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The Shehnai, among the vast array of Indian musical instruments, stands out as one instrument.
It originates from North India and holds a special place in the realm of traditional Indian music.
With its extensive range of notes and its ability to produce intricate melodies, it has gained prominence in various ceremonies, especially weddings.
In this article, we will explore the rich history, unique characteristics, playing techniques, and cultural significance of the Shehnai.
By the end, you will have acquired valuable insights and uncovered fascinating facts about this remarkable double-reed instrument.
What is Shehnai?
The Shehnai is a wind musical instrument that originated in the Indian subcontinent.
It is crafted from wood and features a mouthpiece at one end and a flared bell made of metal or wood at the other end.
It is classified as an aerophone and has a double-reed mouthpiece attached to its wooden body.
The shehnai features a conical shape both on the outside and inside, with a metal bell attached at the bottom.
In northern India, it holds a historical position and is known as the Oboe Hindu.
Moreover, the shehnai is commonly used in traditional Indian folk and classical music, particularly in North Indian and Pakistani music traditions.
The Shehnai is often played in ensembles, accompanied by other traditional Indian instruments like the tabla and the harmonium.
The shehnai is renowned for its unique and melodious sound, often described as rich and haunting.
The unique sound produced by the Shehnai is believed to bring about a feeling of auspiciousness and sacredness.
As a result, it is commonly played during wedding ceremonies, processions, and in temples, although it is also showcased in concerts.
A Brief History of the Shehnai (Instrument)
The Shehnai, a traditional Indian instrument, has a long history dating back centuries, although its exact origins are not well documented.
In northern India, the Shehnai is known as the Oboe Hindu and is believed to have evolved from the Persian Nay. Ancient Egyptian tombs dating back to 3000 BC depict similar instruments called Nay.
Historically, the shehnai is also believed to have been created by making improvements to the pungi, a traditional, unpleasant wind instrument used for snake charming.
According to the story, the pungi was banned by Emperor Aurangzeb. However, an enterprising barber decided to improve upon it and make it melodious. He played the improved instrument for a royal family, who were impressed.
Another theory suggests that the name “shehnai” comes from the words “shah-nai.” “Nai” means barber in many Indian languages, and “shah” refers to royalty. As the Shehnai was played in the chambers of kings and by barbers, it came to be known as “shehnai.”
The Shehnai is also referred to as “Mangal Vadya” or the “enabling tool.” Its sound is considered auspicious and has become associated with religious ceremonies.
Over time, the shehnai evolved to become an auspicious fixture at weddings and ceremonies.
Even today, it is commonly played in temples during worship and is an essential part of Indian weddings and festivals in the northern regions.
In Western India and Coastal Karnataka, there are similar instruments that are native to the region. Shehnai players, called Vajantri, have played an important role in the Goan/Konkani region and in temple services along the western coast. They have even received land allocations as recognition for their contributions.
Shehnai In Indian Classical Music
Traditionally, the Shehnai was part of the naubat ensemble, consisting of nine instruments, performed in royal courts.
However, it was predominantly used in temples and weddings until Ustad Bismillah Khan popularized it on the classical stage.
This makes the shehnai an integral part of Indian classical music.
Description of the Shehnai (Instrument)
The shehnai is a wooden wind instrument with a double reed and a flaring metal bell at its bottom.
Traditionally, shehnais were crafted from Indian blackwood, but nowadays, other woods like ebony and rosewood are also used.
The shehnai has a conical body both on the outside and inside, with a bell made of nickel-plated metal.
This tubular instrument gradually widens towards its lower end. It measures around 12 to 20 inches (30 to 50 cm) in length and has six to eight keyless finger holes along its body.
The shehnai has a double reed, similar to a small vegetable, made of a type of cane called patti or pattur.
These reeds, which function as valves, are fixed to a metal staple inserted into the instrument’s tubular body.
Therefore, the shehnai can be divided into three main parts: the reeds, the tube, and the metallic bell.
This, traditionally made of pala grass, acts as a mechanical valve through which the shehnai is played.
Technically, the shehnai is a quadruple-reed woodwind instrument, with four reeds bound together over one another, but we commonly refer to it as having double reeds.
The reeds are placed on top of a metal tube, and the lower end of the tube connects to the tubular wooden body of the instrument.
During a performance, Shehnai players typically have several reeds with them. These reeds are strung together and hang off the end of the instrument.
The (Wooden) Tube
This serves as the main body of the shehnai and acts as a resonator.
It has a conical shape, starting narrow near the blowing end and gradually widening towards the other end.
The tubular wooden body has simple finger holes and does not have a key mechanism.
The Metallic Bell
This, also known as the pyala, is located at the farthest end of the shehnai.
It is made of brass, silver, gold, or other metals, and it enhances the sound produced by the instrument.
How To Play The Shehnai (Instrument)
Playing the Shehnai is similar to playing the western oboe. It produces a powerful sound with a distinct nasal quality.
To create the sound, you hold two reeds that are bound together and positioned between your lips.
By blowing with moderate pressure, the air causes the reeds to vibrate, producing the unique sound. There is no need to blow forcefully.
The Shehnai produces a powerful sound with a distinct nasal quality.
Furthermore, we produce different musical notes by controlling the flow of breath through the reed into the tube of the instrument.
By also adjusting the pressure of our lips and the air, we can change the pitch.
The Shehnai has a total of six to nine holes on its body, which can be used to adjust the pitch and scale of the instrument.
The lower four holes are covered by the fingers of the right hand, while the four top holes are plugged by the fingers of the left hand.
