Musicologists ascribe shehnai to Persian origin, although similar equipment has been known in India since time immemorial. ‘Nai" is a blowing device of a type depicted on ancient Egyptian tombs dating from 3000 B.C.
One of the earliest pictorial representations of this musical instrument is found in the Gandhara region of North-West Pakistan from about the beginning of the Christian era, where a straight blown equipment having a flaring bell is depicted with the player’s fingers clearly splayed to stop holes on it.
It is said that one ‘nai’ player played it so well in the court of the Shah of Persia, that the instrument was named as Shah-Nai. When Muslims came to India, they probably found some similarities between the Indian instrument and their Persian counterparts and they started calling them by their Persian names.
In India, shehnai was one of the nine instruments associated with the ensembles of royal courts where it was called Mangal Vadya, which translates to "auspicious musical appliances".
Various types of shehnai are in use, the Maharashtrian, Banarasi, Sundari, and nadaswaram version of South India. The classification depends on the number of holes drilled in the instrument. Although shehnai is referred to as a double-reeded instrument it is actually a quadruple-reed equipment. This is because it has two upper reeds and two lower reeds. The unit has a wooden body with a brass bell. The reed is attached to a brass tube wrapped in string.
According to musicians, the two halves of the reed vibrate against each other, while the slit between the two sides opens and closes, allowing air to enter the instrument at intervals. Although a prominent folk instrument in India for several centuries, the shehnai attained its full classical status only during the 20th century, mostly due to the efforts of the veteran maestro late Ustad Bismillah Khan.
A typical shehnai recital features a shruti peti, which serves the purpose of a tanpura drone by giving out just one or two notes. On the percussion side, the shehnai is traditionally accompanied by the tabla. Generally, the senior Ustad will sit for a recital, accompanied by two or three other junior artistes.
The artist holds the shehnai vertically, blowing into the double reed, made of a kind of cane called patti or pattur. Semi-tones are produced by partially closing the holes with the fingers as well as by adjusting the blowing pressure in the pipe. Bharat Ratna Bismillah Khan modified it and made it mellow and melodious. Moving his fingers on the stops deftly — sometimes you don’t even sense the fingers are moving — he produced the needed shrutis.
Varanasi is well known for making good quality shehnai and the shehnais made by Shafi Ahmed of Varanasi are famous among the performers for their good tonal qualities. Nowadays, Durga Das Thakur of Nashik has earned a reputation for making good quality, his most well known client being Ustad Bismillah Khan.
In the past, shehnai was part of the naubat or traditional ensemble of musical instruments found at royal courts The naubat was held in high esteem by the Muslim rulers of India and Emperor Akbar is said to have possessed the biggest ever ensemble, which had 20 pairs of drums and about 70 shehnais.
In the past, it was easy to identify a house where a wedding was soon to take place, because the first sign of such festivities was the arrival of the local shehnai player, who would sit on the rooftop and play non-stop from the run up to the ceremony, right through to the tearful departure of the bride.
Whoever can think of the famous Ustad Bismillah Khan sitting on the dome of a gate and playing? But he did. Once in the 1960s, Bismillah Khan attended the marriage of the daughter of the famous Bengali musician Radha Kanta Maitra. Right at the entrance of the marriage pandal, there were two special machans. These were domelike structures where usually some poor shehnaiwalla plays the instrument practically more than 24 hours with little gaps.
Because shehnai must be playing all the time, Bismillah Khan asked Maitra whether the dome was meant for him. Maitra was shocked at the idea and gasped "No!" The Ustad said, "This is the marriage of the daughter of my friend. If I don’t play music for this occasion who else will play? Ask the shehnaiwalla to stop, don’t deprive him of his bread, but I will play several hours sitting inside that dome". In spite of Maitra’s protests, the Ustad carried out his promise. — MF