A day in the life of a Shehnai player

“When the shehnai is so important to my father, you can imagine how important it is to me. It is linked to every breath of my life. I don’t want to lose this. I want to keep my father’s work alive even after him”

If you are looking for Rasheed Khan's house, don't ask – just follow the music.

In the suburbs of Kanpur, through narrow lanes that bypass small, congested houses, a melodious tune draws you towards a house. As we draw closer, the sweet music becomes clearer.

And just outside one house, we find a small crowd of children, gathered around the stoop.

In their midst sits the man whose haunting music has pulled us in. Sitting on a cot, Rasheed Ahmed is playing the shehnai.

Accompanying him are his three other team-mates. He wears a sparkling, white topi which covers most of his golden brown hair. A white kurta-pajama complete the ensemble. His fingers, adorned with colourful gems, move to and fro on the shehnai, turning air into magical tunes. Rasheed is completely lost in playing the instrument and does not notice anyone's presence.

"I have been playing for the last 40 years. I was 15 years old when I had my first public performance," said Rasheed Ahmed as he wiped a dirt particle off his shehnai in the small house where he lives with his wife and children.

Shehnai is a traditional Indian instrument which is played at the weddings. "Shehnai is a must to be played at weddings for it is auspicious," said Rasheed.

Rasheed is excellent at what he does. He can play a huge variety of musical tunes on his shehnai. Tell him any song; be it filmy or religious, Rasheed can play it all. For his immense talent, he gets a lot of well-deserved respect. "Wherever we go to play shehnai, we get a lot of respect. We are even honoured and given prizes when people hear us play. That really makes us feel good and makes us realize how important the shehnai is for us," Rasheed said.

Rasheed is a Muslim, but his love for shehnai sees no religion when it comes to going and playing at celebrations. "I go to weddings of every religion to play shehnai and they all treat me well," he said.

Rasheed's family supports and respects his talent and his children are also learning to play shehnai. While Rasheed plays shehnai, his eldest son, Shamsheed, plays the naal to accompany his father. "I love it when Papa plays shehnai. I just feel like losing myself in his performance. I used to watch Papa and have been learning the shehnai since I was 10-years-old," Shamsheed said.

However, the wedding season, during which the shehnai players are most in demand, lasts only for four months and after that Shamsheed works as a salesman to earn money for the family. "There's work when weddings happen, when there is no wedding, nobody needs the shehnai. The shehnai season is only four months in a year," Shamsheed said. "As soon as the weddings are over, I go and sell things, door-to-door. I earn Rs 200 to Rs 400 in a day which pays for our household expenses and some other stuff," he added.

Rasheed wishes to make a name for himself now – a dream he has had ever since he started playing. He swears by his shehnai that he will never give up playing it, as long as he lives. And his children, too, are as devoted to the musical instrument as their father.

"When the shehnai is so important to my father, you can imagine how important it is to me. It is linked to every breath of my life. I don't want to lose this. I want to keep my father's work alive even after him," Shamsheed said.

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