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Sunday, May 27, 2012
Shehnai: Its Origin and Evolution
By Deepanjana Sarkar
In India, weddings and Sahnai are like Juno's Swans, completely inseparable from each other as if all pomp and grandeur is incomplete without Sahnai. As I was listening to a beautiful light classical rendition by Pt. Ajoy Chakraborty yesterday. the beautiful use of sahnai in it kept me wondering about the origin and evolution of this beautiful instrument. Even though Sahnai is synonymous with auspicious occasions in India, specially marriage, it always takes me on a sad trip to a world of old memories, refreshing myriads of subdued emotions. As I got completely immersed in its "Karun Ras", I kept on thinking about its origin, evolution, popularization and specially the reason(s) for its association with auspicious occasions in India.Is Sahnai an India instrument? - is a question that I kept on asking myself. I started searching for its origin and came across some interesting facts. Like several other musical instruments, Sahnai is also an instrument which had its origin in a different geographic region and later on infiltrated into the music culture of India and Pakistan and have now become ineluctable components of our melodic tradition.Sahnai, an ancient woodwind instrument, is played on many different happy occasions. In India, Hindu priests perform the nuptials amidst the renditions of Sahnai. In Pakistan, out in its rural hinterland, groups of musicians headed by Sahnai players lead marriage processions to and from the home of brides. In Punjab and Sindh, Sahnai is also played on other joyous occasions such as village fairs, sports competitions and male-folk dances. In the North West Frontier Province this instrument is now an important component of the repertoires of Khattak dancers.In the opinion of musicologists, Sahnai, like several other musical devices, traveled into the Indian Subcontinent with the invading armies from the North, or infiltrated into South Asia as a natural consequence of trans-regional melodic pollination. However, historians claim that Shehnai was introduced in the subcontinent by the immigrants from Central Asia where it is known as Surnai. In several parts of Afghanistan and the North West Frontier Province, it is still called by the same name.Sahnai (also Sanai, Shahnai, Shehnai) is a double-reeded wind instrument similar to the western Oboe. The name Sahnai is of Persian origin (In Persian, "Sah" means "King" and "Nai" means "Wind Instrument"), and some theorize that the instrument may have been taken to India from Persia by the Mughals, a tribe of Mongolian origin, which occupied much of northern India from the 16th century to the 18th century. Others believe the Sahnai may have developed from an earlier Indian instrument.The Sahnai or Shehnai, double-reeded instrument of the wind instrument category is one of the most ancient instruments used in India. Sahnai or Shehnai is mainly an outdoor instrument played particularly on occasions considered auspicious such as processions and weddings. The Shehnai is a tube that gradually widens towards the lower end. It usually has eight or nine holes. The Sahnai has a wooden tubular body of about 45 to 60 cm (1.5 to 2 ft) in length, backed by metal, ending in a wider bell shape. Of its or nine holes, only seven are used for playing; the others are left open or are closed with wax to define the pitch of the instrument. The reed is fixed at the narrow blowing end. The reeds used in Shehnai are made of pala grass. Spare reeds and an ivory needle with which the reeds are adjusted are attached to the mouth piece.The Sahnai produces a rich, expressive sound, with the characteristic timbre of the reed. It is considered to be an auspicious instrument and is used in celebrations and festivals, particularly at weddings. It is often paired with a shruti, a Sahnai with several closed holes, with the shruti supplying a drone (a continuous accompanying tone) at a suitable pitch.The origin of Shehnai instrument is shrouded in controversy; it does not seem to be more than three-four centuries old. We see similar-looking instruments in ancient carvings and paintings, but it is in the 20th century that the instrument has attained concert level status. Closely related to the Sahnai is the nagasvaram of South India, which is also double-reeded but longer at 60 to 76 cm (2 to 2.5 ft). The nagasvaram has 12 holes, of which 7 are used for playing, and the body ends in a metal bell. It produces a higher-pitched, sharper sound than the Sahnai, and is usually only performed outdoors. Also considered auspicious, the nagasvaram is frequently played at temple festivals and processions, and on ceremonial occasions.Shehnai or Sahnai has been an integral part of Indian culture for centuries. Any special occasion, with or without auspicious ceremonies began with the Shehnai or Sahnai. So strong is the association between this instrument and festivities that the very word Shehnai has become synonymous with celebrations and happiness. Perhaps no Indian wedding is complete without the sound of the Shehnai permeating the wedding venue. Because of its auspicious quality, it's a must in every Indian wedding. Since ancient times, the Shehnai has been regarded as an auspicious instrument and featured in religious ceremonies. In fact in several parts of the country even today the temples resonate with the sound of the Shehnai in the early hours of morning, to awaken the deities. A small wind instrument, Shehnai looks somewhat similar to Oboe, but instead of furnished keys as in Oboe, it has eight or nine open holes.The Shehnai is an integral part of the temple music of every part of India. The Shehnai found a place in every palace in every region of Nepal and India, whether in the palace of temple or on the top of fort.
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