IN September 2012, I had begun a monthly series on Indian musical instruments. The aim was two-fold: one, to make Indian readers aware of certain artistes they might not have heard before, and secondly, to expose relatively new audiences, mainly from the West, to the melodic or rhythmic beauty that various Indian instruments offer.
In this series, I shall not go into too many technicalities and playing styles. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style. However, while I have tried to name all the main musicians, the lists mentioned are by no means exhaustive or complete. In all parts of the series, I shall use a similar format to maintain uniformity, and some portions on the concert structure may be repeated verbatim if needed.
The earlier parts of the series talked about the violin, sitar, bansuri, sarangi, different types of veena, the sarod and santoor. This month, we feature the shehnai and nadaswaram.
WHEN one talks of the shehnai, only one name comes to mind. For over six decades till he passed away on August 21, 2006, Ustad Bismillah Khan was single-handedly identified with this wind instrument, making it popular in Hindustani classical music and elevating it to concert stage status.
Khan was a recipient of the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour, and his records were, and still are, compulsorily played on many auspicious occasions like marriages and religious ceremonies.
While the shehnai is immensely popular in north India, a similar instrument — nadaswaram — is played in the south, again mainly on auspicious occasions and in temples. Both belong to the family of double reed instruments, and are made of wood, with a metal bell at one end. However, the nadaswaram is much longer, and even louder. In fact, it is considered to be the world’s loudest non-brass acoustic instrument.
Here, we shall discuss both instruments separately, mention the main musicians playing them, and talk about how some western musicians have also played them. But before that, we shall try and figure out what reed instruments are.
Reed instruments: They use reeds, which are thin strips which vibrate to produce sound, and can be classified into single reed, double reed or free reed.
In a single reed, one piece of cane vibrates against the mouthpiece, whereas in a double reed, two pieces vibrate against each other. In a free reed, which need not necessarily be found in wind instruments, sound is produced when air passes a vibrating reed in a frame.
Single reeds are mostly used in saxophones and clarinets, whereas double reeds are found in the oboe, bassoon, English horn, the European shawm, the Arabic mizmar and many ethnic instruments, besides the shehnai and nadaswaram. Free reeds are used in various global folk instruments, and also in the harmonica, accordion and harmonium.
Shehnai: Like the santoor, discussed in the previous part of the series, the shehnai has relatively fewer practitioners compared to the sitar, sarod and bansuri (bamboo flute). Yet, it remains hugely popular among Indian classical music fans, mainly because of the serene and spiritual music it produces.
The shehnai is played largely in north and west India, but one hears it even in Pakistan and Iran. There are various theories about its origin. One is that is a derivative of a Persian instrument called surnai. Another is that it was played by a barber (Hindi word: nai) in the court of a Shah (king), and hence the word shehnai. A third is that it was named after a musician called Shehinia. A fourth is that it is a combination of the words ‘sheh’ (meaning breath) and ‘nai’ (reed or flute). And there are some who believe it combines the words ‘Shah’ and ‘nai’ (flute), and is thus a ‘king’s flute’.
The shehnai has between six and nine holes, and requires immense breath control. It has a range of two octaves.
How shehnai is played: In any concert, the musician sits cross legged. He could either play it alone with tabla accompaniment, or as was often done by Bismillah Khan, assisted by three or four other shehnai players.
At times, the instrument is also used as a duet (called jugalbandi) with other instruments. While the jugalbandis between Bismillah Khan and sitar legend Ustad Vilayat Khan are simply outstanding, the maestro has also played with violinists VG Jog, N Rajam and L Subramaniam, the last being in north-south encounters.
A concert usually begins with the rendition of a classical raga, the melodic mode used in Indian music. After that, shehnai players usually play many light, folk pieces or devotional pieces like the thumri, kajri, chaiti, hori or bhajan.
Main players: Though Bismillah Khan became synonymous with the shehnai, those who have followed Hindustani classical music closely would have also heard Pandit S Ballesh, Anant Lal, Ram Lal, Raghunath Prasanna, Ali Hussain Khan, Krishna Ram Chaudhury, Lokesh Anand and Ali Ahmed Hussain.
For his part, Bismillah Khan symbolised the instrument. Among his numerous achievements, he played at the Red Fort, Delhi, on the eve of India’s Independence in 1947 and also at the ceremony held a day before the country became a republic in 1950. For years, India’s national television channel Doordarshan telecast his live performances after the prime minister’s speech on August 15, India’s Independence Day.
Bismillah Khan rarely accepted disciples, but because of his close association with Sikh spiritual leader Satguru Jagjit Singh JI, taught a few musicians who played the stringed instrument tarshehnai at their religious functions, and guided them on how to play the wind instrument. His other disciples included Sailesh Bhagwat and Bageshri Qamar, who is also one of the few females to play the instrument. The maestro has also guided thumri singer Soma Ghosh, his adopted daughter.
Nadaswaram: Like the shehnai is in north India, the nadaswaram is considered very auspicious in south India. It is played in many Hindu weddings and even in temples, accompanied by the percussion instrument thavil, and sometimes by a wind instrument called ottu, which provides the backdrop drone.
The nadaswaram has seven finger-holes, and five holes at the bottom which can be blocked to modify the tone. It has a range of two and a half octaves, similar to the bansuri. However, because of its high volume, the nadaswaram is said to be more suited for outdoor concerts.
Main players: The well-known nadaswaram practitioners include Thiruvavadudurai Rajaratnam Pillai, Thiruvengadu Subramania Pillai and Thiruvidaimaruthur P S Veerusami Pillai, besides the Keeranur, Thiruveezhimizhalai, and Semponnarkoil brothers.
Use of shehnai and nadaswaram in other music: Both instruments have been used regularly in film music and also by jazz musicians, who see a similarity with the saxophone and oboe.
Bismillah Khan played the shehnai through the 1959 Hindi film Goonj Uthi Shehnai, which even had a duet between him and sitar maestro Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan. He also played in the 1977 Kannada movie Sanadi Appanna, which is about a shehnai player.
Some film songs have used the shehnai appropriately. Music director Naushad often used it, notable examples being ‘Dil mein baji pyaar ki shehnaiyan’ in Kohinoor and ‘Khuda nigahbaan ho tumhara’ in Mughal-e-Azam. Khayyam used it in the title song of Kabhi Kabhie, along with the lines “Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein khayal aata hai, ke jaise bajti hain shehnaiyan si rahon mein.” A R Rahman had shehnai stretches by Madhukar Dhumal in the instrumetal version of ‘Yeh jo des hai mera’ in Swades and by S Ballesh in the Rockstar instrumental ‘The dichotomy of fame’, and also in ‘Raanjhanaa’. Recently, Amit Trivedi used the instrument in the Kai Po Che song ‘Shubharambh’.
In jazz, the shehnai was sometimes used by American saxophonist and flautist Yusuf Lateef. The Rolling Stones song ‘Street Fighting Man’ has a small shehnai stretch played by Dave Mason, originally from the group Traffic.
Likewise, the nadaswaram was played by jazz alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano, who studied it on his Indian visits. The instrument was also attempted by German saxophonist Roland Schaeffer.
On the classical side, American musician Phil Scarff has incorporated shehnai technique to play his soprano saxophone, rendering full-length ragas.
While the fusion experiments have been few and far between, the best way to get into the shehnai is to hear the recordings of Bismillah Khan. A good beginning would be his Shaadi Ki Shehnai CDs released by Saregama HMV,his ragas Malkauns, Yaman, Bhimpalasi, Gunkali, Shivranjani and Bhairavi, or his duets with Vilayat Khan on sitar. It’s pure magic all the way.