Tunes of a tradition

Shehnai player Sanjeev Shanker talks about keeping a musical tradition alive.

July 08, 2010 06:29 pm | Updated 06:29 pm IST

Ashwini Shankar and Sanjeev Shankar in performance. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Ashwini Shankar and Sanjeev Shankar in performance. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Shehnai has been 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 in to the circle of music lovers, thanks to 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 with Shehnayi or did you have had some 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 from anyone?

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 .

Shehnai had to face a social barrier as it belongs to folk music. Did you ever find any unacceptability in your journey through it?

No, I never had any problem. Though I know, it took superhuman effort by my granduncle Nandlal and Ustad Bismillah Khan saheb to convince Indian classical music lovers to accept the shehnai as a classical instrument.

You often keep on travelling travel abroad for performances. Youth of which part are more receptive towards Indian Classical music, Indian or Western? When you travel abroad for performances which is the section that is receptive to classical music — Indian or western youth?

According to my experience, it is 100 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.

The westernersrespect us for our age-old traditions while the younger generation is visibly turning away from it. We have, including the government, a lot to do for the promotion of our cultural heritage. I am involved with Spic Macay. They are doing an excellent job for the promotion of cultural heritage.

Even during the Moghul era or even the colonial rule, there were many raja-maharajas and nobles who patronised our music. They used to send their sons to spend time with various gaanewaliyon to learn tehzeeb (etiquette). Thus, the next generation of patrons was groomed.

What is your opinion regarding the fusion of Indian classical music with western popular music? Have you done such experiments?

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. I also did a few others too. Currently, I am working on a project with a band specialising in nomadic music. I am ecstatic and at home with this project, as nomadic music originally had a touch of India.

Is there any 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 ragas, Maru Bihag, Shree and Bhairavi are my favourites. They suit my temperament. When I think of Bhairavi, I remember the Bhairavi Festival organised by Sangeet Natak Akademi, though I was too young to understand. In his second performance that festival, thumri samrat Pandit Mahadev Prasad Mishra sang a thumri in Banaras ang, “Janani, main na jiyun bin Ram.” I saw him crying while singing, and so were the audience. I did not understand the phenomenon but today, I sincerely wish to reach that stage when I, my music and audience shall merge in the same ecstasy.

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