Let’s talk about the shehnai

arunabha deb | Updated on January 24, 2018

Left out: Ustad Ali Ahmed Hussain Khan (left) is the reigning shehnai maestro (who should be accorded far more attention and regard than comes his way). Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar   -  THE HINDU

Ashwani Shankar and Sanjeev Shankar form a robust duo. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar   -  The Hindu

Arunabha Deb   -  BUSINESS LINE

It is unfortunate that after Ustad Bismillah Khan, the shehnai did not grow in popularity, as it should have. But even today there are superb exponents of the instrument

Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s recently released film Asha Jaoar Majhe ( Labour of Love) has inspired a spate of reviews and commentary, not to mention impassioned discussions on social media. I won’t comment on the film because Sengupta and I have been friends since we were seven. It is impossible for me to view the film objectively. However, it would perhaps not be improper to mention a specific aspect of the film: the use of Ustad Bismillah Khan’s shehnai in the opening and closing sequences. Almost every discussion on the film mentions the shehnai piece — a composition in Raga Tilak Kamod set to Jhaptaal. I am heartened by this not because of the praise heaped on Sengupta’s choice of track and its transcendental effect in the film, but because after a long time people are talking about the shehnai.

The instrument has all but disappeared from major Hindustani music festivals; it barely succeeds in getting an annual slot. The Dover Lane Music Conference, after many years, had a shehnai recital this year. The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture in Kolkata, to the best of my knowledge, still has place for a shehnai recital at their annual music festival. The Sawai Gandharva festival (now renamed the Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav) used to reserve one slot for the shehnai, but they dispensed with that in their 2015 itinerary.

Many believe that after Ustad Bismillah Khan’s death in 2006, the instrument has not had an ambassador of great calibre. This is not true. Ustad Ali Ahmed Hussain Khan is the reigning maestro (who should be accorded far more attention and regard than comes his way); Pandit Daya Shankar is a superb exponent and his sons Sanjeev and Ashwani Shankar form a robust duo; Pandit Rajendra Prasanna, though a much superior flautist, is also formidable on the shehnai. The distance between them and Ustad Bismillah Khan is considerable — though I have often felt that Ustad Ali Ahmed Hussain comes rather close — but that should not be a reason for the decline of the instrument.

Ustad Bismillah Khan established the shehnai as a Hindustani instrument. The shehnai was originally a folk instrument — some say that it formed part of military ensembles — but musicians with royal patronage developed it in the context of Hindustani music. There was a tradition of Hindustani classical shehnai-playing before Khan, but he gave it a permanent place among existing Hindustani instruments like the sitar and the sarod. His debut recital in Calcutta in 1937 at the All India Music Conference was a watershed moment: listeners were forced to accept that the shehnai did hold the possibilities of full-fledged exposition of Hindustani music.

It is unfortunate that after Khan, the instrument did not grow in popularity, as it should have. The bansuri shares a similar history, but has found much greater popularity than the shehnai. Pandit Pannalal Ghosh introduced it in the Hindustani foray in the ’30s; by 1967, when Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia recorded Call of the Valley with Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma (santoor) and Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra (slide guitar), the bansuri had already achieved acceptance amongst listeners and connoisseurs of Hindustani music. This was not the case with the shehnai — perhaps because it did not have someone like Chaurasia. He took the baton from Ghosh and through his virtuosity and innovation — to say nothing of his charm — made it more popular than Ghosh could have imagined. Significantly, Chaurasia developed a playing style that was markedly different from that of Ghosh. He ensured that there was a ‘Pannalal style’ and a ‘Chaurasia style’. On the shehnai, there was only the ‘Bismillah style’. Khan’s successors had immense talent, but they did not have Chaurasia’s innovative vision, or the stardom that is necessary to propel a lesser-practised instrument.

The association of the shehnai with weddings has not helped the instrument’s cause. Its overuse at weddings as background music somewhat dilutes its stature as a serious classical instrument. Traditionally, North Indian weddings had a shehnai player performing live to welcome guests. That is different from playing a ‘Shhadi ki Shehnai’ CD while guests eat.

Of late, the shehnai has made an appearance in popular music, most notably in Ye Jo Des Hai Tera ( Swades) and The Dichotomy of Fame (Rockstar). Nothing could be better than if Khan’s Tilak Kamod in Labour of Love helps bring back the shehnai into conversations and ultimately to festivals.

Arunabha Deb is a Kolkata-based lawyer and music writer

Published on July 10, 2015

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