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The Last Shehnai Player in Pakistan?

  • Author: Aysha Imtiaz

*This story was made possible in collaboration with The Citizens Archive of Pakistan.


Ustad Abdullah Khan is the last shehnai player to play the composition of Ustad Bismillah Khan in Pakistan. Following him, the nation stands to lose not just a musician, but an identity.  

At his humble residence near Kotri, a city in the Jamshoro District of Sindh, Pakistan, Ustad Abdullah Khan sits cross-legged on the floor. Flanked by a bedazzled golden door handle on one side, an age-speckled gold watch stretches taut over his burly forearms and silver rings glitter in the fluorescent light—their glossy luster matched by beads of perspiration dotting his forehead, and rivaled only by the glint of his shehnai. In this cocoon of patchy iridescence, he seems otherworldly almost, belonging not to another universe, but firmly entrenched in a different time, a past epoch.  

The son of Ustad Haji Khan, Ustad Abdullah Khan is the last shehnai player to play the composition of Ustad Bismillah Khan in Pakistan. His instrument (a double reed with a metal flared bell at the end, close to an oboe) is synonymous with auspicious occasions, but its sanctity cuts much deeper than celebration. The shehnai’s plaintive, lilting notes embody the ethos of the land itself, serving as a backbone to the Indian classical music tradition as part of the Naubat (the ensemble of nine instruments found in the royal court). In fact, the word ‘shah’ means royal, alluding to its illustrious origins. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a barber (nai in Hindi) played the royal instrument at court, but a more widely accepted theory credits the name to a combination of shah and nai (which also means wooden, wind-blown instrument) making it, loosely, ‘a royal flute’.  

The shehnai’s role in classical music is steeped in tradition and rich history. Largely popularised by Ustad Bismillah Khan, it became more than a ceremonial mainstay during processions, as his composition facilitated the establishment of the shehnai as a classical instrument. But with irreverence for the artform, limited patronage opportunities and inadequate succession planning, today, Khan’s artform seems faded and at risk of irrelevance. With him, the beautiful world of classical ustads, the cultural significance of the shehnai and the musical ideology and subcontinental identity it embodies will also fade into oblivion. 
 

The tradition of the Ustad  

Though Ustad Abdullah Khan attended the Government Primary Sindhi School in Kotri for mainstream education, his musical training commenced in eighth grade. “It was the only environment I ever saw,” he said, in an oral history interview conducted by the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, explaining how it was expected—decreed, perhaps—that he would enter the lineage of shehnai players like his (late) father.

“It’s just what we did in our house...I’d start straight after coming home from school,"

said Khan, adding that his own aptitude, enthusiasm and zest for learning also contributed to his success.  

Khan is part of the dynasty of musical families, and an entire generation, where in the ustad (teacher) attains almost mythical status, a deep-seated reverence borne of a culture that extolled respect for the ustad above many other social constructs. In the subcontinent of yore, imagery surrounding deference for an ustad—musical, or otherwise—is laden with theological symbolism, equating a father’s role to the ‘descent’ from heaven, and casting the ustad, a teacher and provider of knowledge, as an enabler of the ‘ascent’ to transcendental near-divinity.  

Tradition dictates that the ustad can not be one's own father, so despite being an avid student through observation, Khan could not be his father’s formal disciple. Instead, he was taught by Ustad Zawar Basant, and later, after his demise, Basant’s brother. Such are the gossamers of quiet dignity and etiquette in the quaint world of classical music. Encased in tradition, Khan’s father could not teach him. And bound by respect for a great ustad in his own right (Khan’s father), Basant could not ask Khan to come to him and instead regularly made the 150 kilometer journey from Hyderabad to Kotri at his own expense. “Usually, the parched traveler goes to the river,” said Khan, referring to the insatiable thirst of the student to drink from the fountain of the ustad’s knowledge. “But in my case, the river came to me.”  

Ties that bind...until they don’t   

It’s a far cry from the current scenario. On olx.com, a leading online platform to trade goods and services widely used in Pakistan, shehnai players sit squarely in the event services tab, nestled neatly between a ‘privet’ [sic] pipe band available for hire, and the apparently irresistible lure of fauji (military) band services. And, in neighbouring India, websites such as starclinch and indiamart are meting out shehnai services at nominal costs. The regression of a historically royal musical instrument to such mercenary transactions is emblematic of far greater problems, and the world of classical music has not been immune to the shift from inspiration propelling creativity to markets demanding entertainment. 

