Ustad Bismillah Khan was a gentle genius

August 21, 2006

Vikram Srinivas, Ustad Bismillah Khan and Dr. Rajkumar during the silver jubilee function of Sanaadi Appanna. Picture courtesy:

The great shehnai maestro USTAD BISMILLAH KHAN IS NO MORE. He breathed his last in the wee hours this morning. The Bharata Ratna awardee, the third classical musician after Smt M S Subbulakshmi and Pt. Ravi Shankar to be awarded the highest civilian honour in India, was 91.

The gentle genius of Bismillah Khan was perhaps single handedly responsible for making Shehnai a famous classical instrument. Traditionally used to play music during marriages, Shehnai is the counterpart of South Indian Nadaswaram. It is also used to play music in temples. And I have read that he used to play at the Kashi Vishwanatha temple in Benares every morning since ages.

I remember Bismillah Khan’s soulful music in Dr. Rajkumar’s film Sanaadi Appanna. It is sheer joy to listen to him. I remember reading in an old Rajkumar interview how difficult it was to bring him from Kashi to Bangalore to play for the movie. When the plan to make the film Sanaadi Appanna was going on, close friends told Rajkumar it would be good to do the film after he ages a little more. Raj told them, “I have already aged, please let us do this film now. it is a good story”. Remember, the film was made in 1977. And Rajkumar was already 48 by then. Rather, he was just 48!

Rajkumar asked the director that if they roped Ustad Bismillah Khan to play the Shehnai for the movie, it would be great. Film Producer Vikram Srinivas told that Bismillahji had had a bad experience working for a movie (Goonj Uthi Shehnai?). So he may not agree. But Raj insisted and told why not give it a try. Vikram Srinivas went to Kashi and stayed for 8 days. He visited Ustad Bismillah Khan everyday at the temple and requested him to come and play for the movie. Everyday the Ustad refused saying his health did not permit him. Finally, Vikram Srinivas told he was a very religious man and that he would fast unto death in front of Ustad’s house if he did not come as he could not go back without the Ustad. He also told it was none other than Rajkumar who would be acting in the movie. Only then did the Ustad agree. Vikram told the Ustad to get his full troupe and offered him air tickets. The Ustad told he was comfortable travelling by rail. They all came by rail and Rajkumar spent a week with the Ustad learning the nuances of playing Shehnai.

Rajkumar says in the interview that the Ustad used to simply close his eyes and play mesmerising music from morning 7 till late night. And not once did he show any hint of tiredness. It seems he used to become one with the Shehnai and the music he played. And Raj says,”I cried at the end of my training as I had become so close with him and his troupe. The thought that I would miss this lovely music and this lovely human being brought tears in my eyes.”

Later, when the shooting was in progress, the Ustad was in Bangalore for a show. It seems he wanted to meet the film crew and phoned the film producer. Vikram Srinivas told this to Rajkumar, who too was wanting to see the Ustad. The scene being shot was where Appanna’s grandson asks his thatha to play the Shehnai. Appanna refuses initially, but gives in and plays lilting music. Later Appanna’s son comes and throws the shehnai, as he is against music. The music is really good in this particular scene.

Ustadji was sent a car and Vikram himself went to bring him to the Studio. When he came, he spoke to all the members there and had a chat with Rajkumar. Ustadji was shown whatever was shot till then. He was amazed how Rajkumar learnt the Shehnai in such a short span and played so beautifully the Raga Behag in which the song KAREDARU KELADE was set to tune. There are a couple of other pieces in Raga Marwa and Sindhu Bhairavi which are excellently played by the Ustad. Notable point is that Rajkumar was not only a singer, but also took keen interest in the composition of music in his films. The Ustad greatly appreciated the music talent of Rajkumar. He was also greatly impressed by Rajkumar’s acting in Sanaadi Appanna. The film ran to packed houses and broke box office records. The Ustad was invited for the silver jubilee function and was felicitated by Rajkumar himself.

A Rediff tribute says swimming in the Ganga was the Ustad’s pastime in his younger days. And despite his fame, Bismillah Khan’s lifestyle retained its old world charm and he continued to use the cycle rickshaw as his chief mode of transport till his death.

Music world has indeed lost a noble soul and a musical genius. RIP, Bismillahji.

