Srinagar, Jan 9: Amid the waning demand, Bashir Ahmad Kharadi perseveres as the last Surnai artisan in Kashmir, crafting the traditional instrument with dedication. He laments the fading cultural heritage and the absence of initiatives to preserve this ancient craft
Kharadi. 47, is firmly handling a block of wood against an electrical sander in his nine-by-eight shop tucked between two four-storey residential buildings. He occasionally looks away at the minaret of the Sufi saint Syed Simnania’s shrine which overlooks his dingy shop. He hums some chants, returns his gaze to this wooden block, and starts boring small holes in it.
Kharadi is again making a traditional Kashmiri musical instrument called Surnai. When finished, this surnai will adorn a shelf in the shop already stacked with years-old Surnais.
‘I still make it for my own happiness and satisfaction, even though the instrument is not in demand today and nobody has asked for it in many years,’ Kharadi said.
According to musicologists, the Surnai was brought to Kashmir from Iran through Central Asia. The playing of Surnai was regarded as extremely auspicious in Kashmiri culture, and the Bhands here prominently featured it in their plays.
“The players used to visit the farms during harvest time and perform for the farmers’ amusement while also taking the crop for themselves in exchange for the performance, ” Bashir said, adding that Surnai is played with the mouth; musical notes are produced by blowing into it and pressing fingers against the stops.
Surnai is made up of three components: the nai, a wooden pipe with nine holes, the barg, a locally sourced wheatgrass reed, and a copper disc into which the barg is fixed.
To ensure accuracy, Kharadi asked Abdul Jamal, a local Surnai player and Kangri maker, to play it for him. “Even a minute change can spoil its musical tones,” he said.
Kharadi is a member of a line of artisans of Kulgam, thought to be the only professionals in Kashmir to have ever produced this traditional instrument.
Mohammad Abdullah Kharadi, Bashir’s father, was tasked by a businessman from Kishtwar to make a Surnai. Once he got going on making it, he was successful on his first try.
The demand for Surnai increased over time to the point where he gave up traditional carpentry and concentrated solely on this instrument. His reputation as a skilled Surnai maker spread throughout Kashmir among its players, particularly the folk theatre performers. Nearly 50 years into his practice, he received orders from all over Kashmir.
“Before starting to make a Surnai, I used to offer a ritual at the local shrine of Hazrat Mir Syed Simnani (RA) as I believe this instrument is very pious,” Kharadi said.
Abdullah passed away in 2012, but before that, he had given his son the legacy of this craft. Bashir had already started crafting Surnai at the age of 17.
Kharadi noted the declining interest in traditional musical instruments, saying the last order for a Surnai was placed about eight years ago. He has not sold a single Swarnai since then.
“The quantity of Surnai my father and I produced varied greatly. Previously, districts in Kashmir and neighbouring states would request such instruments, but as modern music has taken centre stage, this art form is on its deathbed,” he lamented.
Abdullah’s Surnai was sold at Rs 400, whereas the same Surnai today would cost Rs 3,500, Bashir said, adding that it normally takes him a day or two to make it.
“There has also been no initiative from the government to save this rare craft,” he lamented.
To make ends meet, Kharadi makes wooden household items like big spoons, bowls, meat pounders, beaters, pestles and other items which he then supplies to retailers in Srinagar. “Surnai making is just a hobby now; our main business is to make other items,” he said.
Kharadi said he is proud of his craftsmanship but laments that no one in his family has taken over this art. “I am the last one in my family to know this craft. Nobody after me will ever carve any instrument. I cannot ask my son to learn this as I know it won’t fetch him enough money to survive,” he said.