I met the flute maestro in a not-so peaceful setting, with people looking down from a tall and ugly apartment block, and the noise of buses and rickshaws plying nearby. The dirty, noisy, smoke-filled city notwithstanding, the discourse with one of the greatest classical musicians of our country was engaging as well as thought-provoking.
Ustad Salamat Hussain, who has entertained Pakistanis as well as people around the world for almost half a century, is a man as modest as the humble reed pipe he plays. On request, he demonstrated the different sounds produced by the various flutes he was carrying with him. He then played on a small one, which he conveniently carries in his pocket, whether he is walking on the beaches in the south, or traversing the mountains in the north. He played the pahari. Then, with a larger bansri, he played the bahar, evoking pastoral associations as well as deep feelings — sombre and sweet, despite the distractions around us.
The flute or bansri, is amongst the most ancient musical instruments of the subcontinent. It is mentioned in the Vedas as Lord Krishna’s chosen instrument, and the source of the knowledge of music. But despite its age, its status as a ‘concert instrument’ is a relatively recent phenomenon. The legendary maestro — late Pandit Pannalal Ghosh — is credited to having brought the bansri into the folds of Indian classical music. Pannalal used to play music for the silent films in Calcutta. One day, while working for music director Anil Biswas, he decided to experiment. He needed a pitch and sonority that would be suitable for both classical as well as light music. Pannalal experimented with various materials and sizes and finally settled for a thirty-two inch long bansri made from a bamboo!
Salamat Hussain hails from Rampur, where he was born in 1937. He was just a child when he heard the melodious tunes of Pannalal’s flute for the first time. This was in a mountainous region called Haldwani Mandi, at the foothills of Nainital in India. Hussain was completely smitten by it. The darbars of the Rajas and Nawabs of Jaipur, Lucknow, Benaras, Gwalior and Rampur had continued the golden traditions of the Moghul court by providing patronage to music, dance etc. Today, just as those courts are desolate, the future of classical music appears rather bleak too.
There is an increasing trend for the arts and culture becoming commercial products. Symbols of truth and beauty that have cultural and social values devoid of pressures from market forces are fast diminishing. There is need for a continuing dialogue, abiding trust, and enduring good relations between the traditional arts and today’s mass-produced entertainment, to foster each other’s interests, and to develop mutual insight and respect.
The bansri, previously no more than fourteen inches long, was used for short classical pieces, or for accompaniment. Pannalal’s innovation and the creation of a larger instrument with the seventh finger hole enabled the bansri to render many classical ragas eloquently.
In response to repeated queries regarding the future of flute-playing in the classical mode in Pakistan, Salamat Hussain related an episode. He said a flutist in Turkey once asked him for the names of other classical flutists in Pakistan. When he was told there were none, the man started to cry.
“There are a few, like Abdul Qadir, my pupil in Karachi, Chabbi in Lahore, Sunny Zaidi in Islamabad, also Khalid Ahmed in Karachi. But one has to be seriously devoted to the bansri,” said the Ustad. Apparently, Abdul Qadir gets invited to play at various restaurants at the five and four star hotels in Karachi, but Hussain himself deplores the practice. “I send him so he can earn a few rupees, but I don’t approve of khana and gana bajana at the same time. The arts demand undivided attention.”
The son of an army jawan for the estate of Rampur, Salamat Hussain acquired his early training in music from Ustad Mushtaq Hussain and Ustad Guchan Khan. They were singers themselves, but Salamat Hussain put his vocal training to test by blowing into the flute. When he migrated to Pakistan in 1951, he could already play some tunes on it. He remembers buying a new flute for two paisas from Saddar, in Karachi, and trying his luck for film music.
“I immediately got rejected. The music-director, who was auditioning, roared out to his cronies: Call Lal Mohammad to play the bansri, this boy is wasting my time.”
Hussain laughed as he narrated how he got coaxed into playing outside a certain ‘barrack number 64’, close to the hut where he used to live in the Jacob Lines area.
“Some of the boys in the area used to prompt me to play ‘Awara hoon, and Jaaein to jaaein kahan on my flute. When I started to play outside that particular barrack, the girls who lived there sent me requests for various songs. A couple of days later, their mother told my mother that she would break my legs if I ever dared to play on my flute again.”
“I hope your mother lived to see you become a great artist, did she?” I chuckled.
“Yes, she did. But on that particular day, she beat me with a jharoo,” laughed the Ustad.
He then reminisced about the good old days in Hyderabad where he was working as a radio artist. “Hum taat pay baith ker programme kiya kartay thay.” Laughingly, he described how, during the summer months, they would be performing in that hot, hostile environment: “Baraf ki sill paas rakhi hoti, jis ko piyas lagti wo tablay walay ka hathoda leta, uss per maarta aur pani pi leta!”
After working for Radio Hyderabad for a year, Salamat Hussain returned to Karachi in 1955. His association with the various stations of Radio Pakistan continues to this day. In 1999 he was awarded the Super Star Award by Radio Pakistan. He has received several PTV awards as well.
Since 1960, Hussain started playing for films, and has worked with several famous music directors. Madam Noor Jehan’s popular ditty Lutt uljhi suljha jaray baalam, Suraiyya Multanikar’s Baday bemurrawwat hain ye husn walay and Zubaida Khanum’s Kya huwa dil pay situm are amongst the many songs that Hussain has been associated with.
Ustad Salamat Hussain has made waves playing his soulful music all over the world. He joined the PIA Arts Academy in 1966 and has associated himself with the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) since 1978. He has toured Turkey, China, Germany and the US several times, and has also performed in Japan, Syria, France, Australia, Jordan, Korea etc.
“I have been to Turkey at least eight times. I never come back without paying my tributes at the mausoleum of Maulana Rumi in Konya,” Hussain said with reverence. Perhaps it is because the reed flute features in Rumi’s poetry as a prominent symbol for the soul, emptied of self and filled with the Divine spirit:
“Hearken to this reed forlorn, Breathing, even since ‘twas torn From its rushy bed, a strain Of impassioned love and pain”
In the hands of the maestro, the magic sound leaves the humble bamboo instrument, and is carried aloft to the heights of a tranquil musical experience. As long as the maestro lives, that is.