Also read:
Sadaa nanna kanna thumba, ee ninna bimba…
When his divine sanadi came our way
Tansen of our time

26 Responses to “Ustad Bismillah Khan was a gentle genius”

  1. Vani Says:


    My mom was watching NDTV this morning and this was the first bit of news I saw moments after I woke. I am depressed since this morning. The country has lost one of it’s musical gems. I remember seeing one picture recently of him bedridden with his shehnais next to his pillows…and such simplicity! May his soul rest in peace.

  2. Vijay Says:


    With all this, I understand his last years were not all that great (financial troubles etc). Politicians not keeping their promises etc etc (so whats new).

    Its a pity that sometimes politics gets in the way of us really treasuring these gems. Now that he is gone, they’ll be falling over each other to “honor” his memory.

  3. rk Says:

    Yes, it is really depressing to wake up to heart-breaking news.

    We have lost a great soul and a musician par excellence. He was a musician who represented the unity in diversity of India. Being a Muslim did not deter him from playing the Shehnai in temples and this should be a lesson to all future generations that all this talk of religious divide is completely politically motivated.

    Yes, he was really in need of good medical care, which he could not afford.

    My friend’s father had the honour of meeting the Ustad. He shares his experience thus:

    One morning in the late 1980s, I had the rare honour to meet the maestro in Mumbai. He shared his approach to music thus. “I do not know where the concert is, because, for me every dais in the world is the same, because my job is only to play the Shehnai.”

    “Don’t think that the Surs (notes) are mere keys or points on instruments. Each Sur is a living entity. So, the first musical note Sa has its own home. Enter that home, stay there for a few years, understand it and then open a window of the house and look out. You will notice that the second note Re has its house just next door. Observe Re while still living inside Sa for a few years and then move out to stay in Re for a few years, closed doors. After you have assimilated Re’s essence, open windows on both sides of Re’s house. You will see that the third note Ga has built a house for itself just next to the house of the note Re. From Re’s home, relate to Sa on one side and Ga on the other side and so on.. Get into this dialogue, and drink in the elixir. My dear son, that’s music and it is surely not a mission to be completed in one birth.”

    Bismillah’s Shehnai made us realise the divinity in music.A man of all religions, he was indeed a divine soul ,yet again incarnated in India to show us that beyond all religions there are subtle and sublime things in life which can bind us together.Though he was born as a muslim, his music was apt for all religous functions of all religions.He was the Kohinoor amongst musicians and his loss is beyond descriptions by words.He has returned back to his celestial world but his music will linger for ever in our hearts.

  4. Shruthi Says:

    Very interesting story, Bellur.
    I heard the news of his death only in the evening ( I was out the entire day)… and I was deeply saddened. One of my favourite musicians – his music was wonderful.

  5. travel plaza Says:

    That is very sad news. The world has lost one of the greatest musicians ever.

  6. subbaramu Says:


    I was born on the day when Sanadi Appanna was released. I can take pride about myself being bord on a day, when a masterpiece of two masters (one and only Dr. Raj and Ustad) was released.

  7. rk Says:

    Shruthi and TP,
    Sad indeed. What a coincidence that he was born on a 21st and died on a 21st.

    A ‘masterpiece’ was also released on the day the ‘masterpiece’ of two masters was released!! 🙂

  8. Gangadhar Says:

    It’s a nice story,RK..
    great tribute to Bismilla khan!!

  9. usha Says:

    Bharatha mathe ondu anarghya puthranannu kaledhukondiddale.

    Very sad that all these gems are not looked after well by the government when they need medical facilities etc, instead government can create seperate medical/insurance and livelihood coverage for senior artists (Probably fix a slab of padmasri or few national award category,bharath ratna etc) and charge cess on tax payers, we would willingly contribute the cess on these gems than paying heavy corruption to bureaucrats

  10. rk Says:

    Gangadhar: Thanks.

    Usha: Certainly “we would willingly contribute the cess on these gems than paying heavy corruption to bureaucrats”. Thanks for the thought provoking comment.

  11. Gunashekar D Says:

    It’s indeed very sad news.

    Sanget saamraajyadalli matthondu taare asthagantavagiddakke bahala besaravagide.

