The shehnai is a woodwind instrument that is of Indian origin. It is sometimes called the North Indian Oboe, and it does resemble the more traditional Western Oboe in appearance. It is a long, often wooden instrument that has two double reeds at the top — called a quadruple reed — and a slightly widening bell at the bottom. Like a recorder or song flute, different notes are produced by covering or uncovering the six to nine holes on the instrument, while using breath control to “blow” or vibrate the top reeds. The shehnai takes considerable skill to master because mouth control and how the mouth is held (ombrachure) require practice.
There are several different possible origins for the shehnai. Some say it descends from a Persian instrument called the nai. Nai is Persian for flute. Pictures of the nai can be found in Egyptian tombs dating back five millennia. A closer connection is to the pungi, the instrument used in snake charming.
Some believe the shehnai was developed from the pungi to create better and more performance worthy sounds. One legend suggests that the pungi’s sounds were so distasteful to the Shah (king) that he (and it’s unclear which Shah was involved) banned the instrument, leading to the development of an instrument that could be tolerated in the king’s court. Whatever the instrument’s origins, the shehnai has a very important place in both secular and sacred music.
The shehnai is played with other Indian instruments during many formal occasions. It is often heard at weddings, where it is considered especially lucky. Shehnais may also be used during processions, like funeral processions. The sound produced can be somewhat mournful, a cross between an oboe and a muted trumpet, and typically, traditional Indian music employs a far different chord structure than does Western music. For the Western listener, hearing the shehnai in Indian music may at first sound very different, though many call the instrument’s sounds peaceful, meditative, and beautiful.
In the 20th century, many Indian musicians became interested in concert performances of traditional Indian music. Ustad Bismillah Khan (1916-2006) is considered to be a shehnai virtuoso. He is credited with exceptional skill and to some reviewers and fans, came as close to making the instrument “talk” as is possible. Due to his success and the trend toward concert performances of Indian music, you can hear many recordings of Khan and others. You’ll also hear the sounds of this instrument in almost every Bollywood film.