Rishi Majumder meets Gajanan Salunke who has come a long way from playing the shehnai at community festivals and weddings to making a mark with Bollywood hits
Gajanan Salunke rehearsing at his Kandivali home

Gajanan Salunke rehearsing at his Kandivali home

   Choli ke peeche kya hai, choli ke peeche? Chunri ke neeche kya hai, chunri ke neeche?” Gajanan Salunke sings, on being asked about his contribution to one of Hindi cinema’s sauciest controversies. Then he demonstrates how the sundari plays out in the ditty. The sundari is a wooden pipe-like instrument that lets out a charming sound when played. Salunke calls it paramparic (read traditional). We’ve enjoyed its effect in the chart burner, but missed out on the man who was playing it. We missed him again in ‘Nimbura’, another smash hit from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, also featuring the sundari. And in Trimurti and Dilbar. Peering through a soundproof window during a recording however, we spot him instantly. How could we not? Amidst four artists performing in trendy jeans, fancy kurtas and smart t-shirts, Salunke sits humbly in chappals, faded trousers, an old white shirt and a Gandhi topi… playing the shehnai. Another ‘paramparic’ instrument.
   Salunke’s set his lips to the instrument as a 12-year-old tutored by his father and uncle, local players performing at weddings and community festivals. His first performance at a muhalla wedding at age 18 earned him Rs 20. Today, after having given solo performances for over 12 years in Atlanta, Panama City, London, Geneva and Paris, besides regularly touring Gujarat, Rajasthan, the North East and Kashmir, he earns Rs 3000 for a recording. He has received awards in the US. But one of his proudest moments remains receiving appreciation from President APJ Abdul Kalam at the Y B Chavan auditorium. “And also the fact that I get to play and interact with greats like Hari Prasad saab (Chaurasia) and Shiv Kumar ji (Sharma),” he adds smiling.
   “Family circumstances were not too good when I was a boy,” Salunke remembers, explaining the reason he couldn’t continue his education after school. So while waiting for a possible bus conductorship, he tried his hand at a musical career with off-beat instruments: “I tutored under a guru formally, and performed wherever I could. Besides weddings and mandirs, I even played on the road!” While his association with a renowned youth group started getting him some concerts, his finances flowed in with the film industry: “I got a recommendation to Laxmikant and Pyarelal ji and they heard and picked me for Khalnayak.
   Otherwise without backing, no one can make it here.”
   The recording is over now. It was for a Rajasthani movie. “A lot of work comes from regional films — Bhojpuri, Bengali, Gujarati…” Salunke lists. “With ten recordings or performances a month you’re monetarily okay.” The benefits of such a career over “service” for him lies in the fame: “If you’re good at service, only your office branch knows you. Here you have 500 people watching you on stage. And 5000 on TV!” Another matter of quiet pride is that his shehnai recital was used to inaugurate DD Metro 2: “Because Ustad Bismillah Khan had opened DD Metro 1!”
   He has shifted address, from his chawl room to a simply done up flat in Kandivali, but continues to play at mohalla functions: “At Govinda every year, at baraats… all someone has to do is ask.” Also, this keeps his riyaaz on: “All instrumental artists know that film music, while being the roti provider, is naatak beyond a point. The true skill is in classical.” Which is why he’s making his own album now, though he hopes, “more industry people know about instruments like the shehnai, nakara and sundari… many players are exiting the profession because of lack of an income.” He is training his son in the same instruments, for what he calls “the market”. “Though it’s his choice, this family profession, this isn’t one with ‘job security’ or ‘retirement benefits’,” Salunke laughs. Yet, he feels these classical instruments will always find a “market”. He feels there’ll always be an ear for “paramparic” purity.

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