Sundari players struggle as Covid takes the music out of Indian weddings

sundari player
Bhimanna Jadhav. Photo courtsey- Bhimanna Jadhav

Bhopal: Sundari, a wind-instrument is held in high regard among musicians of Maharashtra, as the younger sister of the better-known Shehnai. But sadly, the Sundari-organists in Solapur, are still reeling from the consequences of the pandemic trying out odd jobs to make ends meet after COVID-19 took a toll on their livelihood.

“I tried to become an auto-driver a few months ago, and went to learn how to drive it. But as I met with an accident, I had to give that up,” said Gorakhnath Jadhav, a Sundari-vadak* based in Sholapur.

Gorakhnath now sells vegetables by the roadside to make ends meet. But he is not the only Sundari- vadak to do so. There are many like him who have taken up odd jobs to survive in the absence of concerts and lavish weddings, where they used to make some income earlier.

Noted Sundari-vadak Bhimanna Jadhav is a descendent of the Jadhav family, which is credited with the invention of the Sundari in the year 1936 for Raja Fateh Singh Bhonsle of Akkalkot, after the King said that he did not like the strident note of the Shehnai. Earlier called ‘bobbin’, the instrument was christened ‘Sundari’ by the King himself. Made from Shisham trees, Sundari has a softer sound as compared to Shehnai.

COVID Response Watch LogoBut now, Jadhav is facing monetary problems due to cancellation of all his concerts and wedding functions due to the pandemic. As people are trying to make weddings a smaller affair, classical musicians who were considered an important part of wedding ceremonies, are the first to be dropped from the invitation list.

“It has been almost 2 years since I played on stage or at a wedding. The times are really tough for musicians like us. Sundari is not a very common instrument, and there are just a handful of players across the country. If we are not able to earn our living with this, how will we encourage the next generation to take this tradition forward?,” asked Bhimanna

He told Covid Response Watch that there are 13 members of the Jadhav Gharana who play the Sundari, but most of them are out of work.

He himself had to break his bank fixed deposits to pay the bills. “The money I was saving for my children’s higher education has now been used for basic needs in absence of work. I used to get a decent amount for concerts in India and abroad, but as there have been no music programmes, I am left with no source of income. There was no option but to dip into savings to provide for the family,” he said.

Sundari Photo courtsey- Bhimanna Jadhav

“But there are some students of mine who are in a far worse situation. Many of them have taken up tasks like auto-driving, becoming vendors, working in shops as salespersons, or doing other menial chores to make a living,” he added.

Gorakhnath added, “I had never imagined that I would be in such a situation where I have to work as a green grocer. I feel embarrassed when someone I know drops by my ‘thela’ to buy vegetables. I am an artist, I should not have to sell vegetables to make a living. I hardly make Rs 500 a day, while as an artist I used to get a decent amount of money for a few hours of Sundari-vadan.”

Facing tough times he is now thinking whether he should ask his 11 year old son to quit his Sundari practice and focus more on his studies to land a job in future.

“I used to tell my son about the glorious past of Sundari, and how it was created by our ancestors, encouraging him to carry on the tradition after me. But now I am not so sure. If this is what it has come to, I would not want Sundari-vadan as a career for him. I want him to have a full time job to have a safe future, away from these insecurities and uncertainties,” Gorakhnath said.

The condition of Shehnai-vadaks is also similar as they have not been invited to play at weddings for almost 2 years now. The art of Shehnai-vadan is becoming rarer day by day as people have shifted to DJ and bands instead of traditional music at their weddings. The COVID-19 pandemic has now added to the woes of the artistes.

Gajanan Warude, a senior Shehnai-vadak based in Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh told CRW that people had cancelled their advance bookings and the artist had faced huge losses because of it.

“I do not charge an advance fee when someone books me for an event. This became my undoing. I have been playing at wedding ceremonies and several other ‘sanskars’, without charging a penny in advance. When the wedding parties cancelled their bookings 10 days before the functions, I had no other option. I had turned down other bookings when I made a commitment to someone else and so I was out of work,” he said.

He further said that earlier in Burhanpur there used to be around 2,000 families of Shehnai-vadaks, but gradually as the popularity of the instrument went down, people started taking up other jobs and now there are hardly 20 vadaks left in the district.

“In districts like Khargone and Nimad, no auspicious function took place without Shehnai, They were considered holy. Every house had a chalk drawing of Shehnai on its main door. It was a tradition. But now I think I am the only one left here who is still playing Shehnai,” he said.

Warude added that he had filled a form for unemployment-relief for out of work artistes, promised by the department of culture but did not receive any compensation.

“I appreciate the Madhya Pradesh government for taking online videos of folk artists from across the state, providing them with some sort of compensation to help them survive the pandemic. But I have not received any such relief so far.

I have faced huge losses and it is getting more difficult to survive with each passing day. I urge the state and central governments to provide some relief to artistes like us so that we may not have to give up our tradition just to put food in our bellies,” he said.

Shuchita Jha is a Bhopal-based freelance journalist 

* Sundari instrument players

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