Shamsuddin Faridi Desai, amongst the last Rudra Veena players of the pre-independence generation, was not an easy man to interview. I tried once, and failed. But, Lyle Wachovsky, of India Archive Music Ltd., New York, managed to get something out of him. His finest recordings have been published by India Archive Music.
Excerpts from interview with Lyle Wachovsky, April 2004
I was born in 1936. My father, Mohammad Faridi Desai, was a court musician in the princely state of Bhavnagar in Gujarat (Western India), and tutor to the queen. He played the Been and was also adept at playing the violin, the piano, and the sarangi. He had studied with Ustad Waheed Khan of Indore, a disciple of the legendary Beenkar, Ustad Bande Ali Khan. My grandfather, Abdul Rehman, was in the army, but had also been trained as a Beenkar under Waheed Khan. In my early days, I played the violin and the mandolin, and switched on later simultaneously to the sitar and the Been.
I did my first concert on the Been in the presence of eminent musicians, and princes, when I was 15. It was very well received, and encouraged me to pursue the instrument. For a while I flirted with acting as a junior to Prithviraj Kapoor at Prithvi Theatres. But, once I got hooked on the Been, I lost interest in everything else.
I studied the Been under my father as long as he lived. After that, I studied, for five years, with Maharana Jaswant Singh (ruler of Sanand, near Ahmedabad in Gujarat), who was a fine Been player. Ustad Ghulam Qadir, who was the son of my father’s Guru, Waheed Khan, also guided me after my father’s demise. I started broadcasting from Ahmedabad radio station in 1957 (age: 21).
In 1959, Thakur Jaidev Singh, the well-known musicologist, who was advisor to the government, arranged for me to join the National Orchestra of All India Radio, based in Delhi. The orchestra has a full-time staff of 40 musicians. At the National Orchestra, I played the sitar and Been under great composers and conductors like Pandit Ravi Shankar, and Emani Shankar Shastri. I served the orchestra for 38 years, and retired in 1997. After retirement, I perform as a Beenkar, and am training my sons and a couple of students on the Been as well as the sitar.
My family’s style of the Been follows the Gauhar Bani, founded by Gopal Nayak. In our style, we are permitted only five forms of melodic execution – Soonth, Meend, Gamak, Lehek, and Dehek. Two forms -- Zamzama and Murki -- are explicitly prohibited. Our speciality is the richness of our jhala. We are taught 26 different strokes of the mizrab, and 18 different chikari perforation patterns.
An important part of our music is the link between our spiritual beliefs and pursuit of music. We belong to the Qadri sect of Sufism, which regards music as a path to the realization of God. The fountainhead of our gharana, Ustad Bande Ali Khan is reported to offered penance at the shrine of the Sufi saint, Khwaja Garibnawaz at Ajmer, and obtained a boon that he and his heirs would have the power to make people laugh or cry at will. It is that boon that inspires our music.