Bageshwari Qamar, India’s only woman shehnai player

Malini Nair | Updated on August 23, 2019

Power puff girl: Bageshwari Qamar at her Sadar Bazar residence in Old Delhi   -  KAMAL NARANG

A third-generation artiste, Delhi’s Bageshwari Qamar stormed the male bastion of shehnai playing at a young age

At six, Bageshwari Qamar couldn’t have been much taller than the shehnai she held in her hand when she walked up to her father with a nervous plea. Would he teach her to play the instrument?

Yeh kaam ladkiyon ka nahin hai (this is not for girls),” he said. Jagdish Prasad Qamar was a second-generation shehnai player — his father, Deep Chand, was one of the masters of the instrument in the Delhi of early 20th century. Qamar was also a leading student of the great Ustad Bismillah Khan.

The neighbourhood around Chandra Kutir on Idgah Road in Old Delhi’s crowded Sadar Bazar area has, for about a century now, woken up to the glorious strains of the shehnai, referred to as mangal dhwani. This is the auspicious sound that livens up weddings and all celebratory rituals.

What few knew was the struggle it took young Bageshwari to pick up the baton and keep the sound reverberating in the Qamar residence till date.

“The notes of the shehnai were the first thing I heard in my life and it rang through our lives every minute of the day. What else could I have done but take to it? And when my father said a girl can’t handle it, it intrigued me even more,” she says.

Her father’s refusal didn’t put her off the shehnai but did force her to learn surreptitiously, listening to him teach other students. Her mother was her confidante and mentor in this passive rebellion.

Three years later, when her father chanced on her playing the shehnai, he was stunned. Moved by her dedication, he taught her but also asked his guru to take her under his tutelage. Shaking his head in disbelief at the idea of a woman taking to the shehnai, but also touched by her passion, Bismillah Khan agreed.

The reason the shehnai has only one known woman artiste in all of India, is that its playing requires a huge amount of lung strength, stamina and perseverance.

“When you play the shehnai, you engage every part of the body because it deals with breath control. Other instruments engage the throat or the hand but don’t demand this level of physical engagement. But I pushed ahead with it because I so loved the shehnai, nothing else mattered. It just had to be done,” says Bageshwari, named after the raga her father was playing when she was born.

She became a recognised artiste when she started learning under Bismillah Khan, dividing her time between Delhi and his Varanasi home and, over the years, became a member of the Khan family.

“Once I started, gender became a non-issue. He was fond of me but was very stern in class. If you got a gentle rap on your shoulder you knew you had displeased him, but he wouldn’t say anything,” she recalls. The lessons continued until his death in 2006.

Bageshwari’s debut concert couldn’t have been more appropriately conceptualised. In 1983, pioneering Hindustani vocalist Shanno Khurana had started an all-woman concert series, Bhairav Se Sohini.

At the pathbreaking festival, women artistes played both as soloists and accompanists. There were known and unknown women artistes of the time — vocalist Asghari Begum, flautist N Rajam, ghatam artiste Sukanya Ramgopal, mridangam player S Padma, thavil wizard P Santhakumari and so on.

Bageshwari made waves — with her music as well as the sheer sight of a woman on an instrument that was a male monopoly. “In Punjab, someone actually walked up to me and touched me to see if I was for real,” she remembers. Most male shehnai players back then either ignored her or took her lightly, she recalls.

She was a frail young girl then, not quite the image of a fiery trailblazer. At a Chandigarh concert, she recalls people staring in surprise at her thin fingers and thin arms. “They expected a moti taazi (stocky) Bageshwari on stage,” she jokes in an interview to Doordarshan. “But the strength comes from the lungs, good health.”

In the same interview, she spoke of dealing with unstated resentment from the male students of Bismillah Khan. And the hostility her guru faced when he decided to record a jugalbandi with her. “I heard later that they told him: ‘Pagla gayen hain? Ladki ke saath jugalbandi kar rahein hain (Have you lost it? Playing a duet with a girl). But guruji was unique in that he did what he had to, he simply ignored them all. That experience made me stronger.”

Among the smartest things her father did was to ensure that marriage did not put a break on her musical career. “He persuaded my husband to stay on in our Delhi home, where our musical roots have always been. And my husband has been hugely supportive of my work,” she says.

Even today, Bageshwari is not a star on the music circuit. Shehnai is barely visible in its ritual spot at weddings, leave alone the contemporary concert stage. The few artistes who play on, have dwindling opportunities. “And I am not capable of doing the ho halla (public relations) that gets you instant fame these days, with or without talent. It goes against my taleem (training),” she says.


Malini Nair is a journalist based in Delhi;


Published on August 23, 2019

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