On a celebratory note

He elevated the status of shehnai, played only during festivities and brought it to the concert platform. Ustad Bismillah Khan sought worldwide recognition for the humble instrument by exploring its musical capacity. Inspired by his journey, many took to learning the shehnai. As music-lovers and his disciples gear up to celebrate the maestro’s 101st birth anniversary on March 21, Chennai-based Pt S. Ballesh recalls his association with the Ustad. Ballesh who hails from Hubli, established the Tansen Academy that conducts an annual festival ‘Ras Barse’ in memory of his revered guru. The Academy imparts training in Hindustani music and composing for films.

Ballesh belongs to a family of shehnai artistes. His father and four paternal uncles living in their ancestral village played at weddings and temple festivals. He was trained by his father ChennaBrahmanna since the age of six and learnt Hindustani vocal from D.P.Hiremutt for almost 10 years. Later, he went under the tutelage of Pt. Kodanda Solanki to master the Patiala gharana style.

“During a visit to our village, Ustad Bismillah Khan heard me play the shehnai and told my father to send me to Benares for further training. I was 20 then and rejoiced every moment spent at his Benaras house learning the nuances of playing the shehnai along with his sons. His favourite ragas malkauns and maru behag were staple at the practice sessions. The breath control technique and jaarus lent a distinctness to his music. Guruji travelled extensively performing across the globe.”

Talking about his open-minded approach, Ballesh recalls how he always appreciated his way of playing pieces characteristic of the Patiala gharana.

Despite the fame, money never came in the way of his passion for shehnai, says Ballesh. “I follow his teaching method and approach to music at my academy (a huge portrait of his guru adorns one of the walls). Music cannot have a regimented structure; I let my students enjoy what they are learning.”

Film projects

Like his guru, Ballesh has also worked with film music directors. Sathyam, M.S.Visvanathan, Ilaiyarajaa and A.R. Rehman are some of the top composers he has been associated with. “In Ilaiyaraaja’s orchestral team, I took over the place occupied by Subhan Saheb a brilliant shehnai player. Ilaiyaraaja’s approval is like ISO certification.”

Did Ustad approve of his playing for films? “He too has played for films but on his own terms — no head phones and the seating would be like in a concert. His playing for the song ‘Karedaru Kelade’ sung by S.Janaki, under G.K.Venkatesh’s baton, is still remembered by Kannada film music lovers. Even today in my concerts in and around Karnataka, when I play these bits, the crowd goes into raptures. Ustad has also played in a few Hindi films, the most notable being Gunj Uthi Shehnai .”

Ballesh becomes emotional talking about how his guru would always address him as ‘beta’ and never by his name. The close relationship with the Ustad’s family still continues. Ustad’s sons visit Ballesh regularly.

Surprisingly, Ballesh never wanted his sons to take to shehnai, but Krishna, trained by his grandfather, decided to pursue it. An engineer, he takes classes during the weekends at the academy. His two other sons, Prakash and Shivnand also play the shehnai and have learnt vocal music. They also pitch in with classes at the school. Far away from Benaras, the Ballesh family is keeping the Ustad’s memory alive.

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 12:50:02 PM |

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