Varanasi/Old Bhojpur (Bihar): On a ragged piece of cardboard, in a disintegrating shop in Godhuliya, a particularly congested part of Varanasi, sits Mohammad Safi. In a city that was once home to Ustad Bismillah Khan and more than a dozen shehnai makers, Safi is one of the only two remaining craftsmen of the instrument—both ageing, both without apprentices to carry the craft forward.
From this little shop, for more than half a century, Safi has made shehnais—for Bismillah Khan, for Pandit Daya Shankar and his two sons, Sanjeev and Ashwini, and for shehnai players from cities as far away as Mumbai and Chennai. Safi’s father and grandfather made shehnais before him, just down the road in another shop. “There was also an old woman in Koila Bazaar,” says Safi, a shrivelled, white-haired man of 85. “But she died. So, now it’s just me and Khalil in Daranagar.”
All photos by Harikrishna Katragadda
Photographer: Harikrishna Katragadda
Safi, in a once-white shirt and steel grey trousers, sits amid a mess of files, cutters and long, heated irons. To one side, in a gloomy alcove, are three bicycles and a dusty LML scooter with a punctured tyre. On a mat is a dried clutch of slender grassy weeds called narkat, used to make the shehnai’s reed.
The narkat can be procured only from a particular pond in Old Bhojpur, a village in the Buxar district of Bihar. Lying next to Safi are three 8-inch shehnais—one a prototype, and two that he is making to order. It is the first order he has received in a month.
It takes Safi two-three days to make a shehnai, and each sells for Rs500. “When Bismillah Khan was at the height of his popularity, some tourists would buy souvenir shehnais, but even that has stopped now,” he says. It is not surprising then that Safi has a day job; he is the founder of, and the moving force behind,?the Bharat Band Party. Behind him stands a steel shelf full of drums, trumpets and grimy white band uniforms; a yellowed photo hangs on the wall, showing him and his son Mehboob in full band regalia.
Mehboob, the eldest of four sons, helps out at his father’s shop occasionally, and he says: “My sons aren’t interested in this at all. They want to do their own thing.” A vocal onlooker offers: “Everything changes. Many people think now that to sit in a shop like this, do a job like this, is beneath their dignity.”
When the music fades
The decline of the craft of making the shehnai has mirrored the decline of the art of playing it. “The shehnai is not like the tabla or the sitar,” says Sanjeev Shankar. “It remains restricted to families, and people outside the shehnai-playing families do not want to learn it.”
Shankar comes from a family of shehnai players going back 450 years. His own shehnai, which he carries in a laptop case, is 80 years old, and was made by Mohammad Safi’s father for Pandit Anant Lal, Shankar’s grandfather. Shankar himself was inclined towards the sitar until he was nudged back towards his family instrument by Pandit Ravi Shankar. “My grandfather shifted to Jalandhar in 1949 and, during his stay there, Pandit Ravi Shankar heard him play, wondered what such a good shehnai player was doing in Jalandhar, and invited him to New Delhi.”
Even back then, Shankar admits, there would have been only a dozen top-flight shehnai concert artists across India; that number has halved now. Shankar, 30 years old and the author of a doctoral thesis on the shehnai, says many of his younger peers simply do not pursue the art long enough to reach concert-level proficiency.
Shankar also pointed to the shehnai’s waning classicism; there may still be shehnai players around, in New Delhi for example, but they are what he calls the “Ek-Do-Teen” type, who play only at weddings and make, by his estimate, Rs20-25 lakh per wedding season. “Maybe shehnai-playing is not a dying art, but it is not a thriving art either,” he says. “It is just stagnant.”
Fabricating a shehnai involves a surprising number of people; shehnai-makers such as Safi do only the basic assembly. He lathes the wooden body at home out of Burma teak, attaches the flaring metal pyala to one end and, with hot irons, burns seven holes through the wood.
“But, you can never immediately play a shehnai that you buy,” says Shankar. “We take it home, and with our own hot irons and files, we fine-tune the finger-holes till it sounds perfect.” That perfect sound may never materialize. At home, Shankar has every one of the 500 or so shehnais he has ever bought, but only three or four are good enough to play in a concert. “The rest—well, they just sit there and gather dust.”
The mouthpiece, or reed, of the shehnai is another matter altogether. For more than 200 years, every reed of every shehnai has been made out of narkat. Nothing else will do. In a spirit of experimentation, Shankar once tried other materials. “There was a palm-leaf reed, but it was shrill and loud,” he says. “Then there was this American grass, which sounded good for only two minutes before going flat. Narkat is the only thing that works.”
The narkat is cut once every year, in March or April, dried for a whole year in Old Bhojpur village, and then sold to Varanasi’s shehnai makers for Rs150 per fist-thick bundle. Safi dries the narkat some more on the roof of his house, for six months to a year. Once they are brittle, pale brown, hollow sticks, he sells them to shehnai artists such as Shankar.
“We make our own reed out of these,” says Shankar. This involves searching for the three or four promising narkat stems out of 200, cutting them into 2-inch reed segments, and alternately soaking them in water and drying them in the sun. “We also polish its inside by putting a metal stick into it and rolling the reed around it.”
