen Award of the Madhya Pradesh government and also the prestigious Padma Vibhushan.
On August 17, 2006, Khan was taken ill and admitted to the Heritage Hospital, Varanasi for treatment. He died after four days on August 21, 2006 due to a cardiac arrest. He was ninety years old. He is survived by five sons, three daughters and a large number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The Government of India declared one day of national mourning on his death. His body was buried at Fatemain burial ground of old Varanasi under a neem tree with 21-gun salute from Indian Army.
He played in Afghanistan, Europe, Iran, Iraq, Canada, West Africa, USA, USSR, Japan, Hong Kong and almost every capital city across the world.