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Infatuation with the flute

One of the most revered artists from the sub-continent discusses his journey in pursuit of musical perfection

By Shazia Tasneem |
Ustad Salamat Hussain. Photo: File
PUBLISHED January 02, 2022

When I first watched flute maestro and NAPA faculty member Ustad Salamat Hussain performing raga chandrakauns as he went on to set the mood of not only the event but the entire environment together with Ustad Bashir Khan on tabla, I knew why he was one of the few most revered artistes of this subcontinent. Born in Rampur, India to a military officer in 1937, he received his early training in music from ustad Guchan Khan and the legendary court musician of Rampur ustad Mushtaq Hussain. Both of his teachers were singers themselves, but Salamat Hussain shifted his focus on flute. He learnt the art extensively and at 14, he could already play some popular tunes on the flute. Losing three brothers to the pre-partition catastrophe of cholera in Rampur district of Uttar Prdaesh, his devastated family moved to Pakistan in 1951. ‘I was just a child when I first heard pandit Pannalal Ghosh's flute and grew a love within for the instrument. I bought a flute for one or two annas from Saddar, Karachi and started playing it’, he recalls.

Hussain falls in the list of global musicians having performed around the world and earned recognitions as a performer of highest order. His long association with the Radio Pakistan started in 1952. He was conferred upon the prestigious presidential Pride of Performance award by President Gholam Ishaq Khan, the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation Super Star Award in 1999, received several awards from Pakistan Television and many honors at international level. Hussain started playback fluting for films in 1960. Some of his best songs include Noor Jahan's ‘lut uljhi suljha ja re baalam’, Suraya Multankar's Badey ‘be murawwat hain ye husn walay’, and Zubaida Khanum’s ‘kya huwa dil pay situm’. He also holds the credit of performing at government level for high profile dignitaries and visiting head of the states like Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and former US President Richard Nixon. Keeping in view that the art of playing bamboo flute is on the verge of extinction, Express Tribune reached out to the flute maestro for an exclusive interview to know his side of the story. Ustad Salamat offered a warm hospitality and opens up unpretentiously about his long journey as a star flutist of the subcontinent.

STF: Tell me about your taleem days.

USH: My school education was very interesting. Even though my father was in the army, we used to live in a rented house and barely had enough to make ends meet. I studied in a local primary school and my teacher liked me well. I cannot forget the rhyme I used to recite do you mind if I recite now? It was ‘kawway hain sub dekhay bhalay, chonch bhi kaali, par bhi kaalay, kaali kaali wardi in ki….’. Then I started writing on the takhti using traditional bamboo pens. We had a beautiful environment. I used to buy chana from one or two paisas given by my father, but half of which the master would take, do you believe? Then it was a comprehensive music education and my maternal uncle master Guchan Khan was my first teacher. He was under tutelage ustad the legendary court musician of Rampur Mushtaq Hussain Khan.

STF: Our generation knows flute only as an instrument. But it is something beyond that. Can you please tell us something about this instrument, flute?

USH: Bansuri is special because it has a voice of its own, it sings like a human voice. It can sing in any language and flavor as well as play classical Ragas. The tone of this instrument soaks the heart and everyone is moved by it.

STF: What exactly do you feel when you are playing the flute?

USH: Before playing any song, I meticulously analyze it and prepare it, marking the exact places to take the breath. I have to mark the points to use musical ornamentations. But it is something different when I am on the stage. There I craft my work and try to connect with my audience with the best of my musical blows.

SRF: You had a long association with Radio Pakistan & PTV. Is there anything memorable about those days that you want to share from your long work experience?

USH: Yes it is memorable indeed. I was struggling to get a break as a professional flutist. I used to go there regularly and sit outside in the roadside hotel for hours and was not allowed to enter. I knew none and it took a long time to get a chance to present my skill. But it actually happened and I was asked to give the audition. It all started from there. I have worked at different stations of Radio Pakistan. There are very professional and skilled people at stations. Directors there know very well about not only music but the instruments too. Working at Radio Pakistan was an opportunity for me. This was the place that brought me to prominence and I still cherish those days.

STF: How is music connected to soul?

USH: This is a very deep question. The knowledge of music and ragas can be learnt from the teacher, but it should come from the heart. One cannot immerse in the music until its knowledge is absorbed by the soul.

STF: Which is your favorite raga and flute?

USH: My favorite raga is Shudh Sarang. I learnt it from my ustad, the sarangi player ustad Hamid Hussain Khan. I have learnt to play ragas on bamboo flute or bansuri. But I also play concert flutes that produce notes and vocals. I have more than 200 flutes and I use them all.

STF: What are your views about the approach of young generation about this instrument of flute?

USH: In Punjab there are still young people who have interest in the instrument of flute but in Karachi, the trend is low. It is a difficult instrument that requires patients and dedication. Today’s young generation has developed interest in many other things. They hardly have any interest in this instrument.

STF: In general, how much is all the rehearsal and the work beforehand, and how much is left for the inspiration of the moment? 

USH: When I am playing a concert, it’s all about the inspiration that I receive from my trust in Allah (SWT). But my mind and body draws motivation from the years of hard work in learning and playing the flute.

STF: You are obviously a high rated flute player. Is there anything on the flute that you could not accomplish?

USH: I think there are many such things. In music, accomplishment cannot be limited no matter how much one plays or practices. The horizon moves further and further away. Even now at this age, sometimes my doctor or children tells me not to play the flute, but it is simply impossible to give up.

STF: Is the flute purely a sound instrument, or is there supposed to be something visual that you get from watching someone play it?

USH: Of course, it is more about sound, but the way one holds the flute is very important. The positioning of the hands and the mouth should be graceful. Many people are curious to know that how I leant to hold the flute so differently. Actually I saw great Bengali musician and composer, Debu Bhattacharya’s hand position and corrected mine.

STF: Will any of your children take your strong legacy forward?

USH: As I told you earlier, new generations lacks both interest and time in flute or any other traditional instrument. They have many other choices and interests. My children are not different. They have opted for their own interest and profession. None of them have learnt the art and I never imposed. I would rather advice the people of new generation to understand the worth of our traditions and values, particularly the instruments that are fading out slowly.