Till it was pedestrianised a year ago, the pavement along Katra Pyare Lal in Chandni Chowk used to be the booking spot of Old Delhi’s shehnai players. This is where they have always waited for their patrons along with the accompanists who play the unique drums that complete the shehnai ensemble – the tasha, dukkad and nakkara.

Now, with low ornamental pillars popping up all over the sidewalk, the divider across the katra (small bazar) has become their hangout. But the patrons are missing.

The business community of Old Delhi is among the few who routinely seek out the shehnai band to mark auspicious and ceremonial events. Kanta Prashad has just played at a local Jain mandir to mark a holy day and is waiting for more work to come from Ramlila troupes. In the first week of November Delhi’s manic wedding season begins and he is hoping his calendar fills up, though so far, he has only had a dozen requests.

“There was a time when from 9 am till dusk, the whole area used to buzz – you could always find 25-30 artistes here,” he said. “Between five katras, we used to boast of some of the greatest musicians.”

Today there are 60-70 artistes left scattered across Fatehpuri, Sadar Bazar, Pahar Ganj, Nabi Karim, Pahari Dheeraj and Sitaram Bazar, Prashad says. It is a big deal now, after the Covid-induced lockdowns, if a couple of shehnai-tasha players walk in at Katra Pyare Lal.

It was in Fatehpuri’s iconic Crown Hotel, less than a kilometre from Katra Pyare Lal, that Bismillah Khan would insist on staying when he was in Delhi, cheerfully giving audience to the musicians of the area. All these artistes were once knit in a fraternity. Even now they know each other intimately but the structures around them have collapsed.

Raga Bhairav, Bismillah Khan.

Image trap

It was 20th century legends like Bismillah Khan and Anant Lal who brought what is essentially a ceremonial pipe to the classical stage. But that did not altogether change its contemporary reality, which remains rooted in the social calendar of north, east and west India.

Far from being able to thrive in its dual identities, the shehnai is circumscribed by it. It is fighting for survival in the classical circuit since it has yet to shed its image as a “shaadi byaah ka baaja”. At the same time, it is too traditional for modern-day revelries where the Punjabi dhol and brass bands have replaced it.

“The shehnai is still recognised mostly for its mangal dhwani (auspicious music) – and it is a hard mindset to break,” said Sanjeev Shankar who, along with his brother Ashwani, is among the best-known players of classical shehnai today. “So, we make it a point to play on offbeat platforms, with jazz, western classical and at world music events. We are likely more recognised on those platforms than in concerts.”

Shehnai has been so marginalised in the classical circuit that it is rarely featured in music festivals except as an opening act because of its auspicious tag. Few opt to learn the instrument and fewer still manage to master it. No music school or college includes it in the curriculum. Its makers, mostly in Varanasi, are struggling to survive.

Sanjeev and Ashwani Shankar. Credit: Mkagrohiya/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License].

This crisis is admittedly not new to shehnai. It was there when its classical shift started, but the passage of time has not made things easier. What also inhibits the instrument is its immense complexity and the constricted range for raga exposition. Wresting nuanced music out of it needs more than mastery – it needs wizardry and exhausting dedication. Watch a shehnai performance and see how often the musician has to adjust the reed at the end of the pipe to coax perfect notes and avoid discordant ones.

“In every generation you never have more than 3-4 consummate shehnai players in the field,” said Ashwini, whose grandfather was the shehnai icon Anant Lal and father the celebrated player Daya Shankar. “It is a challenging and temperamental instrument. Even we limit the vilambit (slow) in our concerts to around 20 minutes, keeping the rest of, say, an hour for shorter compositions.”

So hard is the training process that 60% of students opt out, he adds. The last time the shehnai’s popularity surged, albeit briefly, was when the Ranbir Kapoor-starrer Rockstar featured it in a piece of music titled ‘The Dichotomy of Fame’, played by S Ballesh.

The shehnai is commonly perceived as an instrument of the Lucknow-Varanasi belt, though it has a strong presence in the west, especially Maharashtra, northern Karnataka and Gujarat, especially Baroda. One of the greatest players of the early 20th century was Shankarrao Gaekwad, whose grandson Pramod is now a prominent shehnai musician.

Shankarrao Gaikwad plays a tune from Marathi musical Sangeet Saubhadra.

Mastery over the shehnai remains a family tradition. And this is true of every known performer today – Rajendra Prasanna and Ballesh, for example.

Naubat tradition

Centuries before the masters of the 20th century reimagined and recrafted the shehnai as a classical instrument, it was a part of the naubatkhana tradition of Mughal and Rajput establishments – kettledrum ensembles that marked the passage of hours and important state events from a special enclosure at the gates of a city, palace or fort. Old structures such as the Red Fort and the Golconda Fort still sport a naubatkhana.

