Bismillah Khan

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Bismillah Khan
Khan at a music concert (1964)
Khan at a music concert (1964)
Background information
Birth nameQamaruddin Khan
Born(1916-03-21)21 March 1916
Dumraon, Shahabad district, Bihar and Orissa Province, British India
Died21 August 2006(2006-08-21) (aged 90)
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India
GenresIndian classical music
MembersAfaq Haider, Savita Anand, Ajitesh Singh
Past membersZamin Husain Khan

Ustad 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 woodwind instrument. He played it with such expressive virtuosity that he became a leading Hindustani classical music artist. His name was indelibly linked with the woodwind 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.[1][2]

Khan was a devout Muslim but performed at both Hindu and Muslim ceremonies and was considered a symbol of religious harmony. His fame was such that he was selected to perform for the ceremony at Delhi's historic Red Fort as the Indian flag unfurled at the hour of India's independence on August 15, 1947. His music was played on television every Independence Day. He turned down invitations to perform in other countries before 1966, when the Indian government insisted that he play at the Edinburgh International Festival. This gained him a following in the West, and he continued to appear in Europe and North America thereafter.[3]

In 2001, Bismillah Khan was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honour, and the country observed a national day of mourning following his death in 2006. He became the third classical musician of India after M. S. Subbalakshmi and Ravi Shankar to be awarded the Bharat Ratna.[4][5]

Personal life[edit]

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.[6][5] 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.[6] 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 Ustad Bismillah Khan.[1][5]

At the age of three, he moved to Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh,[2] 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.[7]

Bismillah Khan began his career by playing at various stage shows. He got his first major break in 1937, when he played at a concert at All India Music Conference in Kolkata or Calcutta. This performance brought Shehnai into the limelight and was hugely appreciated by music lovers. He then 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.[8]

School Life[edit]

Bismillah Khan attributed his skill to the blessings of nath (Shiva), and believed that there was little that he could teach his disciples.[9] 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 disciples and followers include S. Ballesh,[10] and Krishna Ballesh,[11][12][13][14] Baljeet Singh Namdhari, Gurbaksh Matharu (UK) and Khan's own sons, Nazim Hussain and Nayyar Hussain.[15]


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.[16]


Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan calls on the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, in New Delhi on 30 September 2004
Khan on a 2008 stamp of India
Street in Hyderabad, Telangana, named after Bismallah Khan which was inaugurated by Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and K Viswanath on 7 April 2013.

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.[17]

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.[18]

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.[19]

In popular culture[edit]

Khan had a brief association with films in India. He played the shehnai for Rajkumar's role of Appanna in the Vijay's Kannada-language film Sanaadi Appanna which became a blockbuster. He acted in Jalsaghar by Satyajit Ray and played the shehnai for Vijay Bhatt's Goonj Uthi Shehnai (1959).

Noted director Goutam Ghose directed Sange Meel Se Mulaqat (1989), an Indian documentary film about the life of Khan.

[7]Imtiaz Ali's Rockstar character Ustad Jameel Khan played by Shammi Kapoor was slightly inspired by Khan.

Awards and recognitions[edit]



Bismillah Khan had honorary doctorates from:

Others include[23]

Selective discography[edit]

  • Sanaadi Appanna – Played shehnai for Rajkumar's role in the movie.
  • Goonj Uthi Shehnai (1959) – shehnai recitals throughout the movie for Rajendra Kumar's role.
  • Maestro's Choice (February 1994)
  • Megh Malhar, Vol. 4 (the other piece in the album is by Kishori Amonkar) (September 1994)
  • Live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (September 2000)
  • Live in London, Vol. 2 (September 2000)
  • Immortal Series
Contributing artist


