Under the sombre lights of the vast hall we sat, our eyes and ears swaying to the melodious tunes of the Shehnai; Raag Bhairav, it was, to be precise. Accompanied by the mellow whump of the tabla, the musical rendezvous, which lasted a little over two hours, kept the audience glued to their seats till the very end, leaving them wanting for more.
It was the Ras Barse Utsav at the Music Academy in Chennai in the mid of November. The concert was held on the birth centenary of Shehnai Shahensha Ustad Bismillah Khan, and was presided over by his disciples—Pandit S Ballesh and his son Krishna Ballesh on shehnai, and Ustad Bismillah Khan’s youngest son Nazim Hussain on the tabla.
A Day after the Utsav, we met the shehnai maestros to learn more about their artistic journey and the evolution of their brainchild, the Tansen Academy of Music. “We come from a family of musicians. My father Pt Sanna Bharamanna and his brother Pt Dhodda Bharamanna were renowned shehnai players, with origins in the Belgaum district of Karnataka,” says Pandit Ballesh. “While my initiation into music began with Pt Sanna Bharamanna, I later trained under Pt Dhodda Bharamanna and Ustad Bismillah Khan Saheb on Shehnai and D P Hiremath on Hindustani vocals.”
Shehnai was earlier known as shaadi ki shehnai (the shehnai of weddings), and it was maestros like Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan who brought it to the mainstream and charted its fame as much in All India Radio’s Aakash Vaani, and the silverscreen, as in foreign lands. This set the foundation for his disciples, including Pt Ballesh, to continue on this path. Pt Ballesh has worked closely with renowned composers such as Illayaraja and A R Rahman, among his popular compositions being the dichotomy of fame from the Bollywood movie Rockstar.
Pt Ballesh breaks into laughter, recalling how a recording day led him to discover that his son, Krishna Ballesh was also learning to play the shehnai, albeit stealthily. “I never insisted on him learning to play the shehnai professionally because I wanted my children to become engineers or doctors,” he says. It was his grandfather, Pt Sanna Bharamanna, who would teach Krishna the shehnai when the father was not home.
Upon realising that his son developed as much interest in the art as he did, Pt Ballesh took him under his tutelage and trained him. “I wanted to play just like Khan saheb,” says Krishna. Once the son had gained an in-depth knowledge of the art form, his father arranged for him to meet Khan saheb and receive his blessings. “I was very nervous, because he asked me to perform in front of him. How could I?” says Krishna with exasperation.
Accompanied by his father and Nazim Hussain, his first performance at the shehnai maestro’s residence earned him ample praise from Khan saheb, who later trained Krishna for seven odd years in Benares.
Owing to Pt Ballesh’s association with the film industry down south, his family had relocated to Chennai when Krishna was still young. It was here that the seeds to a future venture were sown. “We used to regularly visit and perform in Dharwad, Hubli and Belgaum, the hub of Hindustani music. It was then that I realised there is no such depth and popularity for Hindustani in Chennai,” he states. He adds that, despite artists such as Pt Krishnanand promoting the art in south India for three decades, there was no recognised academy where those interested in Hindustani could learn. “H K Choudhary, the income tax director, also learnt from us and recommended that we start one,” says Krishna.
They did. Named after Mian Tansen, the Tansen Academy of Music at Saligramam trains nearly 500 students—a mixture of playback singers, IAS and IPS officers and amateur musicians, at present. “One of my brothers, Prakash Ballesh teaches Hindustani vocals, the other, Shivanand Ballesh, also a shehnai player, is the general secretary of the academy. I teach advanced-level courses,” Krishna says. What about Pt Ballesh? “My father doesn’t teach. He enables one to understand and appreciate music with his soulful tunes.”
Krishna says that they want to make Ras Barse Utsav an annual event. “We want Khan
saheb’s lineage to continue.
This academy is a step towards our dream.”