The Shehnai of Bismillah Khan

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Bismillah Khan and the Shehnai’s Journey

Emperor Aurangzeb banned the musical instrument “pungi” due to its harsh sound. However, a barber, belonging to a family of musicians, transformed the pungi into a melodious instrument by using a broader pipe with seven holes. Played in the Shah’s chambers by a barber (nai), it was named “shehnai”.

The shehnai’s sound became synonymous with auspiciousness and has been traditionally played at North Indian weddings and temples. Originally part of the royal court’s ensemble, Ustad Bismillah Khan was instrumental in bringing the shehnai to the classical stage.

Bismillah Khan’s journey with music started in childhood. He played at the Bihariji temple in Dumraon, Bihar, and was rewarded with a laddu by the Maharaja. Born in 1916, Bismillah hailed from a lineage (ancestry) of shehnai players. As a child, he was intrigued by his uncles practicing the shehnai in Benaras. Under his uncle, Ali Bux’s guidance, Bismillah began learning the shehnai, often practicing by the Ganga, deriving inspiration from its flowing waters.

At 14, he played at the Allahabad Music Conference and was encouraged by Ustad Faiyaz Khan. His significant breakthrough came in 1938 with All India Radio in Lucknow. When India achieved independence in 1947, Bismillah Khan played the shehnai from the Red Fort, preceding Nehru’s iconic speech.

Khan’s talent brought him global recognition. His international debut was in Afghanistan, where he impressed King Zahir Shah. Even in Bollywood, Khan left an imprint. Vijay Bhatt’s film “Gunj Uthi Shehnai” was inspired by Khan’s performance. The film’s song, “Dil ka khilona hai toot gaya”, became extremely popular. Yet, Khan’s involvement in films was limited, as he felt disconnected from its glamour.

Bismillah Khan’s accolades were numerous. He was invited to perform at the Lincoln Centre Hall in the USA and participated in the World Exposition in Montreal, Cannes Art Festival, and Osaka Trade Fair. His fame reached such heights that an auditorium in Teheran was named in his honour.

India honoured Khan with awards like the Padmashri, Padma Bhushan, and Padma Vibhushan. In 2001, he received the Bharat Ratna. Elated, Khan emphasized the importance of teaching music to children, highlighting India’s rich musical heritage.

Despite his global fame, Khan’s heart lay in Benaras and Dumraon. He cherished these towns, and even when a student proposed opening a shehnai school in the USA replicating Benaras, Khan playfully inquired if they could also replicate the River Ganga. He reminisced, “Whenever I am abroad, I yearn for Hindustan. In Mumbai, I yearn for Benaras and Ganga, and in Benaras, I miss Dumraon.”

Bismillah Khan’s life became a perfect example of India’s cultural richness, where a strong believer of Muslim like him seamlessly became a part of Hindu temple rituals, playing the shehnai at the Kashi Vishwanath temple. His story is a testament to India’s syncretic heritage.

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