Gently flow the notes

It’s Ustad Bismillah Khan’s birth centenary, and the shehnai is back in focus. The author talks about how the instrument has been an integral part of film music in the South

November 09, 2016 07:43 pm | Updated December 02, 2016 02:26 pm IST

In a well-lit room on the second floor of his Saligramam residence-cum-music school, Pandit Ballesh and his son Krishna Ballesh are tuning their shehnais for a video recording.

Finding the right note is an arduous and time-consuming process, but the two enjoy it.

When they’re not taking classes in Hindustani music at their Tansen Academy, the father-son duo is busy touring the studios of Kodambakkam and Vadapalani, where their music adds a different dimension to the music composer’s vision.

The shehnai, predominantly a North Indian wind instrument, was initially used in southern films to create pathos, but thanks to the likes of Ilaiyaraaja and A.R. Rahman, it has transitioned into a ‘happy’ instrument, proving that it can portray celebration as well.

“It is a tough instrument to play,” admits Pandit Ballesh, who shifted base from Karnataka to Madras in the early 1980s and started playing for films. “Even if it was a small piece, we would put a lot of effort into the recording, which, back then, would consist of an army of musicians.”

Things have changed since then — technology has played a major part in the way music is recorded — but Ballesh has laboured on, working with the who’s who of South Indian cinema, including the likes of M.S. Viswanathan, Ilaiyaraaja, A.R. Rahman and Keeravani. Today, he is accompanied by his son, Krishna, to many film recordings. “During the times of MSV and KV, composers used it mainly in classical mode, basing it on ragas.”

As time went by, the shehnai was adapted to other styles of music that were finding their way into popular film music. “It can be used to depict a range of emotions, and in different genres like folk and Western too,” adds Ballesh.

A software engineer by profession, Krishna, who trained under Ustad Bismillah Khan for seven years, is interested in taking the shehnai tradition forward. “I’d like to carry on this legacy, something that I’m very proud of,” he says.

Shehnai in films

Five film songs that Ballesh has worked on – and has vivid memories of:

1. Background music of Mahanadhi . “There’s a particular re-recording piece that plays out when Kamal Haasan is in jail. I remember playing it in raag Durga and it is close to my heart.”

2. ‘Aalappol Velappol’ from Ejamaan . “The shehnai adds a nice celebratory flavour to this song.”

3. ‘Humma Humma’ from Bombay . “The shehnai lends an Arabic touch to the song.”

4. ‘The Dichotomy of Fame’ from Rockstar . “Director Imtiaz Ali and A.R. Rahman wanted a jugalbandhi between the shehnai and the guitar. In Bhairavi raag, this piece was considered a highlight.”

5.Baahubali . “Music composer Keeravani considers my shehnai an auspicious part of all his projects. I’ve also played for Baahubali 2 .”

The Ustad link

> While Ustad Bismillah Khan (Ballesh’s teacher) was not too much in favour of film music, he did get involved with a Kannada feature film titled Sanaadi Appanna (Sanaadi is Kannada for shehnai) in 1976. Dr. Rajkumar played the title role in the film that had music by G.K. Venkatesh, who roped in Bismillah Khan and had him spend nine days at Prasad Studios working on the music.

>Raanjhanaa , starring Dhanush and Sonam Kapoor, had music by A.R. Rahman, and features the shehnai prominently in most of its songs. They are said to be an unsaid tribute to Ustad Bismillah Khan and Benaras.

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