Ustad Bismillah Khan (21 March 1916 – 21 August 2006) (born as Qamaruddin Khan), often referred to by the honorific title Ustad, was an Indian musician credited with popularizing the shehnai, a subcontinental wind instrument of the oboe class. While the shehnai had long held importance as a folk instrument played primarily during traditional ceremonies, Khan is credited with elevating its status and bringing it to the concert stage.[1][2]

He was awarded India's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 2001, becoming the third classical musician after M. S. Subbulakshmi and Ravi Shankar to be accorded this distinction. On his 102nd birthday, Google honored Bismillah Khan with a Google doodle.[3]

Early life

Khan was born on 21 March 1916 into a family of traditional Muslim musicians in Bhirung Raut Ki Gali, Dumraon, in what is now the eastern Indian state of Bihar, as the second son of Paigambar Baksh Khan and Mitthan.[4][5] While named Qamruddin at birth, his grandfather Rasool Baksh Khan, also a shehnai player, exclaimed "Bismillah" upon seeing the new born. Thereafter he came to be known by this name.[1][5] His father was a court musician employed by the Raja of Dumraon. His great grandfather Ustad Salar Hussain Khan and grandfather Rasool Baksh Khan were also musicians in the Dumraon palace.[4]

His ancestors were court musicians and used to play in Naqqar khana in the princely states of Dumraon , now in Bihar. His father was a Shehnai player in the court of Maharaja Keshav Prasad Singh of Dumraon Estate, Bihar.

At the age of six he moved to Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh.[2] He received his training under his uncle, the late Ali Baksh 'Vilayatu', a shehnai player attached to Varanasi's Vishwanath Temple.[6]

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.[7]

Religious beliefs

Khan was a pious Muslim, and was also a symbol of communal harmony.[8] He also performed for spiritual master Prem Rawat.[9]


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, now known as Kolkata in All India Music Conference in the year 1937. He was credited with having the almost monopoly over the instrument as he and the shehnai are almost synonyms.

Khan is one of the finest musicians in Indian classical music. He played the shehnai to audiences across the world. He was known to be so devoted to his art form that he referred to shehnai as his begum (wife in Urdu) after his wife died. On his death, as an honour, his shehnai was buried with him. He was known for his vision of spreading peace and love through music.

{cquoteEven if the world ends, the music will still survive.} {cquoteMusic has no caste.}

Performances at Red Fort

Khan had the rare honour 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 26 January 1950. His recital had become a cultural part of India's Independence Day celebrations, telecast on Doordarshan every year on 15 August. After the prime minister's speech from Lal Qila (the Red Fort) in Old Delhi, Doordarshan would broadcast a live performance by the shehnai maestro. This tradition dated from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru.[citation needed]

Popular culture

Khan had a brief association with movies. He played the shehnai for super star Rajkumar's role of Appanna in the Kannada movie Sanaadi Appanna which became a blockbuster. He acted in Jalsaghar, a movie by Satyajit Ray and provided sound of shehnai in Goonj Uthi Shehnai (1959). Noted director Goutam Ghose directed Sange Meel Se Mulaqat, a documentary about the life of Khan.[6] In the 1967 film The Graduate, there is a poster advertising "Bismillah Khan and the seven musicians" on a busy street of Berkeley, California. The most recent use of his shehnai music in a Hindi film was in Rockstar (2011).[10]


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 followers include S. Ballesh,[11] as well as Khan's own sons, Nazim Hussain and Nayyar Hussain.[12]

Personal life

On 17 August 2006, Bismillah Khan's health deteriorated and he was admitted to the Heritage Hospital, Varanasi for treatment. Ustad'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[13] He died after four days on 21 August 2006 because of a cardiac arrest. He is survived by five daughters, three sons and a large number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and his adopted daughter Soma Ghosh (a Hindustani Shastriya Sangeet exponent).[14]

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.[15]


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.[16]

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.[17]

Awards and recognitions



Bismillah Khan had honorary doctorates from

Others include[19]


  • 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)
Contributing artist



  1. ^ a b "Virtuoso musician who introduced the shehnai to a global audience". The Independent. 22 August 2006. Retrieved 8 January 2013. 
  2. ^ a b "Indian music's soulful maestro". BBC News. 21 August 2006. Retrieved 2010-01-01. 
  3. ^ "Google Doodle celebrates renowned shehnai player Ustad Bismillah Khan on his 102th birthday- Entertainment News, Firstpost". Firstpost. Retrieved 2018-04-07. 
  4. ^ a b Massey, Reginald (22 August 2006). "Bismillah Khan". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 May 2016. 
  5. ^ a b "Ustad Bismillah Khan passes away". ITC Sangeet Research Academy. Archived from the original on 7 August 2016. Retrieved 29 May 2016. 
  6. ^ a b Bismillah Khan: The Shehnai Maestro by Neeraja Poddar, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2004.
  7. ^ "Ustad Bismillah Khan's Birthplace in Bihar faces wrath of negligence". IANS. news.biharprabha.com. Retrieved 15 April 2014. 
  8. ^ http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/5270968.stm
  9. ^ Bismillah Khan Performs Music For Guru Maharaji Prem Rawat on YouTube
  10. ^ "A Dying Fall: Is the shehnai on its way out?". The Indian Express. 2017-02-12. Retrieved 2018-03-05. 
  11. ^ Lalithaa Krishnan (20 August 2009). "Clear and sparkling". The Hindu. Retrieved 2014-01-14. 
  12. ^ "Ustad's son chosen to carry on his legacy". The Times of India. 23 August 2006. Retrieved 11 January 2014. 
  13. ^ "Ustad Bismillah Khan hospitalised". Times of India. 17 August 2006. Retrieved 2007-03-13. 
  14. ^ "Bismillah Khan". Personalities. webindia123.com. Retrieved 2007-03-13. 
  15. ^ "India mourns legendary musician". BBC. 21 August 2006. Retrieved 2007-03-13. 
  16. ^ Sangeet Natak Akademi, Youth Awards, Feb 2007[dead link]
  17. ^ "Ustad Bismillah Khan feted in Google Doodle celebrating shehnai maestro's birth anniversary". Indianexpress.com. 2018-03-21. Retrieved 2018-03-21. 
  18. ^ a b c "Padma Awards" (PDF). Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. 2015. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 November 2014. Retrieved July 21, 2015. 
  19. ^ "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 2006-09-27. Retrieved 2006-09-21. 

External links