His ancestors were court musicians and used to play in Naqqar khana in the princely states of Bhojpur, now in Bihar state. His father was a shehnai player in the court of Maharaja Keshav Prasad Singh of Dumraon Estate, now in Bihar.
Despite his fame, Khan’s lifestyle retained its old world Benares charm. His chief mode of transport was the cycle rickshaw. A man of tenderness, he believed in remaining private, and that musicians are supposed to be heard and not seen.
He was a pious Shi’a Muslim and also, like many Indian musicians regardless of creed, a devotee of Mother Saraswati. He often played at various temples and on the banks of the river Ganga in Varanasi, besides playing outside the famous Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. He received his training under his uncle, the late Ali Baksh ‘Vilayatu’, a shehnai player attached to Varanasi’s Vishwanath Temple.
Khan was perhaps single handedly responsible for making the shehnai a famous classical instrument. He brought the shehnai to the center stage of Indian music with his concert in the Calcutta All India Music Conference in 1937. He was credited with having almost monopoly over the instrument as he and the shehnai are almost synonyms.
Khan is one of the finest musicians in post-independent Indian Classical music and one of the best examples of hindu-muslim unity in India.
His concept of music was very beautiful and his vision, superb. He once said, “Even if the world ends, the music will still survive” and he often said, “Music has no caste”. He has played in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Europe, Iraq, Iran, Canada, West Africa, USA, USSR, Japan, Hong Kong almost every capital city across the world.
Khan had the rare honor of performing at Delhi’s Red Fort on the eve of India’s Independence in 1947. He also performed Raga Kafi from the Red Fort on the eve of India’s first Republic Day ceremony, on January 26, 1950. His recital had almost become a cultural part of the Independence Day Celebrations telecast on Doordarshan every year on August 15th. After the Prime Minister’s speech from Lal Qila (Red Fort) in Old Delhi, Doordarshan would broadcast live performance by the shehnai maestro. And this tradition had been going on since the days of Pandit Nehru.
- Bharat Ratna (2001)
- Fellow of Sangeet Natak Akademi (1994).
- Talar Mausiquee from Republic of Iran (1992).
- Padma Vibhushan (1980)
- Padma Bhushan (1968)
- Padma Shri (1961)
- Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1956)
- Tansen Award by Govt. of Madhya Pradesh.
- Three medals in All India Music Conference, Calcutta (1937)
- “Best Performer” in All India Music Conference, Allahabad (1930)
Bismillah Khan had honorary doctorates from
- Banaras Hindu University
- Visva Bharati University
- Was invited by the then Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to play Shehnai on the first Independence Day (August 15, 1947) in Delhi’s Red Fort.
- Participated in World Exposition in Montreol
- Participated in Cannes Art Festival
- Participated in Osaka Trade Fair
- His 80th birthday was celebrated by World Music Institute in New York
On August 17, 2006, Khan was taken ill and admitted to the Heritage Hospital, Varanasi for treatment. He died after four days on August 21, 2006 due to a cardiac arrest. He was ninety years old. He is survived by five sons, three daughters and a large number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The Government of India declared one day of national mourning on his death. His body was buried at Fatemain burial ground of old Varanasi under a neem tree with 21-gun salute from Indian Army.