Monday, August 21, 2006

USTAD BISMILLAH KHAN DEAD

Ustad Bismillah Khan, the man who single handedly brought the Shehnai into prominence, passed away today. He was 91. Born in 1914 in a family of musicians in Bihar, he moved to Benaras as a young boy. Starting his career with his older brother, Bismillah Khan often played down his part as he didn't want to overshadow his brother. "Even though I have the ability, I must always remember that he is my elder brother" he always said with humility and modesty. Both brothers played together from the ramparts of the Red Fort on the eve of India's first republic day.

Khan Sahib as he was affectionately called was a great believer of the universality of music. A devout Muslim, he called his Shehnai his Quran- I-le. And every year, on the day of Muharram, when he led a procession through the narrow lanes of Benaras, he would blow his Shehnai and proudly ask "How could my music that gives such peace and happiness be haraam?" In this interview taken in 2005, he talks about the divinity of music and how he could take on and convince a Maulana from Iraq of this, simply by singing Allah's name in Raag Bhairav. He sang and played at all the temples in Benaras and was particularly attached to the Vishwanath temple where he was often seen. Simple, honest and unpretentious he remained in his old home at Benares till the last. His mode of transport was a cycle rickshaw. His fans will remember the child-like two toothed grin of his last years.


Bismillah Khan was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Benares Hindu University and Shantiniketan. Over the years numerous honors were bestowed upon him from the Sangeet Natak Academi, the Madhya Pradesh government (Tansen award) and the Govt of India (Padma Vibhushan). The long due Bharat Ratna,the nation's highest honor, was finally given to him in 2001.

Even Bollywood wasn't left untouched by his Shehnai. So impressed was film director Vijay Bhatt after he heard Bismillah Khan play, that he made a film on the instrument. "Gunj Uthi Shehnai" for which Khan sahib composed some music as well, was a great hit.

Bismillah Khan will be remembered as one of our finest musicians. He is survived by five sons and three daughters.

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