The tradition of ustad and shagird (student), or guru and shishya is not impenetrable to the reality of a globalised world. The symbiotic and once venerated relationship is, “...very much changing. Rather it won’t be wrong saying it has vanished. Hardly a student now is ‘gandaband shagird’ of a particular guru,” writes Samidha Vedabala, assistant professor at the Department of Music in Sikkim Central University, India. The gandaband relationship she refers to is a tradition in which the ganda, or thread, is tied by the ustad on the shaagird’s wrist as a formal and public declaration that he (or she) is the ustad’s disciple—an ardent commitment met with equal fervour on the part of the student. Vedabala’s research paper, Indian Classical Music in a Globalised World, explores the modernity and competition driven changes both ustads and students have had to make, and examines how greater access to options along with busier lifestyles have created a more dissonant relationship. Rather than a monogamous and deeply dedicated connection, it seems that more students are testing the waters.

“They [the students] can easily move from one teacher to the other who probably is in their comfort zone. Now neither guru has time and money to spend on students to maintain the tradition of ‘guru-shisya’...nor are the students daring enough to take music as a career,”

Vedabala adds, ultimately musing, “No wonder [the] true essence of Indian Musical tradition is disappearing. 

Quenching the thirst  

For Khan though, learning the shehnai wasn’t a short-lived infatuation. It was a calling that reverberated deep within his core. Much like Anne Sextion so eloquently put it in her raw, confessional poem Wanting to Die, “Suicides have a special language./Like carpenters they want to know which tools./They never ask why build.” And Khan never asked, “Why learn?” In fact, long after attaining mastery over the bara (big) and the chota (small) shehnai, typically reserved for celebrations and Shi’ite Muharram processions, respectively, Khan went back to hone his craft and explore a new dimension at the ripe age of 50. Now 64, Khan has spent the last 14 years perfecting his mastery of playing the shehnai in the style of Bismillah Khan, the iconic shehnai nawaz whose mark is lodged indelibly in the shehnai’s prolific history.  

Credited with popularising the instrument and broadening the genre, Bismillah Khan’s historic critically-acclaimed performance at the All-India Music Conference at Kolkata in 1937 facilitated the crossover of the shehnai from strictly ceremonial into the world of classical music. And on August 15, 1947, it was his mellifluous shehnai, played at the Red Fort, that heralded the birth of a new nation. With time, his compositions became hallmarks of Republic Day mornings in India. He was an, “icon of the secular spirit of the Indian constitution,” wrote the Guardian, and obituaries following his death, marked distinctively by a state funeral and flags at half mast, both solemnly bemoan the loss of ‘The Jewel of India’ and shine with resplendent praise of his talent. But it was a talent he had few worthy successors for, as the art of the shehnai was already languishing. Years after his death, five of Bismillah Khan’s shehnais were reported stolen, and ultimately recovered as a kilogram of smouldered, characterless silver. The culprit was his own grandson, and the crime smacked of the shehnai’s displacement and devolved status. Symbolic? Yes. Surprising? Unfortunately not. It seems there’s little place left for the shehnai in the 21st century consciousness.  

But across the border, Khan has been a dedicated—albeit distant and self-taught—disciple.

“Whatever little fame I’ve attained is because of Bismillah Khan’s style, which is softer and much more palatable to the ear,”

shared Khan. He is the last player to have mastered Ustad Bismillah Khan’s style in Pakistan. And he has continued the legacy by reimagining the artform for more contemporary and locally contextualised audiences. “I hadn’t heard ghazal in the shehnai,” he explained, referring to the popular genre of love poetry. “I’d always heard more of thumri or kajri. But I started doing khayal, ghazal, popular songs and even regional songs in indgenous languages,” he explained, “I just kept learning.”  

Unsuccessful succession planning 

In many ways, Khan didn’t set out to preserve a dying art form, but with his attainment of Bismillah Khan’s unique style—that’s exactly what he did. However, even his efforts may have done little more than temporarily prolonging the ‘expiration date’ rather than permanently defying insurmountable odds edging the shehnai to the brink of oblivion.  

With Khan, once again, succession seems jeopardised. Without patronage opportunities, wherein the artist is allowed to focus on his craft instead of monetary gain, eking out a meager livelihood is arduous. The dwindling popularity of the shehnai, even on ceremonious occasions, means opportunities to flourish are few and far between. Concerts, too, rarely regale the instrument as a featured performance, often paying a short, ritualistic tribute and then ushering it unceremoniously into the side-wings.  

As a result, Khan has struggled to find even one disciple for Ustad Bismillah Khan’s unique style. There are no parched travelers lapping at the shores of his talented waters. His Kotri abode and shoestring lifestyle aren’t eccentric, Sufi-esque choices, but a necessity. Instead of celebrating his achievement and upholding him as an inspiration, to younger generations, the lack of respect and acknowledgement extended to Khan makes his experience a cautionary tale. Despite self-learning the style half a century through life and carving out a place for himself in the genre, he seems faded and at risk of irrelevance. “I put my life into this and I’ve approached old age now. New generations see that I get nothing in return, so why will they pursue this downtrodden path?” Khan asked. To potential successors, the pursuit seems nonviable; and, perhaps, given the current landscape of classical arts in Pakistan, it is.  

