Bismillah’s Fading Legacy In Banaras


Temple town Varanasi casts its ballot in the last phase of UP polls. While the city will be voting for change and has a myriad things which it wants addressed, the family of Bismillah Khan has seen little change in their lives. After the demise of Ustad Bismillah Khan the successors are yet to see better times.

Bismillah Khan who revered the Ganga and the Kashi Vishwanath temple has left behind a legacy which is gradually fading away, the Khans have lost hope from the parties. Last general election in 2014 when reporters reached their door they had said they will not cast their franchise as they had lost hope.

For a city that runs on the Ganga and considering that Bismillah sweared by the holy river, the Kannaujiyas who wash clothes for a living are forced to add to the pollution of the Ganga as they have little option.

There are 500 washer men and women who wash tons of dirty linen in the river. They want separate dhobi ghats. Industrial effluents continue to add to the hazardous chemicals that flow into the Ganges.

There are 742 lanes and 41 ghats in the Varanasi South constituency, which houses the famous Kashi Vishwanath and Kaal Bhairav temples.

Locals in Varanasi, reports spell out, want freedom from traffic jams and want toilets made.  Many want cleaner ghats and better living standards and basic needs.

Khan’s four shehnais were recently stolen and sold by one of his grandsons for a paltry sum of Rs 17,000. Khan’s grandson Nazre Hasan alias Shadaab and two jewellers from the Chowk area in Varanasi were arrested. Cops also recovered 1.66 kg of silver produced by melting the silver shehnais.

Life for family of Shehnai Maestro Bismillah Khan has not been the same after the death of the stalwart due to heart failure at the age of 90 on August 21, 2006.

With the dip in demand, the number of kaarigars working on making the instrument has dwindled too.

The last time Bollywood used a shehnai piece in a film was in Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar (2012).

In Dumraon, among the many legends that float around Bismillah Khan, one goes: in 1921, when the maestro was five years old, his father took him to the Biharji Temple. Young Bismillah sang, Ehi matiya me bhulail hamar motiya hai Rama. The boy was rewarded with motichur laddu and rigorous training in shehnai from uncle, late Ali Baksh Vilayatu attached to Varanasi’s Balaji Temple.

Its been 11 years since Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan passed away. Notably while the family wants a tomb made in the name of the Master to pay homage to the beloved son of Banaras, since 2006 no government has acted.



Bismillah Khan was born on 21st March 1913 in Dumraon, Bihar in north India. The second son of Paigambar Khan and Mitthan. Initially named Qamruddin, he became Bismillah when his grandfather saw him and exclaimed Bismillah! at his sight. A man whose ancestors were court musicians, he had music running in his blood. Having come to Banaras at the age of six he trained under his uncle.

Referred to by the title Ustad, he was an Indian musician credited with popularising the shehnai. He is credited with bringing it to the concert stage. Awarded India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 2001, he became the third classical musician after M. S. Subbulakshmi and Pandit Ravi Shankar to be given this distinction. He is considered one of the finest musicians in post independent Indian classical music and the best examples of Hindu Muslim unity.

He referred to the shehnai as his begum and won several hearts through his music. A man who lived simple all through his life, Bismillah was a pious Shi’ite Muslim but like many Indian musicians, regardless of religion, he was a devotee of Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of wisdom and arts, and often played at Hindu temples, including the famous Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, on the banks of the river Ganga.

Of Khan’s nine children, only two of his sons took up the instrument.

For decades, Bismillah’s large family lived off his genius.

There are growing demands for the Varanasi MP, Narendra Damodardas Modi, to preserve, protect and promote legacy of  the jewel of Banaras Bismillah.

If you want a lesson or two on humility then in Banaras, house of Bismillah Khan – C.K. 46/62, Sarai Haraha is a must visit.

Ustad Bismillah Khan perfec­ted his music in the cacophony that prevails in these lanes.

Coincidentally, the greatest shehnai player, Bismillah Khan, was born in Dumraon, 3km from Old Bhojpur. The house of his birth, down a tiny street renamed Bismillah Gali.

While he rests in peace at Banaras even his shehnai is buried at the same place. Not surprisingly this son till date has followers. If people love him then even those from the music world see him with great respect.

Interestingly the day Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, filed his nomination papers from Varanasi on April 24 he reached out to the voters of Kashi through a blog post. In the blog he termed  Bismillah Khan as legendary.

Last general election, Bismillah Khan’s son Haji Mehtaab Hussain said “There is no change in the political culture of Banaras.”

While Baranas votes, Bismillah Khan’s family will be keenly watched. Even as Bismillah’s Shehnai remains a magical instrument, UP could still do its bit to ensure that it saves Bismillah’s legacy.



Varanasi is known as Banaras in Hindi. A city on the banks of the Ganges, Varanasi is considered to be the holiest of the seven cities in Hinduism and Jainism. It is also considered an important place from the Buddhist point.

Considered the city of salvation where one dip in the Ganges can rid you of all your sins, it is mentioned in the Rig Veda as Kashi. It’s history is older than any world religion.

The city gets a mention in Ramcharitmanas. It is also referred to as “the city of temples”, “the holy city of India”, “the religious capital of India”, “the city of shiva”, and “the city of learning”. The name of the city originates from the names of the two rivers Varuna and Assi.

The city is referred to as Kashi in the Rigveda and the Skandpurana. Legend has it that the city was founded by Lord Shiva.

The Pandavas, the heroes of the Hindu epic Mahabharata are also stated to have visited the city. It is also regarded as one of seven holy cities which can provide Moksha. The others being Ayodhyā, Mathurā, Gayā, , Kanchi, Avantika, Dwaravati.



Varanasi had succumbed to Turkish Muslim rule under Qutb-ud-din Aibak, who ordered the destruction of some one thousand temples in the city. The city saw steady decline under Muslim rulers.

Even Afghan rulers indulged in suppression of Hinduism. Varanasi however has remained the centre of activity for intellectuals during the Middle Ages. This led to it becoming a major cultural centre.

Akbar  was one  such Muslim ruler who added to the cultural richness of the city in the 16th century.

After this came the Raja of Poona who who established the Annapurnamandir and the 200 metres (660 ft) Akbari Bridge. The earliest tourists started coming to the city in the 16th century. After Aurungzeb, India steadily saw Hindu kings who added to Varanasi and its grandeur.

In 1897, Mark Twain, the renowned Indophile, said of Varanasi, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Varanasi now is led by the Kashi Naresh.

Varanasi was ceded to the Union of India on 15 October 1948. After the death of Dr. Vibhuti Narayan Singh in 2000, his son Anant Narayan Singh became the figurehead king, responsible for upholding the traditional duties of a Kashi Naresh.


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