A Dying Fall: Is the shehnai on its way out?

Once, it had enjoyed the honour of paying homage to a newly-born nation. But now, over a decade after the death of Ustad Bismillah Khan, the man who had established the shehnai as a tour de force in classical music, the instrument might well be on its way out.

Written by Suanshu Khurana | Updated: February 12, 2017 12:00:29 am
The day the music died: Ustad Bismillah Khan breathed magic into the wind instrument. (Source: Express archive) The day the music died: Ustad Bismillah Khan breathed magic into the wind instrument. (Source: Express archive)

On the morning of August 15, 1947, hours after Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his “Tryst with Destiny” speech, there rose, from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, the incredibly delicate notes of a shehnai. The raag was Kafi and the musician, Ustad Bismillah Khan, a devout Shia Muslim, who was then based in Lucknow. Dressed in his trademark achkan and Nehru topi, he blew life into the reed and hope in the hearts of those who had gathered to hear India’s first Prime Minister speak.

The mangalvadya, as the shehnai was called, was an apt choice for the occasion. It was a staple at auspicious events — births, weddings and pooja in temples — and the birth of a nation demanded that it be pressed into service. Turbulent times would follow — Partition would wreak havoc on the new nation — but, on that day, as Pandit Nehru unfurled the tricolour, Khan, who would stay back in India and make it his home, played the shehnai with abandon, distilling in his notes dreams of a glorious new beginning. In the years to follow, the instrument would become a symbol of secularism, upholding the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb of Varanasi, where Bismillah Khan and his family resided and played at the Balaji Temple for years.

Three years later, Bismillah Khan would do a repeat act on January 26, 1950, when India became a republic. For years to come, until he passed away in 2006, Republic Day mornings would be marked by his soulful classical melodies, transmitted into our living rooms by All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan.

This year, sharp at 5.15 am, hours before the 68th Republic Day parade began, a recording of Khan’s shehnai was played on both the public broadcasting platforms. But, to fans of Khan and exponents of the shehnai, the notes sounded almost plaintive. Only days earlier, Khan’s four shehnais were stolen and sold by one of his grandsons for a paltry sum of Rs 17,000. While three shehnais were made of silver, the other was a wooden shehnai with a silver base. The UP Special Task Force officers, who arrested Khan’s grandson Nazre Hasan alias Shadaab and two jewellers from the Chowk area in Varanasi, also recovered 1.66 kg of silver produced by melting the silver shehnais.

Indian musician Ustad Bismillah Khan at his house in Varanasi. Khan, one of India's best-known musicians and a master exponent of the wind instrument 'shehnai', died of heart failure at the age of 90 on August 21, 2006. (Source: Express photo by Vishal Srivastava) Indian musician Ustad Bismillah Khan at his house in Varanasi. Khan, one of India’s best-known musicians and a master exponent of the wind instrument ‘shehnai’, died of heart failure at the age of 90 on August 21, 2006. (Source: Express photo by Vishal Srivastava)

The theft seemed to signal the end of an era and the death of an instrument that had once held India in its thrall. Even though 79-year-old Varanasi-based shehnai player, Pandit Krishna Ram Chaudhary, featured in the Padma Shri list this year, it seems that the odds are stacked against the instrument. January also saw the passing of another heavyweight, Kolkata-based Ustad Ali Ahmad Hussain Khan, 77, who had rendered the signature tune of Doordarshan that had been composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar.

In his tiny temple-cum-music-room at his Vasant Kunj apartment, Delhi-based Pandit Daya Shankar holds out his 40-year-old shehnai. Grandson of the famed shehnai maestro Pandit Anant Lal, his family has played the instrument for almost 450 years. He says that over the years, particularly after Bismillah Khan’s death, concerts have become few and far between. Shankar, who retired from the post of shehnai player at All India Radio in 2012, says that the position, a mandatory category since the formation of AIR in 1936, has been discontinued at radio stations all over the country. “Radio was the one place that still extended patronage to musicians after the kings were stripped of their power after Independence. But now, that is also gone,” says Daya Shankar.

His sons, Sanjeev and Ashwini Shankar, who, like their father, trained under Pandit Ravi Shankar and Lal, say, that even concerts that feature the shehnai don’t put it in a starring role. It usually finds a 10-15 minutes slot at the beginning, when the ceremonial lamp is lit. Afterwards, more prominent instruments take centrestage.

The longevity of an instrument can be measured by the number of exponents it garners. But, in that too, the scope of the shehnai has become severely limited — the instrument does not feature in the music syllabus of any university in the country, including the Banaras Hindu University. “In the past, institutionalisation of classical music may have been looked down upon by some of the leading artistes, who believed that music needed to be learned under a guru. But, for it to be taught at the university level, the government needs to fill up the posts available. That helps keep the conversation going. Shehnai is not a part of the syllabus anywhere, unlike the sitar, sarod and flute. That’s reason enough for it to languish,” says Daya Shankar.

Gone with the wind: Pandit Daya Shankar. Gone with the wind: Pandit Daya Shankar.

For his cousin, Delhi-based Rajendra Prasanna, 60, a rare artiste who can play both the flute and the shehnai, the situation has meant a sharp dip in the number of students who want to train in the shehnai.

Even fewer, he says, are willing to pour themselves into learning this difficult instrument that requires “massive lung power and breath control”. He himself is hardly ever invited to play the shehnai. There are plenty of flute concerts though. “When the artiste gets worried about his next meal, the art tends to die,” he says.