    But after knowing that the last days of his life was very miserable, I felt very sad.

    When will WE learn to know & respect the value of these people and there achievements.

  12. Veena Shivanna Says:

    My Tribute to Ustad. I read couple of things on VT yesterday. Gangubahi hanagal’s comments were worth a read where she says about their first meet & how Ustad talked about GH.
    She shares that Ala rakha, Ravi shankar, Bismillah khan are the contemporaries.(Bhimsen joshi??) Kadri Gopalnath said that his dream of performing a jugal bandi with Ustad has remained unfulfilled.

    Also APJ , Manmohan singh and comments from such people were quite respectful & apt.

    Songs from sanaadi are very good. Specially KAREDARU is something which is like “Kiviyalli gunuguttade”…. That movie is good, I recently watched it. Rajkumar has done a very good learning & no-where it sounds/displays he is just moving his fingers across the instrument. I atleast have noticed that most of the artists(heros) generally doesn’t match the swaras with their finger movements on the instrument ( it looks so awkward to atleast ppl who know something about the instrument). This specially I notice in flute ….

  13. Vijay Sai Says:

    did u read my tribute to the ustad in The Hindu 2 weeks back on the sunday magazine ?

    i really liked your write up. esp his link with the kannada industry.
    pls do get in touch with me.

  14. rk Says:

    certainly, our artistes deserve better treatment.
    thaks for commeting. do visit again.


    I atleast have noticed that most of the artists(heros) generally doesn’t match the swaras with their finger movements on the instrument ( it looks so awkward to atleast ppl who know something about the instrument). This specially I notice in flute ….

    how true.i too have observed this. and “sanaadi appanna” is really a well made movie, to say the least.

    vijay sai,
    firstly, welcome to my blog.
    thank you for liking my tribute. i very much read your article in THE HINDU, of which Iam a regular reader. will mail you soon.
    do visit this blog again.
    cheers 🙂

  15. Music Master Says:

    Personally, I thought this music was the best. My forum has been packed with new age comments. Sort of cool!!

  16. Dear RK,
    There is an excellent piece on Bismillah Khan by Mr.G.N.Joshi . He has written it in his book “Down the melody lane” , which I have not read, but I got to read the individual articles on the net.
    I am reproducing the article on Bismillah Khan for the benefit of our friends thru’ your column. The article, though lengthy is worth every bit of it.

