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Tunes of a tradition

AMRITA DASGUPTA
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CHAT Shehnai player Sanjeev Shankar talks about keeping a musical tradition alive. AMRITA DASGUPTA

In unison: Sanjeev Shankar performing with Ashwani Shankar at a concert. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar
In unison: Sanjeev Shankar performing with Ashwani Shankar at a concert. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

S hehnai has for long been kept at the door by the elite since it was known to belong to folk culture. It took superhuman effort to bring it into the circle of music lovers, thanks to the late Ustad Bismillah Khan. Among the names of those who steadfastly took shehnai to heights is that of late Nandlal from Varanasi. People involved with the Harballabh Sangeet Samaroh of Jalandhar still remember his mesmerising concert in the 1950s.

Nandlal's grandnephew, Sanjeev Shankar, is carrying forward the family tradition. The young man has come a long way since he began training at the age of three. Sanjeev spoke at length over the phone from Paris, where he is performing, about his journey with the instrument. Excerpts from the interview:

Did you want to pursue a career in shehnai or did you have other dreams early on?

I started learning shehnai when I was three . But when I was four , I heard Pandit Ravi Shankar and insisted on learning sitar from him. I started learning it too at home. After two years, Panditji advised me to pursue my career according to my family heritage and tradition. I switched back to shehnai.

Who was your first guru? Are you still taking lessons?

My father Pandit Durga Shankar was my first guru. I took lessons intermittently from thumri samrat Pandit Mahadev Prasad Mishra of Varanasi and Pandit Anant Lal. Since the last six years, I am learning from Pandit Ravi Shankar .

Which section is receptive to classical music — Indian or western youth?

According to my experience, it is cent per cent Indian youth. We perform even in our villages. The interest of youngsters in these parts is encouraging. Still, I feel, our urban youth needs to learn more of our tradition, culture.

Those in the West respect us for our age-old traditions while the younger generation is visibly turning away from it.

How do you view fusion music?

Fusion of our traditional music with western music is nothing new. Remember in the early 1960s, Pandit Ravi Shankar did it. They are popular even today. U. Srinivas and tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain have all experimented and delivered beautiful results. To produce music without diluting its Indian-ness depends upon the confidence of the artiste and the depth of knowledge.

Yes, I also experimented with a Grammy award winning U.S-based band Ozomatli. Currently, I am working on a project with a band specialising in nomadic music.

Is there a particular city or festival where you like to play again and again? Can you identify any particular raga close to your temperament and character?

When we were invited to the Harballabh Sangeet Samaroh in Jalandhar the first time, we were told by the organisers that in 1952 our granduncle performed and won the hearts of the audience. We feel blessed and at home on that stage. Among the ragas, Maru Behag, Shree and Bhairavi are my favourites. They suit my temperament.


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