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Ustad Bismillah Khan & his Shehnai

Nestled along the sacred banks of the River Ganges, Varanasi stands as an ancient city that exudes spirituality and mystique. This mystical city, brimming with history and culture, is not only a spiritual hub but also a resounding haven for music enthusiasts. Varanasi, often referred to as the “City of Light,” has been a cradle for centuries of musical traditions, fostering a harmonious blend of diverse genres, rhythms, and melodies.

At the heart of this resplendent musical legacy is the incomparable maestro, Ustad Bismillah Khan. With his mesmerizing shehnai melodies, Bismillah Khan’s name has become synonymous with the melodic soul of Varanasi. He was an embodiment of its musical heritage and an iconic figure who took the enchanting sounds of the shehnai to the world stage.

Life of Bismillah Khan

Bismillah Khan was one of India’s most celebrated classical musicians and a virtuoso shehnai player. Born in 1916 in the small town of Bhirung Raut Ki Gali in the state of Bihar, he was raised in a family of musicians and was exposed to music from a very young age.

In 1936, Bismillah Khan moved to Varanasi, where he would live for the rest of his life. Bismillah Khan had a passion for music from a young age, despite not having an interest in formal studies. He spent his childhood playing marbles on the streets of Varanasi while listening to his uncles play the shehnai. He often played the game to the rhythm of the shehnai tunes, which left a deep impression on him.

His uncle, Ali Bux ‘Vilayatu’ Khan, used to play the shehnai at the Jadau Sri Balaji (Maha-Vishnu) temple every morning to earn a small income. Bismillah would often accompany him and was captivated by the music, which further fueled his love for the instrument. He gave numerous concerts in Varanasi, showcasing his virtuosity and captivating audiences with his soulful playing.

Khan’s ancestors were musicians who performed in temples for generations, but they were not held in high regard. However, Khan’s dedication and mastery of the shehnai elevated the status of the instrument and earned him the title of “ustad” or maestro, which has become a permanent prefix to his name. Through his hard work and talent, he brought the shehnai to the world’s attention and earned the respect of audiences everywhere.

Bismillah Khan became a sought-after performer, traveling across India and the world to give concerts. He performed at some of the most prestigious venues, including the Red Fort in Delhi, the Royal Albert Hall in London, and Carnegie Hall in New York. He also represented India at several international events, such as the World Exposition in Montreal in 1967 and the Festival of India in the Soviet Union in 1987.

Bismillah Khan was known for his simple and humble lifestyle. He lived in a small house in the ancient city of Varanasi, surrounded by his family and close friends. Despite his fame and success, he never lost touch with his roots and remained grounded and humble. He often quoted in interviews that he never performed for money but for the joy of it.

Inside the house of Ustad Bismillah Khan in Varanasi
Inside the house of Ustad Bismillah Khan in Varanasi

In interviews, he also spoke about his daily routine in Varanasi, which revolved around his devotion to music and his love for the city. He would rise early every morning, perform his daily prayers, and then spend several hours practicing the shehnai. He was a disciplined musician and was known for his rigorous practice regime, which he maintained throughout his life.

Bismillah Khan was also deeply spiritual and considered his music to be a form of devotion to God. He believed that music was a way of communicating with the divine and expressing his love and devotion. This spiritual connection was particularly evident in his performances, which were infused with a deep sense of devotion and reverence.

Banaras & Bismillah Khan

Varanasi, with its rich cultural heritage and spiritual significance, had a profound impact on Bismillah Khan’s art. He was deeply inspired by the city and its rich musical traditions, and he often spoke of the role that it played in shaping his musical style and approach. The city was also a source of inspiration for his compositions, many of which were inspired by the devotional music of the region.

Khan was proud of his roots in the city and its rich musical tradition, and he never considered leaving it, even during the Partition of India. He once famously said, “I can never even think of leaving Benaras. If anyone wants to meet me, they will have to come here. I will not go anywhere, whether it’s a raja, a maharaja, or anyone else.”

Bismillah Khan quickly became an integral part of the cultural fabric of Varanasi, and he was widely revered and respected by its residents. He was a beloved figure in the city and was often referred to as the “King of the Shehnai.” He was a symbol of the city’s rich cultural heritage and a testament to its vibrant and thriving musical tradition.

Bismillah Khan’s music was deeply rooted in the classical tradition of India, but he also infused it with his unique style and personality. He was a master of improvisation and his playing was characterized by its intricate ornamentation and beautiful phrasing. He was known for his ability to convey a range of emotions, from joy and happiness to sorrow and pathos, through his playing.

He was a proud ambassador of the rich cultural heritage of India and was dedicated to preserving and promoting the traditional music of his country. He was awarded numerous accolades for his contributions to music, including the Padma Shri, the Padma Vibhushan, and the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award.

Bismillah Khan passed away in 2006, leaving behind a rich legacy of music that continues to inspire and captivate audiences around the world. He was a true icon of Indian classical music and will always be remembered as one of the greatest musicians of all time.

In conclusion, Bismillah Khan’s life and career were marked by his incredible talent, his dedication to his art, and his unwavering commitment to preserving the musical traditions of India. He remains an inspiration to musicians and music lovers everywhere and his music continues to captivate and enthrall audiences around the world.

Watch the exclusive interview of Ustad Bismillah Khan

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