Ustad Bismillah Khan: The shehnai maestro

Ustad Qamruddin “Bismillah” Khan, often referred to by the 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 [schooled] in traditional ceremonies, Khan is credited with elevating its status and bringing it to the concert stage.

Khan was invited by Country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to play shehnai on the first Independence Day (15 August 1947) in Delhi’s Red Fort. Also, on the 50th anniversary of Independence Day in 1997, Ustad Bismillah Khan had played shehnai at Red Fort.

On 26 January 1950, on the occasion of India’s first Republic Day, he also performed Raga Kaifi from the Red Fort. Even today, his music is played during Republic Day celebrations.

He was awarded India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 2001, becoming the third classical musician after M. S. Subbalakshmi and Ravi Shankar to be awarded Bharat Ratna.

Khan was born as Qamaruddin Khan 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 Bux Khan and Mitthan

His father was a court musician employed in the court of Maharaja Keshav Prasad Singh of Dumraon Estate in Bihar.

His grandfather Ustad Salar Hussain Khan and grandfather Rasool Bux Khan were also musicians in the Dumraon palace.

He was named Qamruddin at birth, to rhyme with his elder brother’s name Shamsuddin.

Upon seeing the new born, his grandfather Rasool Baksh Khan, also a shehnai player, is said to have exclaimed “Bismillah”, or “In the name of Allah”, and thereafter he came to be known by this name.

At the age of six, he moved to Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh, to be apprenticed to his maternal uncle, Ali Bux ‘Vilayatu’ Khan, also called Alibaksh Vilayati, a shehnai player attached to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.

At the age of 14 Bismillah accompanied his uncle to the Allahabad music conference.

At the very young age, he had learned various ragas like Thumri, Chaitti, Kajri and Swani. After the death of his uncle, Ustad Bismillah Khan played shehnai several years at Baba Vishwanath temple. Later, he also studied Khayal music and achieved mastery in various ragas.

In 1932, at the age of 16, he entered into an arranged marriage with a cousin.

His first public performance was in the Indian Music Conference in Kolkata in 1937, he was appreciated across the country and he got the recognition from there.

After that, he got the biggest break in 1938 to work in Lucknow, All India Radio.

He received fame all over the world after performing at the Edinburgh Music Festival.

Although a devout Shia Muslim, throughout his long career Khan took issue with rigidly orthodox Islamic elders who felt that playing such music on his shehnai was haram (contrary to the principles of his faith). Instead, Khansaheb, as he was usually respectfully called – came to be seen as an example of the successful, progressive culture that evolved out of the Hindu-Muslim encounter in India.

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.

Khan attributed his skill to the blessings of Lord Vishwanath, and believed that there was little that he could teach his disciples.

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 disciples and followers include S. Ballesh, and Krishna Ballesh as well as Khan’s own sons, Nazim Hussain and Nayyar Hussain.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

In the film, Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars, Clapton cites Bismillah Khan as an influence and how he tried to use his guitar to imitate the music of Khan’s woodwind instrument.


  • Bharat Ratna (2001).
  • Fellow of Sangeet Natak Akademi (1994).
  • Tahar Mausique from Republic of Iran (1992).
  • Padma Vibhushan (1980)
  • Padma Bhushan (1968)
  • Padma Shri (1961)
  • Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1956)
  • Tansen Award by Govt. of Madhya Pradesh.
  • Three medals in All India Music Conference, Calcutta


  • Participated in World Exposition in Montreal
  • Participated in Cannes Art Festival
  • Participated in Osaka Trade Fair
  • India Post issued commemorative postage stamps of ₹5.00 denomination on 21 August 2008.
  • Bismillah Khan had honorary doctorates from – Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi; Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan.
  • A large auditorium was made in Tehran (Iran) in 1992 and named after him,”Talar Mousiqui Ustad Bismillah Khan.”


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