Khan belonged to a family of traditional musicians of Bihar who used to play in the courts of the princely states, which is why playing shehnai came very natural to him. He was brilliant at what he did – the reason why he had always played at the important national events for national audience like the first Indian Independence Day and first Republic Day.
Khan with his simplicity, love for music and straightforwardness did not only become a national favorite but also gained a lot of popularity and love from the west. In 1947, on the occasion of India’s celebration of its first independence day, Khan was invited by the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to come and perform live at the Red Fort in Delhi. This performance became one of his most celebrated ones.
Bismillah Khan was named Qamaruddin to sound like his elder brother’s name Shamsuddin. However, when his grandfather Rasool Baksh Khan saw him as a baby he uttered the word “Bismillah” and hence he came to be known as Bismillah Khan.
His father used to be a shehnai player in the court of Maharaja Keshav Prasad Singh of Dumraon. Despite the fame that he achieved, Bismillah Khan always remained where his roots were. He never accumulated wealth and other materialistic possessions and lived in humble surroundings in the holy city of Benares.
Such was his love for his city that he declined an offer for permanent Visa for settling in US. Bismillah Khan religiously practiced the shehnai and attained perfection in a very short time. He fully takes the credit for making the shehnai one of the most famous classical music instruments.
His concert in All India Music Conference (1937) in Calcutta brought shehnai into limelight and was hugely appreciated by music lovers. He monopolized shehnai recital in the post independence era and kept the legacy of classical music alive with his recitals. He can be truly called a pure artist who always believed that music will survive even if the world perishes. He believed in Hindu-Muslim unity and spread the message of brotherhood through his music.
Bismillah Khan had won the rarest rare honor of performing at the Red Fort in Delhi on the evening of the Independence Day of India in 1947. He also had performed the raga Kafi at the eve of first Republic Day ritual on 26 January in 1950 from the Red Fort.
This performance of him is added as a cultural part of the Independence Day celebrations of India and his show is telecast every year on the 15th August on Doordarshan channel.
Doordarshan channel broadcast the live performance of shehnai maestro just after the prime minister’s speech at Lal Qila in Old Delhi. This custom is followed from the period of Pandit Nehru. He got illness on 17th August of 2006 and admitted to the Heritage Hospital, Lanka Varanasi for his treatment.
He died just after the four days of his admission into the hospital on 21st August of 2006 due to the chronic cardiac arrest. He left behind him a big family of five sons, three daughters and a large number of grandchildren.