The musical instrument pungi was banned by Aurangazeb in the royal residence because of its high-pitched unpleasant sound. But a barber of a family of professional musicians, who had access to the royal palace, took it upon himself to improve the tonal quality of the pungi. He selected a pipe with a natural hollow stem that was longer and broader than the pungi and made seven holes in it. Upon playing it, melodious and pleasant sounds were produced. Everyone was now impressed by the sound of this instrument and since it was played for the first time in the Shah’s chambers and was played by a nai(barber), this instrument came to be known as the ‘Shehnai’.
The sound of the shehnai eventually began to be considered auspicious because of which it is still played in temples and in North Indian weddings. The instrument that was once part of the traditional nine instruments found at royal courts now began to be used only in weddings and temples. However, the credit for bringing shehnai onto the classical stage goes to Ustad Bismillah Khan.
As a child, Bismillah Khan used to live in the ancient estate of Dumraon in Bihar. He used to go to the Bihariji temple to sing the Bhojpuri ‘Chaita’ every day, at the end of which he was awarded a big laddu by the local Maharaja. Bismillah Khan was born to a family of musicians in Bihar on 21 March 1916. His grandfather, Rasool Bux Khan was the shehnai-Nawaz of the Bhojpur King’s court and his father, Paigambar Bux, including other paternal ancestors, was a shehnai player.
Bismillah had a knack for music since childhood. At the age of three, when his mother took him to his maternal uncle’s house in Benaras, he was captivated after watching his uncles play the shehnai. Bismillah started going to the Vishnu temple with his uncle, Ali Bux, where he used to listen his uncle play the shehnai. He was so mesmerized by it that slowly he started taking lessons from his uncle. He kept on practicing for years in solitude. The flowing Ganga inspired him to invent raagas that were earlier considered to be beyond the range of shehnai.
At the Allahabad Music Conference, Ustad Faiyaz Khan said to Bismillah that if he works hard, he will definitely make it. Bismillah Khan got his first break with the opening of the All India Radio in Lucknow in 1938 and he became the often-heard shehnai player on the radio. When India became independent of 15th August 1947, Bismillah Khan was the first Indian who played Raag Kafi from the Red Fort to an audience which had Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as well.
Bismillah Khan is known to have given a number of memorable performances both in India and abroad. The King of Afghanistan was so impressed by his performance that he gifted Bismillah priceless Persian carpets and other souvenirs. Film director Vijay Bhat was also so fascinated by Bismillah that he named a film after the instrument called “Gunj Uthi Shehnai”. It was a hit and Bismillah composition “Dil ka khilona hain toot Gaya…” became very popular too. However, Bismillah Khan was not at all influenced by the glamour of the film world and decided to stay out of it.
Bismillah Khan became the first Indian to be invited to perform at the reputable Lincoln Centre Hall in the United States of America. He participated in the World Exposition in Montreal, in the Cannes Art Festival, and in the Osaka Trade Fair. He became an international icon and eventually got an auditorium in Teheran named after him- Tahar Mosiquee Ustaad Bismillah Khan.
He was awarded national awards like the Padmashri, the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan. In 2001, he was awarded India’s most prestigious civilian award the Bharat Ratna. Bismillah said that music is Hindustan’s richest tradition and one must teach their children music. Even the Westerners are keen on learning Indian music now.
Even after traveling all over the world, Bismillah Khan’s favorite towns were Benaras and Dumraon. He said that whenever he is in a foreign country, he finds himself yearning to see Hindustan. While he is in Mumbai, he could only think of Benaras and the Ganga and while in Benaras, he missed the mattha of Dumraon. One can proudly say that Ustad Bismillah Khan’s life is an ideal example of the rich cultural and traditional heritage of India.