Bismillah's instrument was the shehnai, a North Indian double-reed instrument similar to the oboe. Traditionally the shehnai was associated with religious ceremonies, weddings and processions and was almost always played outdoors; no one thought it appropriate for, if even capable of, the subtlety and nuance necessary to interpret classical ragas. Through skill, creativity and perseverance, Bismillah single-handedly raised the standing of the shehnai, making it (in his hands, at least) the equal of the esteemed sitar and veena.
Bismillah Khan was born on March 21, 1916 into a family of court musicians in the princely state of Dumraon (now in Bihar state). At age six, he moved to Varanasi, also known in English as Benares, where his maternal relations, though Muslims, were engaged as musicians at the temples of the holy city; he studied there with his uncle, Ali Bux "Vilayatu," who was attached to the famous Viswanath temple.
A performance Bismillah gave at the 1937 All India Music Conference in Calcutta brought both him and his instrument serious renown, according to the BBC. Subsequent performances and radio broadcasts spread his fame throughout the Indian subcontinent; recordings earned him a reputation in the West before he ever performed there.
The BBC's obituary recounts an amusing story about Bismillah's first performance abroad. The musician was afraid to travel by air and had refused invitations to perform in Europe. When, in 1966, the Indian government insisted that he perform at the Edinburgh International Festival, he agreed on condition — a condition he thought would never be accepted — that he and his retinue be taken on a trip to Mecca and Medina first, all expenses paid. The government gave him his pilgrimage, and he played in Edinburgh and later went on to perform in cities worldwide.
A devout Muslim all his life, Bismillah nevertheless played at hundreds of Hindu religious ceremonies; ultimately he was seen by many as a living embodiment of the peaceful inter-religious coexistence that the modern Republic of India has held as an ideal. He also became a symbol of Indian nationhood in a more concrete way: he played from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi as India became independent on August 15, 1947 and gave a recital on state television every Independence Day since.
He was awarded the honors Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Bhushan, given to artists of great distinction; in 2001, according to the BBC and Reuters, he was named Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India), the nation's highest honor for civilians.
The Indian national government declared a day of mourning yesterday upon his death, with flags flown at half-staff; the state of Uttar Pradesh (in which Varanasi is located) closed government offices and schools in his honor.
According to reports in the newspapers The Hindu and The Times of India, the Uttar Pradesh state government announced today that it would open a music academy in Bismillah's honor in Lucknow (the state capital) at a cost of 10,000,000 rupees (currently about US$215,000) and institute a Sangeet Ratna (Jewel of Music) award of 500,000 rupees (currently about $10,750) in his memory.
Despite his renown, Bismillah was famous for leading a modest lifestyle; he believed that musicians should be heard and not seen. He never became wealthy, and was often in financial distress in later years, as he was supporting an extended family of nearly 60 children, grandchildren and in-laws.
Bismillah Khan remained a resident of Varanasi all his life and his devotion to the town was legendary. According to the BBC, as his health was failing in recent days, he turned down offers from the government to transport him to Delhi for medical care. When so many people come to die in Varanasi, he asked Indian reporters, why should he leave the city to die somewhere else?