Legendary maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan passed away at 2.20 a.m. on Monday, August 21, 2006. A symbol of Muslim-Hindu unity, it was through his untiring efforts that the shehnai was taken from the confines of wedding halls and naubatkhanas to the international stage. Born at Bhirung Raut Ki Gali, Dumraon, Bihar on March 21, 1916, he was the second son of Paigambar Khan and Mitthan. Named Qamaruddin to rhyme with Shamsuddin, their first son, he was renamed Bismillah when his grandfather, Ustad Rasool Bux Khan uttered Bismillah after looking at the newborn. His ancestors were court musicians of the princely states of India, his father being in the court of Maharaja Keshav Prasad Singh of Dumraon Estate, Bihar.
He received his training under his uncle, the late Ali Baksh 'Vilayatu', a shehnai player attached to Varanasi’s Vishwanath temple. Starting his career as an accompanist to his uncle, his first public performance was at the age of 14 at the All India Music Conference, Allahabad, in 1930. His second performance at the Music Conference at the Lucknow exhibition was greatly appreciated and he was awarded gold medals. However, it was only after his performance at the All India Music Conference at Kolkata in 1937, where he won three gold medals, that he was fully accepted as a talented musician.
Ustadji had the rare honour of performing at Delhi's Red Fort on the eve of India's Independence in 1947. Again, it was Khan Sahib who played 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 an integral part of the Independence Day Celebrations telecast on Doordarshan on August 15th every year. After the Prime Minister's speech from Red fort in Old Delhi, Doordarshan would broadcast a live performance by the maestro, a tradition that had been begun in the days of Pandit Nehru. The Lucknow station of All India Radio was inaugurated with his music and for a long time it was the daily custom of every All India Radio station to start the day’s transmission with his renderings of the morning ragas. Performing at all the important venues in India, he had also played in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Canada, USA, USSR, Japan, Hong Kong, various countries in Europe and almost every capital city across the world.
Awarded the Bharat Ratna in 2001, he also had the distinction of being one of the few people to be awarded all the top four civilian awards, receiving the Padma Shri in 1961, Padma Bhushan in 1968 and Padma Vibhushan in 1980. A 1956 Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, the Ustad was made a fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1994. In 1980 the Govt of Madhya Pradesh gave him the Tansen award while in 1992 the Republic of Iran awarded him ‘Talar Mausiquee’. He was also given honourary doctorates by Vishwa Bharati University, Marathwada University and Benaras Hindu University.
A devout Muslim, he worshipped Goddess Saraswati as well and often played at various temples and on the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi, besides playing at the famous Vishwanath temple. Despite his fame, his lifestyle retained its old world charm, his chief mode of transport being the cycle rickshaw. A man of tenderness, he believed in remaining private, following the maxim that musicians are supposed to be heard and not seen. His concept of music was very beautiful and his vision, superb. He once said, "Even if the world ends, music will still survive." On his demise, the Government of India declared one day of national mourning. He is survived by five sons, three daughters and a large number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.