A high-stake race against time  

So will the shehnai’s notes fade out to a quiet, natural death? And what do Pakistan specifically and the subcontinent as a whole stand to lose if that happens? According to Aaliyah Tayyebi, Senior Project Manager at CAP—the non-profit organisation dedicated to cultural and historical preservation that facilitated reporting for this interview—a lot.  

“Without the context of the shehnai, how will you talk about movement?” she asked. A staple at weddings, the complexity and breadth of the shehnai is singular in its ability to encompass the duality of emotion in the poignant yet celebratory occasion. It marks a passage, a beginning of marital life, and the end of life as the bride knew it in her maternal home. Even wedding card invitations often have archetypal vectors or images of a shehnai lurking in the corners—remnants of a world where shehnai and shaadi (weddings) were just intuitively intertwined. And as part of Muharram processions, the smaller and more wistful shehnai personifies the remembered experiences and heartaches of the Shi’ite soul in its mournful ‘music’ of loss. 

“At the processions, it’s there. When you see the groom on a horse going to his bride’s house, it’s there—almost like a marching band,” continued Tayyebi. The shehnai has been the soundtrack of choice to many of the subcontinent’s key moments. “It’s that loud interlude it provides,” she said, which resounds in the subcontinental soul on so many levels, reaching the farthest corners and most obscure emotions, and giving an eloquent voice to the most hidden yet pivotal narratives.  

Tayyebi leads CAP’s Oral History Project, an ambitious effort to archive Pakistan’s history and,

“...provide an alternative perspective to official narratives found in historical literature.”

No stranger to the catastrophic loss posed by unarchived material and the importance of collecting stories that may otherwise fall to the wayside, she fully acknowledges the deeper framework of preservation—or, in this case, the existential threats arising due to lack thereof—that the shehani is embedded in.  

Through this lens, the shehnai is much more than an instrument, but an almost Jungian collective consciousness, much like the recollections of partition which Tayyebi archives. Once also at risk of being lost forever—especially as living eyewitnesses reach the end of their life-expectancy spectrum—these oral histories have been tenderly gathered and scrupulously preserved. Armed with her small team and indomitable spirit, it has been her race against time, before it’s too late. Before it’s all lost. 

And for Khan, too, time is running out. His voice—steeled just moments ago while he critiqued the lack of support he received—now softens, and he ventures forth his most earnest wish with almost childlike enthusiasm: “I wish I’d been taken on tour. I want to do as much as possible. I want to make as much progress as I can for my country.”  

In perhaps his most renowned (comparatively, at nearly 68,000 views) video, Khan plays the national anthem of Pakistan to the backdrop of panoramic views of the nation’s richly varied landscape. From staggering, snow-clad mountain peaks in Karimabad, Hunza, to craggy dunes along the Makran Coastal highway in Balochistan, his notes embody a sacred land that is as breathtakingly beautiful as it is grossly unexplored, full of artists that are as talented as they are underappreciated. 

Though Khan straddles the divide between a dissipating world and the bleak future ahead, his life has been revolutionary in many ways. As one of very few artists who willfully sculpt an identity beyond the established confines of their gharaana (ancestry or musical household), he is a harbinger for an era where hopefully, talent alone will matter. “What’s in a gharaana?” he asks, “Sometimes, a nikamma (Urdu slang for worthless) like me emerges from an illustrious musical household,” he quips good-naturedly, with characteristic self-deprecation.

“And sometimes, talent rises without lineage,” Khan continues, “It just needs to sound pleasing to the ear,” he says, referring to the distinctive feature of Ustad Bismillah Khan’s style. “The household doesn’t matter. It’s your music, and your contribution to music that sets you apart,” said Khan.   

Today, even as he plays, there’s a touch of reticence—a weariness that seems to seep right into the music itself. His eyes are closed, as if to shut out the unkindness of this world, and a closer look reveals the plight beneath the thin veneer of opulence: a constellation of tiny scratches marring the fluted inside of his shehnai, the dimming sheen of his watch, and splatters of age spots splayed across his forehead before his thinning tufts of hair. Despite financial hardship, lack of patronage and no successors, what he craved most, it seems—and what he was systemically denied—is respect.  

And yet, he vows to continue, as he always has.  

Khan will continue to pay homage both to his craft and his instrument, even if he is met with a lukewarm response. He will honour the tradition of the ustad, even if, like a tree falling in a forest without anyone to hear it, he has no one to bear witness.  

And he will continue to play the lilting notes which were once considered fit for royalty, and which once breathed hope and love into a young nation. After all, it’s the only way he’s ever known.  

 
*This story was made possible in collaboration with The Citizens Archive of Pakistan.

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