With the dip in demand, the number of kaarigars working on making the instrument has dwindled too. Varanasi, known for expert kaarigars, has suffered in particular. Daya Shankar speaks of Mohammad Safi, the artisan in Varanasi who made shehnais for Bismillah Khan. It was a craft passed down generations, but now Safi, unable to meet ends, has joined the Bharat Band Party with his son. He only works on the shehnai in his spare time. Many other kaarigars have switched to making furniture to survive. Sanjay Sharma, who owns the famous Rikhi Ram and Sons, one of the oldest instrument shops in Delhi, has always relied on Varanasi artisans to make the shehnais he stocks in his Connaught Place shop. Once, his clientele included Pandit Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, among others. Now, despite a growing number of footfalls from foreigners, there are barely any requests for shehnais. “There are very few shehnai makers left. Who is buying them anyway?” asks Sharma.

Tune into the popular soundscape and the shehnai bid farewell long ago. The last time Bollywood used a full-fledged shehnai piece in a film was in Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar (2012). Bismillah Khan’s student, Chennai-based S Ballesh, 58, a fixture in AR Rahman and Ilayaraja’s orchestras, performed the lilting shehnai jugalbandi in raag Sindhu Bhairavi. Director SS Rajamouli used the south Indian version of the shehnai — the naadaswaram — in his 2015 blockbuster, Baahubali. Before that, Rahman had used a shehnai in 2004, for Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Swades. “Rahman asked me to play my heart out and I did. The shehnai is a magical instrument, but, after Khan sahab’s death, it hasn’t gotten its due,” says Mumbai-based artiste Madhukar Dhomal, who played the piece in the Shah Rukh Khan starrer.

Bismillah Khan with music director Vasant Desai and producer-director Vijay Bhatt at a recording session for Goonj Uthi Shehnai. (Source: Express Archive) Bismillah Khan with music director Vasant Desai and producer-director Vijay Bhatt at a recording session for Goonj Uthi Shehnai. (Source: Express Archive)

It’s a far cry from the ’60s and ’70s, when films such as Goonj Uthi Shehnai (1959) lent popularity to the instrument. Now, let alone the shehnai, classical music has been waging a losing battle against music companies. Barring albums of Bismillah Khan that came out during his heydays, there have been no shehnai albums in a long time. Sanjeev and Ashwini, who perform as a team, did record two albums a couple of years ago, but the music companies are still sitting on them. “In the three decades after Independence, the shehnai was an integral part of our daily life. That’s why it also found its way into films. Today, we don’t hear the instrument at all. How do you expect it to be used in films?” says Ballesh.

It was Ustad Bismillah Khan who changed the fortune of the shehnai. A sub-continental equivalent of the oboe, the shehnai was an improvement over the pungi or the been that was used by snake charmers. It is a delicate instrument that needs a pitch-perfect reed — the sound tends to alter even with the slightest variation in temperature and altitude. Khan’s father, Paighambar Bux alias Bachai Miyan, was a court musician in the royal palace of Dumraon in Bihar. He played the shehnai, and young Bismillah, his second son, listened to the music with rapt attention. “There were no microphones in those days, and yet, the sound reached every room in the palace. The instrument’s natural sound doesn’t require an amplifier. Not many instruments can boast of that,” says Prasanna.

In Dumraon, among the many legends that float around about Bismillah Khan, one goes thus: in 1921, when the maestro was five years old, his father took him to the Biharji Temple. The young boy sang, “Ehi matiya me bhulail hamar motiya hai Rama (It’s in this place that I lost my pearl)”, much to the amazement of those present. The boy was rewarded with a motichur laddu and rigorous training in shehnai from his uncle, the late Ali Baksh Vilayatu, a shehnai player attached to Varanasi’s Balaji Temple.

Khan would continue to play the shehnai for hours at the Balaji Temple, until an invitation to play at the Calcutta All India Music Conference would come his way in 1937. That day, the shehnai entered the proscenium stage. “The man was playing classical raags on an instrument that came only with one-and-a-half octave and was utterly folk in its origin. It was marvellous,” says shehnai player Krishna Ballesh, S Ballesh’s son.

S Ballesh and son Krishna. S Ballesh and son Krishna.

But, there are no worthy successors to Khan’s legacy. His dedication is missing in the younger generations. Most students don’t continue for long enough to reach the concert stage. “Some students ask me how long it will take to learn. I don’t have an answer to that,” says Daya Shankar.

According to NCERT musicologist Sharbari Banerjee, musicians such as Khan and Lal created an audience for themselves by virtue of their talent. It transcended the fact that the shehnai is not meant for solo play. “A lead player always has to be accompanied by more shehnai players — to hold on to the notes and rhythmic pattern, while the main player caught his breath. To have a group that can match up to the talent of the lead player is never an easy task. Many musicians could not create a second generation because of two reasons — they were busy trying to find a stage for themselves and the next generation wasn’t keen on the rigour necessary to perfect the saaz,” she says.

Of Khan’s nine children, only two of his sons took up the instrument. One of them, Nayyar Hussain, did well for a while as Khan’s accompanying artiste, but after Khan’s death, his career petered out. A part of the blame for the shehnai falling into disuse rests with Khan too. He attributed his talent to the blessings of Lord Vishwanath and was an erratic teacher. He believed that there was very little that he could teach his disciples and that shehnai needed dedication and divine intervention in equal measure — things that could not be taught.

So, where does the shehnai go from here? “There was a time when it was a must at weddings. But, now, that foothold has gone as well. We live in an age of electronic music. The shehnai will die a natural death,” says Prasanna.

Khan had once said, “Allah agar ilm de, toh muqaddar bhi de (If God provides talent, he should also bless one with good fortune).” His favourite instrument desperately needs both.

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