  1. ^ a b Hunt, Ken (22 August 2006). "Virtuoso musician who introduced the shehnai to a global audience". The Independent. Archived from the original on 19 December 2013. Retrieved 8 January 2013.
  2. ^ a b "Indian music's soulful maestro". BBC News. 21 August 2006. Archived from the original on 17 November 2015. Retrieved 11 October 2020.
  3. ^ "Bismillah-Khan". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 27 February 2023.
  4. ^ "Remembering Ustad Bismillah Khan". Newsd. 20 March 2021.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Ustad Bismillah Khan passes away". ITC Sangeet Research Academy. Archived from the original on 7 August 2016. Retrieved 29 May 2020.
  6. ^ a b Massey, Reginald (22 August 2006). "Bismillah Khan". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 18 June 2016. Retrieved 29 May 2016.
  7. ^ a b Bismillah Khan: The Shehnai Maestro by Neeraja Poddar, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2004.
  8. ^ Hossen, Iftakhair (21 March 2019). "Bismillah Khan The Sitar Maestro". The Daily Observer.
  9. ^ "A Dying Fall: Is the shehnai on its way out?". The Indian Express. 12 February 2017. Archived from the original on 5 March 2018. Retrieved 5 March 2018.
  10. ^ Lalithaa Krishnan (20 August 2009). "Clear and sparkling". The Hindu. Archived from the original on 2 January 2014. Retrieved 11 October 2020.
  11. ^ Sawai Gandharva Society (7 December 2016). "Events Archive Artist by name Surmani Krishna Ballesh". Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Festival. Retrieved 11 June 2019.
  12. ^ "Pune: Sawai Mahotsav kicks off with tribute to Ustad Bismillah Khan, The session saw performance by Shehnai Chakravarty Pt S Ballesh and his son Surmani Pt Krishnan Ballesh". The Indian Express. 8 December 2016. Retrieved 14 February 2020.
  13. ^ "our-guru-Surmani Dr. KRISHNA BALLESH, He is one of the disciples of World Renowned Shehnai Maestro Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan. He was with ustad ji for 7 years". 23 May 2019. Retrieved 11 June 2019.
  14. ^ "An evening to honour legends of Hindustani tunes- says Surmani Krishna Ballesh, co-founder, Tansen Academy of Hindustani Music". The Indian Express. 21 November 2016. Retrieved 14 February 2020.
  15. ^ "Ustad's son chosen to carry on his legacy". The Times of India. 23 August 2006. Archived from the original on 11 January 2014. Retrieved 11 January 2014.
  16. ^ "India mourns legendary musician". BBC News. 21 August 2006. Archived from the original on 4 October 2006. Retrieved 11 October 2020.
  17. ^ "Ustad Bismillah Khan's Birthplace in Bihar faces wrath of negligence". IANS. Archived from the original on 16 April 2014. Retrieved 15 April 2014.
  18. ^ "Ustad Bismillah Khan feted in Google Doodle celebrating shehnai maestro's birth anniversary". 21 March 2018. Archived from the original on 21 March 2018. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  19. ^ Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars
  20. ^ (4 December 1998). "National Events in \==\=\==1998". The Hindu. Archived from the original on 29 January 2013. Retrieved 17 October 2013.
  21. ^ "List of recipients of 'T Chaudaiah National Awards'- =\\==". Retrieved 28 March 2021.
  22. ^ a b c "Padma Awards" (PDF). Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. 2015. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 October 2015. Retrieved 11 October 2020.
  23. ^ "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 11 October 2020.
  24. ^ "Google Doodle celebrates renowned shehnai player Ustad Bismillah Khan on his 102th birthday". Firstpost. Archived from the original on 7 April 2018. Retrieved 7 April 2018.


  • Bismillah Khan: the shehnai maestro, by Neeraja Poddar. Rupa & Co., 2018. 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, 2019. ISBN 9788175256408.
  • Bismillah Khan and Banaras: the seat of shehnai, by Rita Ganguly. Siddhi Books, 1994.
  • Shahnai Vadak Ustad Bismillah Khan, by Murli Manohar Shrivguguiastava. Prabhat Prakashan, 2009. ISBN 9788173157356.
  • Bismillah Khan: The Maestro from Benaras, by Juhi Sinha. Niyogi Books, 2011. ISBN 978-81-89738-91-4.
  • Naubatkhane Mein Ibadat, by Yatindra Mishra. Chapter in NCERT's Hindi textbook for 10th Standard.
  • In the NCERT English Textbook for 9th Grade he is credited largely in the chapter "The Sound Of Music".

External links[edit]