It is the 102nd birthday of Ustad Bismillah Khan today – the musician responsible for popularising the shehnai across the globe. Ustad was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 2011 – the third classical musician to be awarded the highest civilian honour in India.
There is an interesting story behind Ustad Bismillah Khan’s name. He was named Qamruddin Khan at birth but once when his grandfather exclaimed, ‘Bismillah’, he came to be known thereafter with that name.
Music ran in Ustaad’s blood. His great-grandfather, grandfather and father were musicians at the Dumrao palace. His father was employed by the Raja of Bhojpur (current day Bihar).
His devotion to the shehnai was so much that after his wife’s death, he referred to the musical instrument as his ‘begum’.
Not many know that when India attained independence in 1947 at the Red Fort, Ustad had the honour of performing there. Also, when India celebrated its first Republic Day in 1950, Ustad performed Raag Kafi at the Red Fort.
His live shehnai performance on Doordarshan, right after the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech was the norm. People said that his music touched their soul. It still does.
Another interesting fact about Ustad’s life is that he once acted in a movie. He was seen in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar. He also gave the sound of shenai in the film ‘Goonj Uthi Shenai (1959)’. The last time we heard his music in a film was in Rockstar, in 2011.
Ustad’s last wish – to perform at the India Gate in honour of the martyrs – was unfulfilled. He passed away on August 21, 2006, due to cardiac arrest. On the day he passed away, it was declared to be a National Mourning Day by the Government Of India. He was given a 21-gun salute by the Indian Army.
His body was buried under a neem tree at the Fatemaan burial ground. He was buried with his shehnai.
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