Ustad Bismillah Khan’s Magic On Shehnai Broke Social Prejudices

At a posh Indian wedding, a stage for live music is a must. Sometimes, the music is retro, and sometimes, it is classical. On one vivid occasion, as I was praising the high-pitched music, my father told me, “This is a shehnai (a wind musical instrument).” Then he mentioned how difficult it is to play the instrument. As he was concluding, he mentioned the name of Ustad Bismillah Khan and his exceptional talent in playing that instrument.

Later in life, I realised the sheer brilliance of his art. Decades later, I witnessed him again in Shekhar Gupta’s ‘Walk The Talk’, where the maestro in his first look seemed very fragile and vulnerable. Probably, it was just his old age, but as he spoke, one wouldn’t be able to tell form his voice his physical fragility.

On 15th August 1947, after Nehru’s ‘Tryst With Destiny’ speech, the melody of shehnai rose from the Red Fort. It was Ustad Qamruddin ‘Bismillah” Khan. Born in pre-Partition India in the Buxar district of Bihar, Khan was born to a Shia Muslim family who had a great lineage in music, particularly in shehnai. Khan’s ancestors were musicians in the court of Maharaja Keshav Prasad Singh.

At an early age, he shifted to Kashi, now Varanasi or Benaras. There, he learned shehnai under Ali Bux, his maternal uncle who used to play at Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Khan’s ancestry has also been associated with playing at the temple for ages. Hence, the maestro developed and groomed his pre-existing connection with Benaras.

The city is known to hold significance in Khan’s musical journey through “divine intervention”. as Khan himself puts it. In his end days, he refused to leave Benaras even for his treatment. He said, “People come to Benaras to end their lives, and you want me to go to a different city?”

Bismillah Khan was, as reported by The Guardian, the “greatest exponent of the shehnai.” The word ‘shehnai’ is derived from the Persian word ‘shah’ meaning king, and ‘nai’ meaning flute. It has seven, eight, or nine holes on the staff that are stopped by the fingers. The last two holes are used for tuning, and are either left open or blocked with wax. The shehnai is a difficult instrument to play, as it demands breath regulation and control. For the same reason, instruments such as shehnai aren’t recommended to be played solo.

Playing shehnai was considered a job for people from lower castes. But Khan sahab broke all these taboos. His talent was magical, as considered by many. His breath control and command on small notes was exceptional. His magic broke not only the shackles of prejudices in India, but made shehnai a worldwide sensation when he performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966 and the Commonwealth Arts Festival in 1965.

ustad bismillah khan playing shehnai
Image credit: Getty

With all his talents, he was known to be very moody. People recall when he denied from performing until all his demands were met. He feared travelling on a plane, and hence preferred trains to visit places in India. Due to the same reason, he was apprehensive about performing abroad.

Bismillah Khan, as contemporary historian Ramchandra Guha writes, is a “delicious paradox” that can only happen in India. He represents the India of diversity and pluralism. When people asked him about his association with Benaras and why he never thought of going to Pakistan, he simply declined and moved forward. He believed that his talent and eloquence comes from the Bajajli Temple in Benaras.

If you watch his interviews, he is full of stories about the temple, and will even start singing to explain a point. In this one incident, a Iraqi Malauna asked him why he plays music, as it is considered haram in Islam. He started singing ‘Allah’ and when he finished, he looked at the Maulana and asked whether that was blasphemous. Khan believed music transcends all social barriers. 

Khan wasn’t known to have students. He never thought he could teach what he knows. He said that to play shehnai, one must have to have two things: talent and divine intervention. Probably, this is why the exceptional talent Khan possessed couldn’t be transferred. And yet, one of Khan’s students, S Ballesh, is part of musical composers including AR Rahman’s and Illayaraja’s orchestras. He has also been part of the theme song of Ashutosh Gowariker’s Swades’.

Shehnai is a delicate instrument, which alters its sound with the slightest variation in temperature and altitude. Khan sahab’s magic on the instrument earned him the prestigious Bharat Ratna in 2001. He died of heart failure in 2006. Unfortunately, Khan’s sahab ‘begum’, his shehnai, was stolen by his grandson to be sold in the market for an abysmal amount.

The minimal presence of an instrument like shehnai in present times makes us reflect on the importance of a maestro such as Bismillah Khan. He revived the fortune of the instrument, at least in the subcontinent. And since his death, things have changed.

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