Shree khol’s journey from folk to classical

Shree khol has a special status among the many highly developed percussion instruments of Bengal such as maddal, Bangla dhol, dhak and more. Albeit a variant of mridangam, deeply associated with the Vaishnavite cult of the North Eastern belt, its name sets it apart from the Assamese and Manipuri varieties and lends a stamp of Bengal.

Shree Khol, a folk instrument

Shree Khol, a folk instrument  

The word shree khol has a philosophical meaning, according to Ashok Kumar Chattopadhyay, researcher and filmmaker, who describes it as ‘The Divine Percussion’ in the title of his documentary on this intriguing instrument. After more than five centuries, the shree khol is striving to venture out of its haloed, kirtan-related niche.

Says Chattopadhyay, “Initially, it was called khol (literally meaning the outer surface of an emptied object), maybe because the clay drum is hollow from inside. Entirely covered with thread or leather-strips, it seems to represent the hollowness of life, entangled in worldly bonds. Later the word Shree (denoting Lakshmi or Radha or rich aesthetics) was prefixed. This gave it an auspicious and spiritual aura.”

According to the scriptures, percussive drums were categorised into three or Tri-pushkara. Urdhwaka is the upward-facing drum, held vertically, such as the ancient dundubhi or modern tabla; Aankika is the two-faced drum placed on the lap horizontally like dholak and pakhawaj, while Aalingyaka are the embraced ones such as shree khol. All bi-facial drums are also classified by shape, and shree khol comes under the gopuchch or cow’s tail variety due to its narrow right face and broad left face.

According to historians, shree khol was reinstated to its high pedestal when, around the medieval era, the socio-cultural upheaval in the country gave rise to the Bhakti Movement and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (15th century) founded Gaudiya Vaishnavism and popularised naamkirtans in eastern India. Hoards of people followed Mahaprabhu, euphorically singing kirtans and dancing. A strap would hold the shree khol in place around the player’s neck as he accompanied Namavali or Padaavali Kirtan singers.

A dash of classicism

Renowned Bangla Kirtan exponent Suman Bhattacharya talks of how the Padaavali Kirtan takes the classical (prabandh, dhrupad), semi-classical (raag pradhaan, tappa) and Bengali folk (baul, bhatiyali) genres under its umbrella. And so, a vast repertoire of talas are played on the shree khol, which has its own specific bol-baani (mnemonics) suited for all three different tempos. “There are 108 varieties of talas, of which around 80 are still in use in our Paala-Kirtan sessions. Moreover, such sessions are invariably preceded by a ritual called khol-mangal. A day before the Paala begins, the shree khol is placed on a platform and worshipped.”

Suman Bhattacharya

Suman Bhattacharya  

The Kirtan maestro, accompanied by his fellow musicians, is an excellent multilingual narrator, classical singer, and graceful dancer. Yet, kirtan is relegated to the ‘folk’ category, as is shree khol, even though it is widely played with compositions of the five most famous Bangla poets (the Pancha Kavi), and with Shyamasangeet, Bangla folk and devotional songs.

Finally, with the efforts of Hare Krishna Halder, shree khol is now being seen on the concert platform across the globe as a classical instrument with authentic bol.

Hare Krishna Halder

Hare Krishna Halder  

Finding a platform

Eminent shree khol exponent Gopal Burman has gone one step ahead. Despite knowing its limited opportunities, he learnt the shree khol under Guru Sanatan Saha. Encouraged by his father to be a thinking and path-breaking soloist, he also learnt from tabla player Guru Shankar Ghosh about bol-elaboration. Ghosh encouraged him to find a platform for shree khol solo concerts.

Burman went on to play solo and participate in rhythm ensembles in India and abroad with several veteran players of tabla, pakhawaj and mridangam, among others. He switched to copper or fibre shree khol for ease of travel although he admits that “clay offers the best tonal quality”.

Gopal Burman

Gopal Burman  

Says Burman, “I had to unshackle the art and increase the vocabulary of shree khol to match the technique, speed and expertise of my celebrated co-artistes because one cannot drag artistic expressions down for the sake of traditionalism.” Thanks to his banker’s job, Burman could afford to take up this cause, but “urban youngsters are still very wary” to learn the instrument, he says. Meanwhile, the shree khol continues to go places.

The writer is a music critic and musicologist.

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 3:17:07 AM |

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