Born as Qamaruddin Khan on 21st March, 1913 in Dumraon, Bihar, he got his name, Bismillah, from his grandfather, who uttered the word after looking at him for the first time.
His ancestors were also musicians. His father used to play the shehnai in the court of Maharaja Keshav Prasad Singh. To carry this legacy forward, he was trained by his uncle to play the instrument from the age of six.
Though he was born in Bihar, he was taken to stay with his maternal family by his mother. It was here that his uncle recognized his talent and predicted that the boy would one day become a great player of the instrument, which was only given importance during traditional weddings until Ustad raised it to an honoured position in the classical pantheon.
At an early age, he started attending musical concerts but his religious faith soon became an obstacle in his path. Being a Shia Muslim by birth, where music is forbidden or considered “haram”, he became a devotee of Goddess Saraswati adapting “the seven swaras as his namaaz”. He considered himself fortunate because:
“Till this day, the doors of the Kashi Vishweshwar temple open every morning to the sound of my shehnai. What else could one want in life? There is no greater peace I get than when I sit on the banks of the Ganga and play. This is my biggest achievement.”
He played at several concerts like Calcutta All India Music Conference (1937) and his voice became popular with radio.
With the rare honour of playing at the Red Fort on India’s First Republic day ceremony, he played at all Republic Days thereafter.
Ustad had a fear of flying and turned down numerous invitations to travel overseas. In 1966, after a lot of insistence and persuasion by the Indian Government, he agreed to perform at the Edinburgh Festival but to avert the offer he demanded an all-expenses paid trip to Mecca and Medina which was accepted.
This led to his various concerts all around the world from US, Europe, Iran, Iraq, Canada, etc.
This jewel of India, however, lived a difficult life to support a family of five daughters and three sons with only little help from the government.
He was much of a private and down-to-earth person who shunned publicity and remained a man of simple tastes who loved his dal-chawaal and preferred cycle rickshaw and traditional house at Varanasi than luxury abroad.
His “begum” as he famously addressed his shehnai was his only constant and most-loved companion. Even his death at the age of 90 due to a cardiac arrest could not keep them apart as he was buried with it. His death was an occasion of national mourning because of the life he led and the glory he brought to his music and the country.