The Shehnai
The Shehnai comes under the category of Sushir Vadya (Aerophonic Musical Instruments) under the Natya Shastra. This category of musical instruments are played through the lips with various blowing techniques. The most popular Sushir Vadya is the coach, which is used all over India, in temples, rituals, social ceremonies etc. From the beginning the Shehnai has been played on all these auspicious occasions, ironically played only by the lower castes.

Shehnai players were not allowed to enter the house, and played only in the courtyard. Today Shehnai has got its due status thanks to Ustad Bismillah Khan. It was his efforts that brought the most awaited freedom from the shackles of casteism.


Popular stories abound about the origin of the Shehnai told by the eminent Hindu shehnai players. One amusing anecdote goes like this. In Delhi people played the high-pitched ‘pungi’. The ‘pungi’ was the earlier, crude form of the Shehnai. This instrument, because of its shrill sound quality, was banned by Aurangzeb and came to be known as ‘napili’, a distortion of the original word ‘napaak’ (inauspicious). Even today a section of people in the society call the Shehnai ‘nafiri’.

Afterwards, a barber of the professional musician’s family, who had access to the royal residence, worked hard to improve the tonal quality of the instrument. He selected a wood, which had a natural hollow stem and used it as the pipe of the ‘pungi’. The size of the instrument now became longer and broader than before. As he carved out seven holes on the body of the instrument, an impressive, sonorous tonal quality was obtained which was far better than the shrill and piercing notes of the ‘pungi’. He carried the new instrument to the emperor’s palace and played before the royalty. Immensely pleased about the fresh tonal quality, the Shah inquired about its name. The barber, in Hindi is called the ‘nai’, quickly took the Benaras version of the name of the instrument – senai. But the Shah too was no less prompt in correcting the barber, pointing out that the instrument was born in his royal chamber and should be named ‘Shahnai’ – the emperor and the barber. Thus the instrument acquired a new name – Shahnai or Shehnai.

According to Bismillah Khan, the Shehnai has its roots in Iran or Persia. Haquim Bu Ali Saina of Iran discovered the Shehnai. A haquim is a doctor in Arabic. In old Iran, according to a strange custom a haquim had to be a competent singer. To obtain the license for practice the haquim would have to sing before the royalty. The license would be given only to a good singer. Bu Ali had a flat voice, incapable of producing musical notes. He failed to get a license for years together due to his awkward voice. He was a very good haquim, but his voice was the only hurdle. Bu Ali Saina thought of an idea. He took a piece of wood, made a canal through it by drilling, pierced seven holes over it, made reeds, and blowed on it. The instrument produced beautiful musical tones. He practised on the instrument for some time. As the day for obtaining the license came, he entreated the Shah to allow him to perform from behind a curtain. The Shah gave him permission. Bu Ali played his instrument from behind the curtain. The Shah and the people in the court were astonished to hear the marvelous music of Bu Ali’s instrument. He passed his examination and obtained the certificate to practice as a haquim. Thereafter, everybody came to know about the instrument that Bu Ali Saina made, and the skill of playing the instrument. It was named ‘sena’ after Haquim Bu Ali Saina’s name.

The original Shehnai players in India were zealously guarded and patronized by the Hindu royalties who employed them in their temples. The Shehnai players were later exchanged between the royalties. The Shah of Delhi sent his brilliant Shehnai player Chhote Khan, as a gift to the Nawab of Lucknow.

The other contemporary stalwart among the professional Shehnai players was Gauri Shankar, whose children and grandchildren till date either play Shehnai or are eminent flute players. Nandlal, who was from a Hindu family had a chance to get trained by Chhote Khan.

Nandlal and Gauri Shankar were the contemporaries of the great Muslim Shehnai players Allan and Vilayatu of Benaras. These two well-known Shehnai players trained two of their nephews – Shamsuddin and Qamruddin or Bismillah Khan. Both the brothers became great Shehnai players. Unfortunately, Shamsuddin died an untimely death, which disturbed the group. But the younger brother with his unswerving perseverance and genius conquered the world with the miraculous sound of the music of his Shehnai. Thus, he turned the fate of this ordinary instrument, into one of the most important classical instruments of India.

The Instrument

Today Shehnai is made out of seasoned Burma teak or Sagwan, chiseled step by step, till it acquires the desired width. Afterwards, it is carefully drilled from the broader side to the side from where it is played. The starting point acquires a half-inch spring and the end-point where the fret is inserted of a hollow weed called, dong, narrows down to 4 mm. approximately. The broader part – which originally was carved out from wood, and later on was converted into brass, is specially cast for the Shehnai players by the brassware artisans. The whole instrument takes the length of 15 feet and six inches. Now, the whole length is divided into three portions. The front portion, which is called the ‘pyala’ is made of brass, and measures three to four churis (screws), seven fingers make the middle portion, and five fingers the last fraction. The first fragment is left out, and the last two parts are equally divided by piercing seven holes in them.

Venue or The Stage

In India, the architecture of royal palaces have been influenced by the compulsion of erecting a ‘nahabat khana’ above the entrance to the court-yard. A stair-case, specially erected to reach the platform above the entrance would be placed in between the outer and inner gate of the main entrance. This platform above the gate has various names, such as baradari, nahabat khana and roshan chowki. The canopy like arches again covers the platform. As the sun rises, the shehnai players, waking up the Gods are seen in a silhouette at the eastern corner, facing the Gods to the western side. This is the arrangement, be it in the courtyard or in a temple. Today, whether in an auditorium or in a raised stage the sitting position of the orchestra remains the same.


A shehnai player and his team, since it is customary, wear a headgear, an ordinary cap or topi. In summer a cotton topi and a woolen topi in winter, as they always perform in the open air. They wear ‘achkans’ – long black coats that go with tight or loose pyjamas. On very special occasions, the shehnai player wears a turban. When a shehnai team is performing for a wedding ceremony, every member of the team wears brocade coats (achkan), above cotton pyjamas of the same color. The cap that goes with such grand dresses is also made of the same material.