Gaon Connection spoke to Gulam Mohammad Khan, a shehnai (clarinet) player, in Uttar Pradesh’s Lucknow. Our conversation was quite long, intercepted only by soulful tunes of shehnai.
“The coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown pushed us into debt. Before this, we used to do at least four to five programmes a month, and earn some fifteen to twenty thousand rupees,” Khan said. In peak season, this remuneration may go two-fold we were told.
The COVID-19 pandemic situation has left Khan and his colleagues, who join him on tabla, harmonium, and dholak, jobless for over three months now. The time when shehnai was considered a must during weddings, and every other important function, was not so long ago. But, now when we look at it, it is only appropriate to say it was a ‘pandemic ago’.
The clarinet Khan uses is at least 200 years old, he told us. He started playing when he was just 15 and the instrument was passed on to him from his father.
It is not just the pandemic that is responsible for people generally not bothering to accommodate a shehnai-based band. The decline began years ago. The advent of baaja during the British rule gave tough competition to shehnai players and more recently, DJs.
“We used to be invited to many rich households back in the day, and we were respected too, for our talent,” Khan said. “But, with the band parties and DJs, people started losing interest in shehnai,” Khan sighed.
Bharat Ratna awardee Ustad Bismillah Khan, Khan said, was a father-figure to him. Khan said the former had visited his house as well. Bismillah Khan and Khan’s grandfather were neighbours in Benaras.
“Shehnai is everything to me,” Khan told Gaon Connection. “We are also from the same Banaras gharana as Ustad Bismillah Khan Saheb. He is a relative. There cannot be anyone like him in the whole world,” Khan added, with pride.
There is also a story of Hindu-Muslim harmony when it comes to Khan. He believes Lord Shiv has a close connection with classical music and the many ragas. Shiv, Khan said, was someone who played ‘damru’, and danced. Many ragas like Ramag Bhairav and Nat Bhairav are made on Shivji. In the same way, there are many other ragas made on Hindu deities. For instance, Yemen Kalyan,” Khan said. “My grandson plays at Kashi Vishwanath temple. I feel happy he’s working there,” Khan added.
Abrar Khan, dholak player, and Gulam Khan’s colleague, told Gaon Connection: “We didn’t foresee what’s going on now, with the pandemic and the lockdown, at all. Now, I feel we should leave this field and do something else to earn a living.”
Khan also had an appeal to make to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “I request Modi Ji to take note of our misery and do something for us. There are many artists like us who have been rendered jobless,” he said.