    Ustad Bismillah Khan
    The shehnai is perhaps the most popular of all the instruments in Indian music, because it sounds extremely sweet. It is an ancient wind instrument played all over India. It is played morning and evening at the time of prayer in most big temples, during holy festivals, and on all auspicious occasions. The sound of a shehnai at once fills the atmosphere with a soothing sweetness and sublime peace. This small instrument, hardly two feet long, produces magic notes that hypnotize listeners.
    Bismillah Khan, the most outstanding and world-famous shehnai player, has attained astonishing mastery over the instrument. He was born in a small village in Bihar about 60 years ago. He spent his childhood in the holy city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganga, where his uncle was the official shehnai player in the famous Visvanath temple. It was due to this that Bismillah became interested in playing the Shehnai. At an early age, he familiarized himself with various forms of the music of UP, such as Thumri, Chaiti, Kajri, Sawani etc. Later he studied Khayal music and mastered a large number of ragas.
    I met and heard Bismillah for the first time in 1941, when he came to our studio for a recording. At that time his elder brother also played with him. Both the brothers were expert players, but the famous Urdu saying “Bade bhai so bade bhai, lekin chhote bhai – Subhanallah!” perfectly described the brothers. When they played together Bismillah Khan always played down his own part as he did not wish to overshadow his brother. ‘Even though I have the ability, I must always remember that he is my elder brother’ he always said with humility and modesty. I ventured to question him about this after the death of his elder brother. He said again, ‘He was my elder brother, hence it was not proper for me to play better than him’.
    Bismillah Khan’s party included three or four accompanists, one of whom gave him the main complementary support. Instead of a tabla, a duggi player provided rhythm accompaniment. Nowadays, Bismillah Khan has a tabla also. The duggi consists of two drums, like a tabla and dugga, but smaller in size. The duggi has neither the resounding quality of the tabla nor the peculiarity that the tabla has of sustaining the frequencies of a note (aas) but since it is the traditional instrument in UP, Bismillah Khan prefers to have it.
    Ever since Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar introduced Indian music to the West, a number of Indian musicians have been invited to perform abroad. It was therefore hardly surprising that a musician of Bismillah Khan’s calibre should be one of them. In 1964, when I visited London and Europe, I found that many music lovers in UK, France, Germany and other countries had already come under the spell of Bismillah’s LP records.
    On my return I repeatedly urged Bismillah Khan to accept invitations from those countries. But he was mortally afraid of air travel and hence avoided going abroad. When in 1965, he received an invitation to play in Europe, he made impossible demands just to get out of it. The LP records which we used to release every three or four months further increased the interest of western listeners. In 1966 he again received through the Indian goverment a flattering invitation from the UK to participate in the famous Edinburgh festival. He resorted to his old tactic of making impossible demands such as, ‘I won’t go by plane, I want 10 people to accompany me and I want so much remuneration besides…’,etc etc. This was done in the hope that the invitation would be withdrawn. But he was pressurized into accepting the invitation by a very senior official in the Indian government who offered him fresh inducements. Bismillah Khan agreed to go to Edinburgh, but on one condition. He demanded that he and his staff should be first taken, at state expense, on a pilgrim- age to Mecca and Medina. This wish was granted and, at last, Bismillah Khan boarded a plane. He completed the Haj pilgrimage at state expense and, fortified by prayers and blessings received from Allah, reached England safely. Bismillah Khan was the star attraction at the Edinburgh festival that year. His shehnai, sometimes soft and sweet, sometimes vibrantly alive with sonorously rich alapi, filled the air and brought the vast audience under its magic spell. The next day the papers were full of lavish praise for his divine performance. The following year, he received an invitation from the USA. Having realised how comfortable it is to travel by air, he did not raise any objections. He toured all over America regaling millions of people. He has since become a veteran air traveller and is always willing to visit any country of the world.
    The Government of India bestowed on him the title “Padmashri”; later he was further honoured by the title “Padmabhusan”, and now the “Padmavibhusan” has been conferred on him. Inspite of being glorified in this manner he remained as modest as ever. When invited for a recording he always came withour demur. He once had a program at seven in the evening, and had a reservation on a early morning train the next day. At my request he came to our studio at about midnight, after the concert. By early dawn had recorded material sufficient for two records. After having breakfast in our studio he went straight to the station to catch the train.
    I was always trying to find new ways to increase the sales of our records. When the jugalbandi record of Ravi Shankar’s sitar and Ali Akbar’s sarod proved to be a hit, I decided to record a jugalbandi of the shehnai with some other instrument. A jugalbandi of the shehnai and the sitar was used in the film ‘Gunj Uthi Shehnai’ and it was a great success. It had been played by Bismillah Khan and Sitar Nawaz Abdul Halim Jaffar Khan. When I put my idea to Halim Jaffar he said to me candidly, ‘It won’t work. The jugalbandi in the film fit in the situation in the picture’. Also the jugalbandi in the film lasted for only three minutes. An LP record, 20 minutes long, would not according to him, be able to hold the interest of the listeners. The sitar sounds very soft and gentle compared to the vibrant and powerful notes of the shehnai. The volume of a sitar can be electrically magnified only upto a certain limit. Any further increase will result in distortion (This is true of all musical instruments). I therefore gave up the idea for the time being. But when Bismillah Khan went abroad to perform in the Edinburgh festival where Ustad Vilayat Khan also was giving a sitar recital, I grabbed the opportunity. Through our London office we were successful in bringing an LP with these two star artists on the shehnai and the sitar.
    After this successful experiment, the idea of making another of the shehnai and some other instrument gripped me. The famous violinist Pandit V.G. Jog was at that time a producer at AIR Bombay. I made this proposal to him. Jog immediately favoured the idea and in a few days a joint programme of shehnai and the violin sponsored by All India Radio was held before a select audience. The programme, in my opinion, was not a success and was not at all what I had expected it to be. However, I still felt that it could be done well and came up with an idea which I discussed with my friend Pandit Jog. I suggested that the two instruments having similar tonal qualities would sound well together if they were played in different octaves. When, for instance, Bismillah Khan played in the Taar Saptak, Pandit Jog could play in the Mandra and Madhya saptak, and when Khansaheb was in the lower saptak, Pandit Jog could play in the Taar saptak. There would thus be a striking contrast in tone, pitch and timbre. The artistry of both the veteran players would be emphasized and there would be a perfect blending of the two instruments. When we did this and issued the record, true to my expectation, it was a thundering success.
    During my 7-month trip around the world, no fresh record of Bismillah Khan was made. As soon as I resumed duty after my return in March 1971, I decided to record two fast selling artists who had not been available during my absence. They were Bismillah Khan and Bhimsen Joshi. The annual music festival of Sur Singar Samshad usually takes place in Bombay in April every year and it is usually inaugurated by Bismillah Khan. I therefore sent him a telegram and a letter asking him to spare time for a recording during his visit to the city.
    As a member of the governing body of the Sur Singar Samshad I attended a meeting at the residence of its director Mr. Brijnarayan. Bismillah Khan also dropped in at the time of the meeting which was held on a Thursday. The sammelan was to open on Saturday and we therefore agreed to have a recording session the previous morning, that is, Friday.
    Friday is the Muslim day of prayer, and devout Muslims take particular care not to miss their noon prayer. Khan Saheb therefore agreed to do the recording from 8.30 in the morning so that he would be able to attend the Jumma after the recording. Accordingly I came to the studio at 8.30 on the dot. I was followed almost immediately by Bismillah Khan’s accompanists. Soon afterwards Khan Saheb came up in the lift. I went to greet him and was surprised to see him in dark glasses and all the more perplexed to see him wearing them so early in the morning. Bismillah gave an explanation. Bombay at that time was in the grip of a particularly infectious eye epidemic-conjuntivitis-and Khan Saheb had fallen victim to it. He said to me, ‘I couldn’t sleep at all last night and I’m feeling very miserable’.
    I said, ‘You shouldn’t have bothered to come then’. ‘Oh no! I couldn’t do that,’ he said, smiling. ‘I gave you my word that I would come at 8.30. I didn’t want you to say that I don’t keep my promises’.
    I was touched to the core. A true artist is always careful to preserve good relations with his friends. Khan Saheb really looked as if he was in great pain. Seeing him thus I said, ‘We will cancel the recording’. ‘No no’, he said. ‘Since I am here now we shall see what we can do’. He took his seat on the platform and in two hours he recorded two ragas and a thumri for an LP. I was standing right in front of him. He was holding the shehnai to his lips and was completely engrossed in the haunting music that poured out from the tiny instrument. He played on, completely oblivious of his discomfort and his streaming eyes. He finished the magnificent recording and asked me if I wanted more! What I miss most after my retirement from HMV is the pleasure I used to get from Bismillah Khan’s shehnai. I am sure that by God’s grace, he will continue to delight millions in our country and abroad for many years to come.

