If you ask, even a child, anywhere in India, “what is the shehnai?’
He will give a very simple answer instantly, “Ustad Bismillah Khan”.
This is how Bismillah Khan is the king of the wind instrument and has almost become an inseparable phenomenon from his shehnai. He is one of the greatest musicians in India and the best emblem of Hindu-Muslim unity. He is like an angle of peace and love through his shehnai playing, who would produce heavenly music with often a naughty smile of a child on his face.
In the every corner of the world, he had his concerts. He was so attached to his shehnai that it also was buried with him on his death, at Fatemain burial ground in Varanasi under a neem tree with 21-gun salute from Indian Army. He would call his shehnai as his wife, after the death of his real wife.
There isn’t a home in India, where Ustad Bismillah Khan’s shehnai isn’t played on auspicious events. Between the days his birth on 21 March 1913 to his death on 21 August 2006, he carried out had a pivotal role to make this wind instrument very popular. He is the one, who had given such importance to this instrument that despite of its low rank as a folk instrument in the past, it then gathered a huge fame. He is solely accountable for making the shehnai such a popular classical instrument.
He was born in Dumraon, a princely state in Bihar into the family of court musicians of the princely state of Bhojpur (Bihar). His father also was a shehnai player in the court of (Bihar).His birth name was Qamaruddin. But, at his birth his shehnai master grandfather, Rasool Bux Khan, delightfully said “Bismillah!” (i.e. “In the name of Allah!”). This changed his birth name to Bismilla Khan.
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Small Bismilla moved to Varanasi at the age of six, for the initiation of the shehnai training under his uncle, Ali Baksh ‘Vilayatu’, who was the shehnai player at Vishwanath Temple, Varanasi . Small Bismilla would sit in a Balaji temple on the banks of the Ganga for his riyaaz for hours without food and water.
Indian soil has such a unique blend that usually makes many artists, despite of their religions, devotees of Goddess Saraswati. It happened with Bismillah Khan also. Frequently, he played at Hindu temples, like the famous Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi. Thus, he was the true personification of a real Indian secularism. He had undividable dedication with Indian culture and was proud to be an Indian. Though born in Bihar, he settled down in Varanasi and never migrated to any of the sophisticated cities.
Once, a rich businessman offered him to move, with his family, in the US. To this, Khan saab said him: “If, the banks of the Ganga, Kashi Vishweshwar Temple, the city of Benaras, the Indian culture can be taken there, I am happy to relocate anywhere.”On the eve of India’s Independence on the 15th August 1947, he performed at Delhi’s Red Fort. Also on 26 January 1950, he performed there on the eve of India’s first Republic Day ceremony.
He had contributed some musical pieces for movies like Goonj Uthi Shehnai (1959) and acted also in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar.He had a very few disciples like S. Ballesh and his sons Nazim Hussain and Nayyar Hussain, as he thought that he himself had a little knowledge of shehnai.
Ustad Bismillah Khan had honorary doctorates from Banaras Hindu University (Varanasi) and Visva Bharati University (Santiniketan). In 2001, he was awarded India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna. After M. S. Subbulakshmi and Pt. Ravi Shankar, he is the 3rd Indian classical musician to be accorded thus.
He was once asked a question, ‘What’s the greatest achievement of your life?’ On this, with tears in eyes, he had replied, “What else could I wish in life, if the doors of the Kashi Vishweshwar temple open every morning to the sound of my shehnai? I get greater peace on the banks of the Ganga to play my shehnai. This is my chief success in life”.
Though Bismilla Khansaab is no more, yet his music will keep on playing at every Indian ritual, taking us back to the memories this great Shehnai player.
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