Reise Flora, an Australian scholar and shehnai player who learned under Anant Lal, has written extensively on the instrument’s roots in his research paper, ‘Style Of Sahnai in Recent Decades: From Naubat to Gayaki Ang’. He links the naubat to the royal drum-pipe traditions of Asia and parts of Africa, some going back to medieval times.

Shehnai in the naubat tradition at the dargah of Khwaja Bandanawaz Gesudaraz in Hyderabad.

Old-fashioned naubat performances now survive only in a few dargahs where they mark the hours of prayer and so on, as documented between 1952 and 1962 by John Levy, a curator of Asian music traditions. Levy has recorded this music, featuring the shehnai and the naqqara, at the shrines of Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer and Mubarak Shah Murad Bukhari in Mundra.

This music was “intended to be heard in the open”, said Levy, and it could not afford the “subtleties of refined indoor music”.

But it did acquire subtleties and move indoors in the early decades of the 20th century.

Classical shift

In the mid-19th century, the shehnai as we know it started coming into its own. “But its classical range was severely limited because of structural issues so it could only be played to perform very short raga-centric pieces with folk elements, such as thumri, dadra, chaiti, kajri, jhoola or dhun,” said Sanjeev Shankar. Badhai, prabhati and pujaiya are other ceremonial music forms he mentions.

The earliest available classical recording (1904) of the shehnai is by one Talim Hussain of Lucknow. Flora points to the fact that it is labelled “Bhairavi thumri”, suggesting “vocal connections from the 19th century, and the importance of Lucknow in the history of thumri, a new genre of vocal music”. This is likely the first evidence that the shehnai was heading for a classical future, and a link to vocal (gayaki) style.

Bhairavi thumri, Talim Hussain, 1904.

When and how did the shehnai actually make the big transition?

In his MPhil dissertation on ‘The Origins, Evolution and Present of Classical Shehnai’, Sanjeev Shankar points out that this began after shehnai players started going to Hindustani vocalists for training and began weaving classical elements into their performance.

He cites the example of Nandlal, who trained under Banaras gharana’s vocalist Bade Ramdas Mishra and multiple ustads and pandits of thumri, khayal and dhrupad. Bismillah Khan was also a shagird of Lucknow vocalist Ahmed Hussain Khan, Anant Lal of Benares’ thumri maestro Mahadev Prasad Mishra, and Shankarrao Gaekwad of Baroda khayal legend Bhaskarbua Bakhle.

This trend set off the shehnai’s classical engagement and its performance became more deliberative, slow and sweet in tone, in keeping with the principles or raga progression. But its tone was still shrill and more suited for fast playing.

Raghunath Prasanna. Credit: Findrishab85/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License].

“In those early decades the classicism never went beyond small, set compositions such as the thumri or chhota khayal because the reed in the shehnai was made from tad (palm leaf) leaves, which did not allow the player to explore the lower octave or higher octave much,” said Sanjeev. “Which meant playing only some ragas and then too for limited time.”

The shehnai underwent its biggest transformation when Benares players decided to switch from palm to elephant grass reed (narkat). This brought immense sweetness, fluidity and range to the sound, increasing its classical bandwidth.

It was Bismillah Khan who gave the shehnai star power with his emotionally appealing work on the classical stage and in films. He burst into popular culture with the track of Goonj Uthi Shehnai (1959), a love story featuring Rajendra Kumar as a shehnai player. Khan’s work for the film was stunning, especially in a ragamala composition where his shehnai melded fluidly into the voice of the great Amir Khan.

Amir Khan and Bismillah Khan in a ragamala in Goonj Uthi Shehnai.

The shehnai has always been one of Bollywood’s most favourite instruments – anyone who has watched old Hindi films is unlikely to forget its shrill notes tearing through the cinema hall any time the plot hit a poignant moment of bereavement, abandonment and loss. And, of course, it was a staple in wedding scenes.

Wedding season

The classical tradition also fed back into the folk tradition, spawning a large community of shehnai players in Old Delhi: Anant Lal, originally from Benares and fondly called “Babuji”, dropped anchor in Nabi Karim after he started working under Ravi Shankar at the AIR vadya vrinda. He went on to mentor many aspirants. One of them was Hari Singh, who became the guru of Kanta Prasad. Unlike him, many learners chose to carve a career in shehnai-tasha ensembles.

“Playing classical shehnai was not an option for many of us who had to support large families,” said Prashad, who sometimes sits on the concerts of the Shankar brothers to provide sur (drone). “But even among us, there are those who can just pull off a few tunes and others who have in-depth knowledge of music.”

Kanta Prashad.

When the wedding season comes around, and the farmhouses of Chhattarpur, Gurgaon, GT Karnal Road, Alipur and Mehrauli double up as banquet halls, Prashad will be called in to perform mostly welcome music for the groom or bride. If he is lucky, his troupe will play on the stage for a brief while.

What does he play mostly? “Few care what we play. It is usually a bunch of popular tunes – bhajans, Inhi logon ne, Yeh desh hai veer jawanon ka – what else?” he said, not really looking for an answer.

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.