Ustad Bismillah Khan Sahib (March 21, 1916 – August 21, 2006) was a shehnai maestro.He was the third classical musician to be awarded the Bharat Ratna (in 2001), the highest civilian honour in India.
Bismillah Khan was born on March 21, 1916 at Bhirung Raut Ki Gali, in Dumraon, Bihar as the second son of Paigambar Khan and Mitthan. He was named as Qamaruddin to rhyme with Shamsuddin, their first son. His grandfather, Rasool Baksh Khan uttered "Bismillah" (the basmala) after looking at the newborn, thus he was named Bismillah Khan.His ancestors were court musicians and used to play in Naqqar khana in the princely states of Bhojpur, now in Bihar state. His father was a shehnai player in the court of Maharaja Keshav Prasad Singh of Dumraon Estate, now in Bihar.
Though a pious Shi'ite Muslim, he was also, like many Indian musicians regardless of religion, a devotee of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of wisdom and the arts, and often played at Hindu temples, including the famous Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, on the banks of the river Ganga.He was a student of the spiritual master Prem Rawat.
He received his training under his uncle, the late Ali Baksh 'Vilayatu', a shehnai player attached to Varanasi's Vishwanath Temple.
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 All India Music Conference in 1937. He was credited with having almost monopoly over the instrument as he and the shehnai are almost synomyms.
Khan is one of the finest musicians in post-independent Indian Classical music and one of the best examples of hindu-muslim unity in India.
His concept of music was very beautiful and his vision, superb. He once said, "Even if the world ends, the music will still survive" and he often said, "Music has no caste".
He has played in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Europe, Iran, Iraq, Canada, West Africa, U.S., USSR, Japan, Hong Kong and almost every capital city across the world.
His shehnai was so close to him that after the demise of his wife he began to refer to it as his begum, or wife. After his death, his shehnai was buried with him.
Khan had the rare honor 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 January 26, 1950. His recital had become a cultural part of India's Independence Day Celebrations, telecast on Doordarshan every year on August 15th. 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 Pandit Nehru.