Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan finally bid adieu to the world and died of cardiac arrest in the wee hours on Monday. The 91-year-old Bharat Ratna awardee, who had been admitted to Heritage hospital here on August 17 with age- related health problems, passed away at 2:20 am.
Bismillah Khan was born on March 21, 1916. Born as the second son of his parents, Paigambar Khan and Mitthan, he was christened as Qamaruddin initially, before his grandfather uttered Bismillah after looking at the newborn.
His ancestors were court musicians in the princely state of Dumraon in Bihar, India. He received his training under his uncle, the late Ali Baksh ‘Vilayatu’, a shehnai player attached to Varanasi’s Vishwanath Temple. He spent his childhood in the holy city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganga, where his uncle was the official shehnai player in the famous Visvanath temple.
It was due to this that Bismillah became inclined for the Shehnai. At an early age, he familiarized himself with various forms of the music of UP, such as Thumri, Chaiti, Kajri, Sawani etc. Later he studied Khayal music and mastered a large number of ragas.
Ustad Bismillah 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 All India Music Conference in 1937. It was Khan Sahib who poured his heart out into Raga Kafi from the Red Fort on the eve of India’s first Republic Day ceremony.
Ustad Khan was credited with having almost monopoly over the instrument as him and Shehnai are almost synomyms. 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.
Despite his fame, Khan’s lifestyle retained its old world Benares charm. His chief mode of transport was the cycle rickshaw. A man of tenderness, he believed in remaining private, and that musicians are supposed to be heard and not seen. He was a pious Shia Muslim and also, like many Indian musicians regardless of creed, a devotee of Mother Saraswati.Ustad Khan will remain one of the finest musicians in post-independent Indian Classical music and one of the best examples of hindu-muslim unity in India.