Renowned Indian Shehnai Virtuoso Bismillah Khan Dies at 91

– Bismillah Khan, a renowned performer of the Indian shehnai died in Benares on August 21st of a heart attack. He was 91.

The Indian government declared a day of mourning and the Ministry of the Interior said that Bismillah Khan would be given a state funeral.

He was the third classical musician to be awarded the Bharat Ratna (in 2001), the highest civilian honor in . He also had the distinction of being one of the few people to be awarded all the top four civilian awards.

Bismillah Khan was born on March 21, 1916. He was the second son of Paigambar Khan and Mitthan and 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.

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.

Ustad Khan was credited with having almost monopoly over the instrument as him and Shehnai are almost synonyms. 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.

[Part of the biographical material appears courtesy og Wikipedia].