[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 21 August 2006, 13:13 GMT 14:13 UK
Indian music's soulful maestro
Ustad Bismillah Khan
Khan's first performance abroad was in 1966 in Edinburgh

Ustad Bismillah Khan was one of India's most prolific musicians, gaining worldwide acclaim for playing the shehnai for more than eight decades.

He was credited with helping the shehnai - a type of wind instrument - attain a higher status in Indian classical music and taking it to a world stage. It had earlier considered to be an accompanying instrument.

In 2001, he was awarded India's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna.

The shehnai is traditionally played at Indian weddings and ceremonies and its high-pitched notes and heart-tugging sound are considered auspicious.

A devout Muslim, Khan was a symbol of India's religious pluralism and a symbol of harmony for people of different faiths.

He was often seen playing at various temples and on the banks of the holy river Ganges in the northern Indian city of Varanasi, his home town.

He was particularly proud of playing outside the famous Vishwanath temple in Varanasi.

Cultural icon

Born on 21 March 1916 in a small village in the northern Indian state of Bihar, Khan belonged to a family of court musicians. His ancestors were musicians in the princely state of Dumraon in Bihar.

Ustad Bismillah Khan

Aged six, Khan moved to his maternal house, located close to the Ganges at Varanasi.

He started his formal training under his uncle, Ali Bux 'Vilayatu', who was a shehnai player attached to the Vishwanath temple.

Khan's 1937 performance at the All India Music Conference in the eastern city of Calcutta brought shehnai to the centre stage of Indian classical music.

Among the high points in his career was when he played at Delhi's Red Fort on the eve of India's Independence in 1947.

Since the time of India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Khan performed every Independence Day and state-owned television has shown his live performance immediately after the prime minister's address to the nation.

Fear of flying

By the early 1960s Khan had gained worldwide reckoning through his records even before his first performance abroad.

Ustad Bismillah Khan with the Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam
The musician shunned publicity and Bollywood

He was reportedly afraid of flying and had turned down numerous invitations.

In 1966 after a lot of insistence and persuasion by the Indian government, he agreed to perform at the Edinburgh festival, but he demanded that he and his staff should be taken on an all-expenses-paid trip to Mecca and Medina first.

This was initially a demand to avoid travelling, but when the government agreed to his demand he ultimately performed at Edinburgh.

Soon after he was flooded with invitations and went on to perform in the US, Europe, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Canada, West Africa, Japan, Hong Kong, Russia and in many other cities across the world.


Bismillah Khan was a very private person and shunned publicity. He believed he "should be heard, not seen".

A view of Varanasi ghats
Khan insisted on dying in Varanasi

He was known to be moody during concerts. The BBC's Ram Dutt Tripathi says he saw Khan throwing microphones and refusing to play unless everything was to his liking.

Khan played in just one Hindi film, Goonj Uthi Shehnai (Echoes of the Shehnai), in 1959.

He was reportedly annoyed and stormed off a film set when a music director interrupted his playing and asked him to play a note in a certain way. Since that day he never looked towards Bollywood.

He did, however, play shehnai in the popular Kannada-language film, Sanaadi Appanna, in the 1970s.

Khan was known for living a simple and austere life at his home in a narrow alleyway near the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi.

Despite his fame, he was often seen out and about the city in cycle-rickshaws, his favourite mode of transport.

In his last days he was not very well off as his income supported a joint family of nearly 60, including five sons, three daughters and their children.

In 2003 he even made an appeal to the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee for financial help. After repeated pleas, he was granted 500,000 rupees ($10,760 ) in "delayed aid".

The musician's love for Varanasi was well-known - even when he was on his death-bed he refused to be treated in Delhi despite such offers from the government.

Speaking to the Indian media before his death, Khan asked why, when others came to die in Varanasi, he should leave the city to die somewhere else.

Tight security for India celebration
26 Jan 01 |  South Asia

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific