Monday, November 26, 2007

Ramakant Sant -- “You can forget about the Shehnai’s future”

Sant spoke to Deepak Raja on April 04, 2004

My father, Gangadhar Sant, was a Shehnai player and a violinist, who served the princely state of Baroda, and later taught at the Faculty of Performing Arts of the University. He came from a small town in Maharashtra called Yeola. He was orphaned at an early age, and was adopted by his uncle, Ganpatrao Bidwe, one of the leading Shehnai players in the service of the Baroda court. Bidwe taught him the Shehnai and sent him to study the violin with Prof. Hirji Doctor, the principal of the Baroda music school. My mother was the daughter of Shankarrao Gaekwad, the famous Shehnai player from Pune in Maharashtra, and well versed in Hindustani music.

The Baroda tradition of Shehnai is an offshoot of the Maharashtra tradition. It began in the early 20th century when Ganpatrao Vasaikar came from Maharashtra to the Baroda court. In addition to performing duties at the court and the palace, court musicians were required to teach at the state music school. Vasaikar groomed several students, the principal amongst them being my father’s uncle, Ganpatrao Bidwe, Bhagwantrao Waghmare, and Govindrao Shinde. I am the fourth generation of Shehnai players in the family from my father’s side, and a descendant of famous Shehnai players from my mother’s side.

Ours is a Khayal based tradition while the Benares tradition is allied to the Thumree and the regional and folk genres of that region. Maharaja Sayajirao wanted the Shehnai players of the state to be systematically trained by Khayal vocalists. The Baroda court employed some of the greatest vocalists of the era. But, in his wisdom, the king chose to have Vasaikar trained, at the state’s expense, by Ustad Aman Ali Khan of the Bhindi Bazaar gharana in Bombay. Because of this legacy, our repertoire uses Khayal bandish-es; our treatment of the bandish-es follows the khayal style, our tan-s are also of Khayal type, and we perform several profound or complex ragas, which Shehnai players from Benares do not generally play.

The Baroda shehnai tradition flowered as long as the princely states were under British rule. However, a Shehnai player’s life was precarious even before my father’s time. The State paid Shehnai players a salary. But, the Shehnai was a ceremonial instrument; Shehnai players had neither enough performing to do, nor students to teach. The state ran an orchestra. So, Shehnai players trained themselves on at least one more instrument – usually a bow instrument -- in order to ensure their usefulness. In line with this pattern, my father’s uncle trained my father on the Shehnai at home, and had him groomed as a violinist at the state music school.

My father started life as a member of the Baroda State Orchestra, in which he played the violin as well as the Shehnai. He also taught the Shehnai at the music school. When the princely state merged with the Indian Union at the time of independence, the orchestra and the Shehnai classes were both wound up. By this time, the Shehnai class had virtually no students anyway. My father retained his job as a violin teacher at the music school, which later became a part of Baroda University. This gave him his livelihood, while he continued his Shehnai profession on the side in a shrinking market. The violin became the principal bread-earner for my family, and it was obvious that the situation would not change. It was natural that I should have been trained on the violin and the Shehnai, in addition to vocal music, which is the foundation. I also learnt to play the harmonium, the Tabla and the sitar. I might have done well enough without the Shehnai. But, the family tradition kept me wedded to it. Of course, I have no regrets. But, under less hostile circumstances, I could have done much more with the Shehnai.

I started life at 20 as a violin teacher at the Music Academy in Rajkot (Gujarat). After that, I taught music at several schools in different cities of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Of course, there were no students anywhere for the Shehnai. I taught vocal music, the violin and other instruments. I continued to perform on the Shehnai whenever an opportunity arose -- even for paltry sums of money because I had to keep in touch. I practiced on the Shehnai religiously for two hours a day, no matter what I did for a living. One of those teaching jobs took me to Udaipur, where I performed part-time at the famous Lake Palace Hotel. There, I had occasion to play for Yehudi Menuhin, who gave me a letter of appreciation, and an autographed copy of his photograph. These are my most precious possessions. My life stabilized only at 40, when I was appointed on the staff of All India Radio -- as a violinist. The job gave me financial stability without requiring me to be a Jack-of-all-trades. I could then concentrate on just two instruments – the violin for my livelihood, and the Shehnai for whatever else.

Interestingly, I got my rewards as a Shehnai player after I joined the radio staff as a violinist. These rewards came from abroad, and not from within the country. Thanks only to them, I could buy the simple house I live in, and have retired peacefully. My father had predicted that, some day, the Shehnai art would attract a premium. This has begun to happen, but not visibly enough to motivate my sons. One of my sons is a sitarist and works for the radio station. Another has studied the Shehnai, but has only casual interest in it because he teaches the violin at the music college. I doubt there will be another Shehnai player in my family. I will happily teach others, but there are no students.

After retiring from the radio station, I continue to broadcast on the violin as well as the Shehnai. Other than this, my occupation revolves around the Shehnai. However, the opportunities are largely in the ceremonial market, which demands popular and folk music. Even in that context, I try to remain true to my training by performing music based on classical raga-s. Invitations for classical concerts on Shehnai are few and far between. The market for the Shehnai has to be primarily local. Shehnai performance is a group effort because of its extra-ordinary demands on the breath. Long-distance travel becomes unviable. So, my skills are not being refined by wider exposure and competition. I have grown largely on my own steam, and this is hardly sufficient. This must be the story of classical Shehnai players all over the country.

Every village in Northern India has Shehnai players. But, they survive by playing folk and film songs at marriages. Marriages are a highly seasonal affair, so they live by other means during the lean season. Even the marriage market is dying out, as people are moving to pre-recorded music and brass-bands. There is no incentive for Shehnai players to go through 15/20 years of training to become classical musicians. The Shehnai can now survive only as a classical instrument, and with the encouragement of international audiences. By the time the support gathers momentum, there will be no decent Shehnai players left either to perform or to teach. You need at least a hundred serious Shehnai players to produce another Bismillah Khan. It is too late now. You can forget about the Shehnai’s future.

© Deepak S. Raja
The finest recordings of Ramakant Sant have been produced by India Archive Music Ltd., New York.

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