21 March 1913: Bismillah Khan, shehnai maestro, was born

Bismillah Khan, India’s most famous shehnai player who was almost solely responsible for elevating the status of the shehnai from a humble musical instrument to a connoisseur’s delight, was born on 21 March 1913 in Dumraon (Bihar). His parents, Paigambar Khan and Mitthan, had first named him Qamaruddin. The story goes that his grandfather (Paigambar Khan’s father), Rasool Bux Khan, on seeing the infant Qamaruddin exclaimed “Bismillah!” — and the name stuck. 

Bismillah Khan came from a family of court musicians. While Paigambar Khan played the shehnai in the court of Maharaja Keshav Prasad Singh, Rasool Bux Khan was a shehnai player in the Bhojpur court. When he was six years old, Qamaruddin moved to Varanasi, the ancient city which would become his home. He was trained in the shehnai by his uncle, Ali Baksh, who used to perform in Varanasi’s Vishwanath Temple.

 “[Bismillah Khan] had a boyhood encounter with an itinerant, saffron-clad holy man who, after hearing him play, announced that he would produce bliss, a prophecy that came true,” Ken Hunt wrote in The Independent after the maestro’s death. “In 1932, aged 16, he entered into an arranged marriage with his cousin….Two years earlier Bismillah Khan had made his formal public debut as a musician but he felt that his career only really took off in April 1938 when he performed at the inauguration of All India Radio’s Lucknow station.”

Ali Baksh and his prodigiously talented nephew often performed together at temples, Bismillah Khan accompanying his uncle at many music sabhas. The youngster was noticed early on by music-lovers. After Ali Baksh died in 1940, Bismillah Khan’s fame continued to grow.  

He performed at Delhi’s historic Red Fort on the eve of Independence. He would go on to perform from the Red Fort during the first Republic Day celebrations. A favourite of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Bismillah Khan would often play the shehnai after the prime minister’s speech from the Red Fort in subsequent years.  

Bismillah Khan played the shehnai in the Kannada film ‘Sanaadi Appanna’. He also played the small role of a musician in ‘Jalsaghar’, the 1958 film by legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray.  

He remained rooted to Banaras (Varanasi), and rejected an offer to go to the United States, reportedly saying that he would only go if he could take the river Ganga with him!

After his death, The Guardian wrote: “His home in the very centre of Varanasi became a place of pilgrimage for all Indians and foreigners devoted to the classical music of India….He travelled all over India by train, but his dislike of air travel kept him away from the international scene. He was persuaded to appear at the Edinburgh Festival and the Commonwealth Arts Festival in 1965. Two years later he performed at Expo 67 in Montreal.”

Besides being a great musician, Bismillah Khan became a symbol of India’s pluralism. In Banaras he often prayed by the banks of the holy Ganga and dedicated his music to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning.  A few years before his death, he said in an interview: “I spent a major part of my life worshipping in Banaras temples including Balaji, Mangala Devi and others. If you have faith in God you simply touch the stone of the temple. You will feel a great power….There is no religion, or caste. You call it religion, I say it’s music, you call it caste, I say it’s sur. Music is my religion, music is my caste.”

Bismillah Khan — who was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, in 2001 — died on 21 August 2006 following a cardiac arrest.

In a tribute, the renowned writer and historian Ramachandra Guha wrote in The Hindu: “In a delicious paradox that can only be Indian, the man who best embodied the spirit of the holy Hindu city of Banaras was a Muslim….Bismillah came from a family of musicians who had traditionally been employed by the Kashi Viswanath Mandir in Banaras. His own identification with the city went beyond that. He went here and there to perform, but always returned to the soil, the air, and the water that nourished him and his craft.”

Remembering the shehnai maestro, Juhi Sinha, the author of a book on him, wrote in the Hindustan Times in August 2011: “Bismillah Khan was that rare artist who became a legend in his lifetime. His was the raga to riches story that can only be dreamt of. For thousands of his fans, he was the man who could play malkauns and bhopali, kajri and thumri, bhajans and naat with equal melody and emotion. He was the man who greeted India’s first Independence day in 1947. How many years before we see another like him?”

Also on this day:

1934 — Buta Singh, Union Home Minister, was born  

1978 — Rani Mukerji, Hindi film actress, was born

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