Finally, Shankar begins testing each of these 40-odd reeds in his shehnai. “We play them for six months, to break them in, to see how they sound,” he says. “Out of those 2 00 stems, we will probably get two good, concert-worthy reeds. If we’re really lucky, we’ll get five.” From cutting the narkat to finally playing the reed in concert can take up to four years.
Before every concert, the musicians go through a two-hour ritual of preparing their mouthpiece. Shankar puts a reed entirely in his mouth and then moves it around as if he were chewing gum, soaking it with his saliva. He then slips the reed into a slatted piece of bamboo, to keep one end pinched, and leaves it for 30 minutes. This process is repeated three-four times before the reed is pushed into the shehnai. When h e plays raag Bhairavi with a reed that is not damp enough, the sound seems to be coming out of a shehnai with a woollen sock over its pyala. The entire process is an elaborate production. In fact, the shehnai might be the only instrument made as much by its manufacturer as by its player.
The shehnai’s roots
Old Bhojpur consists entirely of a single crossroad, around which is gathered a cluster of huts and shops. Narkat-seekers are taken to the hut of Paras Chowdhary, one of the few men in the village who cuts and sells the grass to buyers. Chowdhary is a day labourer, doing menial work for money; he says, vaguely, that he is 40, but he looks at least 10 years older.
To get to the narkat , Chowdhary leads a brisk 3km tramp through fields of still-green wheat, framed in the distance by power pylons. “Most of the narkat has been cut already,” he says. “There will be some younger shoots, though.” He finally stops by a river called the Nari, and says: “This is it. This is where I cut it.”
A little distance away, the Nari flows into a lake, and it is on these muddy banks that the narkat grows—tall, green and slender—in the middle of thorn bushes. “Those bushes are a blessing. They keep the narkat safe from foraging animals,” says Chowdhary. One of the boys accompanying him slips out of his trousers and wades through the shallow river to the opposite bank, to uproot some young narkat stems. They resemble a younger version of bamboo, with the occasional thorn. “These are short now, but by the time we cut them, they can grow up to above your waist.”
Coincidentally, the greatest shehnai player, Bismillah Khan, was born in Dumraon, 3km from Old Bhojpur. The house of his birth, down a tiny street recently renamed Bismillah Gali, consists of an old ground floor surmounted by a newly bricked first floor. That house has been sold, but Bismillah Khan’s family still owns a little property two doors down, with a cowshed and a small house.
Mohammad Sultan Khan, an informal caretaker for the family, wryly mentions how plans had been drawn up for a memorial to Bismillah Khan, soon after his death. “The government sent an engineer and he looked over the area, and then drew designs and showed them to us,” he says. “But those designs are still only on paper. In Bihar, everything can be accomplished on paper.”
Stretching back at least three generations, Bismillah Khan’s family used to play at the court of the Maharaja of Dumraon. “They were from a particular community of Muslims, but there’s nobody in that community left here,” says Khan. “There is still a Maharaja, Kamal Singh, but he is 80 years old. There’s no shehnai playing now. That’s all stopped.”
Many years ago, in an easy, unforced practise of secularism, a member of Bismillah Khan’s family played the shehnai every evening at the aarti in the Maharaja’s temple in Dumraon. The temple is a candy striped structure on the grounds of the Dumraon palace; other buildings of the palace have been converted into a branch of the Punjab National Bank and the Maharani Usharani School for Girls.
The 400-year-old temple still functions, and to its left is a little pavilion. “You see those three arches in the pavilion,” the caretaker of the temple says. “Every evening, when he was here, Bismillah Khan would sit in the middle arch and play the shehnai for the 6pm aarti. When he left for Varanasi, his younger brother, Pachkoudi, continued the tradition.”
The temple, he says, has been largely forgotten, scraping through on the proceeds of the Maharaja’s estates. Its lusciously coloured wooden supports, for instance, were judged to be insufficiently strong as the wood aged, so some pillar-shaped concrete eyesores have been added for extra strength.
As Bismillah Khan rose in stature, he moved to Varanasi, where his family still lives. His eldest son, Nayyer Hussain Khan, also a shehnai player, is now 65, with watery eyes and a leonine face that strongly resembles his father’s. He still plays Bismillah Khan’s shehnai, an instrument older than himself, made in Koila Bazaar. “Khalil and Safi must have made thousands of shehnais over the years,” he says. “But there is nobody now who will make them.”
The teak of Bismillah Khan’s 15-inch shehnai has been worn smooth by fingers over 70 years. A thick clump of reeds hangs from its mouthpiece. Nayyer keeps it wrapped in cloth in Bismillah Khan’s practice room—floored in raw brick, with a skylight on one side, four mountain bikes stacked near the door, and black banners displaying Arabic verses from the Quran woven in gold.
“Mecca is in the direction of that skylight,” says Nayyer. “That was where my father faced when he practised.”
Bismillah Khan, Nayyer remembers, would sing a particular song in the evening during Moharram, when all Varanasi would gather to listen. “It went like this,” he says, and starts singing in a strong tenor. But as he sings, overcome by the memory of his father, he begins to sob, his voice choking, and a single tear out of his left eye courses down his face, the face that looks so much like Bismillah Khan’s own.