While blowing air from the mouthpiece and firmly gripping the narrow end with their lips, the player simultaneously uses their fingers to completely or partially open and close these holes.
This action creates different musical tones from the instrument, allowing musicians to produce beautiful melodies.
Playing the Shehnai requires dexterity and skill to execute the movements, ornamentation, and embellishments in the music.
Some Shehnai players customize the instrument by partially or fully closing certain holes with beeswax, allowing them to create new musical notes and scales.
This gives each player the flexibility to interpret and perform music in their own unique way.
In some cases, two Shehnais can be tied together, creating a double shawm similar to the ancient Greek aulos.
Shehnai Playing Techniques
To play the Shehnai, one must possess skill and expertise.
The musician, known as a Shehnai player or Shehnai nawaz, places the reeds against their lips and blows air through them while manipulating the finger holes to create different notes.
The playing technique employed in the Shehnai is similar to playing a flute.
All musical notes are produced by controlling the flow of breath through the reed and into the tube.
Agile finger movements are necessary to execute the intricate techniques and ornaments of classical music.
The manipulation of the fingering technique, whether fully closing or partially closing the holes, determines the production of musical notes. Additionally, the positioning of the jaw, tongue, and lips contributes to the creation of various musical expressions.
A seasoned player combines precise lip and tongue movements with dexterous fingering during performances.
A crucial component of playing the shehnai is the sur, or sruti, which consists of a longer pipe with two or three sound holes. This allows the accompanist to create a continuous drone sound.
The Shehnai is often played as part of ensembles, accompanied by other traditional Indian instruments like the tabla and the harmonium.
In many shehnai ensembles, the sur shehnai is used instead of the tanpura to maintain the tonic.
The sur shehnai does not have finger holes and serves to support the main solo shehnai.
Additional shehnais may be played by relatives or advanced students of the main soloist.
Instead of the bayan, a percussion accompanist often uses an instrument called the duggi for the left-hand bass, which has a clay shell and a skin without any decorations.
In classical shehnai performances, the naqqara has been replaced by the dukkar, a small earthen kettle drum played with fingers.
The dukkar is played in pairs, with the higher-pitched drum known as jheel and the lower-pitched one called duggi.
However, modern shehnai players sometimes use the tabia as an accompaniment. It is also common to see both the tabia and dukkar together accompanying a shehnai group in contemporary performances.
Cultural Significance of Shehnai (Instrument)
The Shehnai holds great cultural importance in Indian society. It is deeply intertwined with traditional Indian weddings and is considered a sacred instrument.
The beautiful melodies produced by the Shehnai create a joyful atmosphere and foster a sense of happiness and unity among the participants.
In the past, it was customary for a group of musicians to play the Shehnai continuously on a rooftop as a public announcement of an upcoming wedding or festive celebration at a particular house.
This tradition would begin days before the actual wedding, and the music would continue throughout the ceremonies.
Due to its distinctively mournful sound, the Shehnai would also play a traditional dirge when the tearful bride departed from her parental home after the wedding rituals.
However, live Shehnai performances at weddings are becoming increasingly rare nowadays.
This is mainly because recorded music has replaced live musicians in many areas of Indian and diasporic musical practices. Additionally, finding Shehnai players outside of India is not as easy.
The Shehnai has also left its mark in the realm of Indian classical music.
It is often featured in classical concerts and has become an integral part of the Indian classical music repertoire.
Accomplished musicians have mastered the art of playing the Shehnai, delivering captivating performances that touch the hearts of millions.
Notable Shehnai Players
The contributions made by players like Chhote Khan, Gaurishankar, and Nandlal, who was Chhote Khan’s disciple from Benaras, have played a significant role in raising the status of the Shehnai as a concert instrument.
Benaras, more than any other city, has become synonymous with the Shehnai and continues to produce some of the finest players in the country.
However, it was Ustad Bismillah Khan who truly popularized the Shehnai as a concert instrument, both nationally and internationally.
While Bismillah Khan is widely recognized as the face of the Shehnai, those who closely follow Hindustani classical music may also be familiar with other notable Shehnai players. These include Pandit S. Ballesh, Anant Lal, Ram Lal, Raghunath Prasanna, Ali Hussain Khan, Krishna Ram Chaudhury, Lokesh Anand, and Ali Ahmed Hussain.
Bismillah Khan’s legacy is closely tied to the Shehnai. Among his many achievements, he performed at the Red Fort in Delhi on the eve of India’s Independence in 1947.
Additionally, he also performed at the ceremony held a day before the country became a republic in 1950.
For years, his live performances were broadcast on India’s national television channel, Doordarshan, following the prime minister’s speech on August 15, India’s Independence Day.
Throughout this blog post, we have explored various aspects of the Shehnai.
As we have discovered, the Shehnai has fascinated audiences for centuries as an extraordinary musical instrument.
Its unique sound and cultural importance make it an essential part of Indian music and festive occasions.
The melodies it produces have the power to evoke emotions and take listeners on an unforgettable musical journey.
This ancient Indian instrument can be encountered at a wedding procession or on a concert stage.
The Shehnai holds widespread usage in temple music across North and Western India, particularly in the sacred city of Varanasi or Benares.
Its sound is believed to create a sense of auspiciousness and sanctity, leading to its prominent role during weddings and processions.
In the mid-20th century, the renowned musician Bismillah Khan, one of India’s most esteemed artists, adopted the Shehnai for classical raga music.
His contribution further enhanced the instrument’s significance and solidified its place in Indian music history.
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