Following the Strains of Shehnai

As city-based Tansen Academy of Music gears up for Ras Barse Utsav, which will mark the 99th birth anniversary of shehnai legend Ustad Bismillah Khan, CE tracks the journey of the instrument
Following the Strains of Shehnai

CHENNAI: Tunes of the shehnai used in the interludes of the song Tum Tak from the film Raanjhnaa still linger in our minds and ears. In fact, the composer A R Rahman had used tunes from the instrument in almost all the songs in the album, as a tribute to Ustad Bismillah Khan, a recipient of  the Bharat Ratna, who popularised it in the classical arena.

“Earlier, before Ustad came to the fore, the shehnai was played in weddings, processions and was being used mostly as a folk instrument. It was through his efforts that the shehnai had made its way into classical music. For decades now, almost all concerts begin with a shehnai rendition, as it has an auspicious feel while being played,” says S Ballesh, shehnai player and one of Bismillah Khan’s students,  who has been playing the instrument for film songs and concerts for 39 years now. He and his students at Tansen Academy of Music, Chennai were gearing up for a tribute Ras Barse Ustav on Saturday to mark the maestro’s 99th birth anniverary.

As this reporter kindles the nostalgia in him, amid the preparations, Ballesh begins tracing the history of the shehnai’s use in film music as far as his memory takes him. According to him, tunes from the shehnai have been ubiquitous. From Hindustani classical concerts to Bollywood and even Kollywood film music starting from the songs composed by veteran composer M S Viswanathan to more recently Raanjhnaa, the instruments have been a music composer’s favourite.

“Perhaps because they can convey all emotions,” says Krishna Ballesh, his son, a shehnai player himself. “The interludes in Humma Humma from the film Bombay that have a very Arabic flavour  and the  pathos-romantic bits from Ilayaraja’s  Sundari Kannal Oru Sethi in Thalapathi are tunes from the shehnai. Look at how different the tunes sound, and yet how effectively the moods are presented to us,” he explains.

With such widespread use of the instrument in film as well as classical music, shehnai players are in demand, say the artistes. However, there are just a handful of accomplished shehnai players.

“In the earlier days, there was Shehnai Sathyam who used to play for MSV sir and Ramlal, his Bollywood counterpart. He was an exponent of the art and now, there is my father and perhaps a few other lesser-known artistes, who can play the instrument. I have tried to learn most of the nuances but there are not many of that calibre,” adds Krishna, saying that this dearth of artistes is mainly because learning to play the instrument is arduous, requires years of practise and significant knowledge of the notes.

Krishna adds that there are youngsters who approach the school to learn the art, but they lack the patience and focus.

“But we still see some hope,” he finishes and the father-son duo breaks into a melodious jugalbandi on the shehnai, leaving everyone around mesmerised at its tonal quality and the serenity it brought to the place.

Ras Barse Utsav will see a congregation of artists’ vocal and instrumental tribute to Ustad Bismillah Khan at Chinmaya Heritage Centre, Chetpet from 5.30 to 9 pm

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The New Indian Express