  17. rk Says:

    dear TSSM,
    what can i say. this is such a wonderful piece on the maestro. thank you very very much for sharing this article here.
    this story by Mr.G.N.Joshi was so touching. thanks once again.

  18. I invite your ‘sahrudayada rasikaru’ to the beautiful website , it has got excellent articles in the music section by Mr.Rajan Parrikar who introduces us to the world of hindustani music. It has got delectable clippings of the maestros.

    It is a glorious repast (rasagavala).

    Hope you’ll all enjoy it.


  19. rk Says:

    we are all waiting. please give the link to the ‘beautiful’ site.

  20. Dear RK,

    I am sorry , I left out the website
    it is it is a site of south asian women federation. In it please go the music section and open music articles archive, where in most of the articles are by Mr.Rajan P.Parrikar.

    The rest is for you to feast on.!!!

    Have a nice time.

  21. I have written the website, but it is not registered.

    let me try again.

  22. rk Says:

    thanks you very much. remember visiting this site long back. will visit again to the page you have suggested.
    take care and regards
    happy deepavali

  23. […] spent time listening to old gramophone plates. Heard Begum Akhtar, MS, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Aaradhana (Film) among […]

  24. […] read: Dr.Rajkumar: My hero Ustad Bismillah Khan was a gentle genius Sadaa nanna kanna thumba, ee […]

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