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Ustad Bismillah Khan passes away

Varanasi, India
“Ustad Bismillah 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. It was Khan Sahib who poured his heart out into Raga Kafi from the Red Fort on the eve of India’s first Republic Day ceremony.

Ustad Khan was credited with having almost monopoly over the instrument as he and Shehnai are synonomous. His recitals 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 a live performance by the Shehnai maestro. And this tradition had been going on since the days of Pandit Nehru.

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 Shia Muslim and also, like many Indian musicians regardless of creed, a devotee of Mother Saraswati.

Ustad Khan will remain one of the finest musicians in post-independent Indian Classical music and one of the best examples of hindu-muslim unity in India.”
Chances are that those of you who’ve had shehnai music playing in the background during your own wedding, or of weddings you’ve attended, was in fact performed by this great man, which speaks to the ubiquity of his artistry.
Sadly, he was one of the legends I never had an opportunity to hear live. Thankfully though his music will live on.

Recommended listening:

  1. Anything by the Maestro from his HMV/EMI/Odeon days.
  2. Also, his jugalbandis with Ustad Vilayat Khan(sitar) and with Pandit V.G. Jog(violin)

Khuda Hafiz,
Sanjoy (biz)


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