One of the few things that all Indians seem to share is their love for the shehnai. I have heard my Indian friends compare the sound of the shehnai to a spring sunset, to the voice of God, or to the smile of their favorite Bollywood actress. Unfortunately, most westerners hear the shehnai as harsh, unpleasant, and nasal. One American friend of mine described it as a kazoo on steroids. Given that we all have the same ears, why do westerners and Indians have such different reactions to the same sound?
Partly because music, like spoken language, gets much of its meaning from context, and Indians usually hear the shehnai at profound and auspicious occasions. Many religious ceremonies, especially weddings, would be incomplete without it. And the sound of Bismillah Khan’s shehnai, playing Raga Kaafi from the top of the Red Fort, was broadcast all over India on India’s first Republic Day ceremony. Bismillah Khan has continued this annual tradition ever since, for over half a century.
And yet these historic associations do not create the profundity of the shehnai sound from nothing. The profound elements are there, and anyone can hear them if they are in the right frame of mind. If you wish to experience the shehnai’s spiritual power in western terms, try some of the following experiments. If you are fond of Scottish traditions, think of the bagpipes echoing through the highlands at the head of a wedding or funeral procession. Then imagine that sound combined with the sruti and rhythms of India, and you have the shehnai. Or if you don’t like bagpipes, imagine the profound grandeur of the trumpet or French horn combined with the plaintive melancholy of the oboe. Now imagine a single instrument that combines the double reed of the oboe with the power of a brass horn, and you have the shehnai.
Despite the high esteem in which the shehnai is held, however, it was not recognized as a classical instrument until very recently. The main reason for this was social rather than artistic. In pre-republic India, classical music was performed only in living room concerts, and the shehnai was simply too loud to be played in anyone’s living room. It was meant to be heard at large important gatherings. But although everyone appreciated its contribution to the auspicious atmosphere, it was rarely directly listened to.
Bismillah Khan changed all that when he performed at the All-India Music Conference in Calcutta in 1937 at the age of 20. His ancestors had been court musicians in the princely state of Dumraon in Bihar. And he had learned shehnai from his uncle, the late Ali Bux “Vilayatu,” who was a shehnai player attached to Varanasi’s Vishwanath Temple. But his love and respect for these traditions did not stop him from taking his music in new directions. The program he played at the All-India Music Conference included music that had never been played on the shehnai before, including khayal and thumri. The conference concert hall was the perfect place for the shehnai to be heard as a classical instrument, for its volume level became an advantage. He was probably the only musician there who didn’t need microphones. And with the fall of the princely states, the concert hall became the primary venue for classical music, and Bismillah Khan’s shehnai became one of the most popular classical music sounds in India.
On the EMI CD Shehnai Recital, we hear Bismillah Khan in his prime, with all of the innovations he has introduced to deal with the volume issue. Instead of a tanpura, the drone is played by other supporting shehnai players, some of whom double his part when he returns to the gat.
Two tabla players often carry the percussion part, and other times include the duggi, which traditionally accompanies the shehnai in temple performances. We also hear how Khan has managed to create an expressive palette, which equals the other classical instruments without imitating them. He can vary the tone of his shehnai from the brightness of a trumpet to the dark warmth of a clarinet. Sometimes long phrases will be played in each of these tone colors. Other times the tone color will shift within a single held note as it rises or falls slowly in pitch. And his trill and scale ornaments utilize the unique fingerings of a wind instrument, and thus have made him a favorite with jazz saxophonists such as John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders.
It is fitting that the sound of his instrument is indelibly associated with the birth of the Indian Republic, for Bismillah Khan exemplifies the dynamic attitude that modern India at its best has towards its traditions. Although he is a devout Shia Muslim, his family has played in Hindu temples for generations. He is also a devotee of Saraswati, who once received a vision of a Hindu avatar while playing. And how does he justify this to the fundamentalist Shia who claims that all music is haraam (damned)? The following quote (India Today, July 15, 1986) expresses his integrity and devotion with an eloquence that requires no further comment.
“When maulvis and maulanas ask me about this, I tell them, sometimes with irritation, that I can’t explain it. I feel it. I feel it. If music is haraam then why has it reached such heights? Why does it make me soar towards heaven? The religion of music is one. All others are different. I tell the maulanas, this is the only haqeeqat (reality). This is the world. My namaaz is the seven shuddh and five komal surs. And if this is haraam, then I say: aur haraam karo, aur haraam karo (if music be a thing of sin, sin on).”
“I was once in an argument with some Shia maulavis in Iraq. They were all well versed in their subject and were making several effective arguments about reasons why music ought to be damned. At first I was left speechless. Then I closed my eyes and began to sing Raga Bhairav: Allah-hee … Allah-hee … Allah-hee … I continued to raise the pitch. I opened my eyes and I asked them: ‘is this haraam? I’m calling God. I’m thinking of Him, I’m searching for Him. Isn’t this namaaz? Why do you call my search haraam?’ They fell silent.”
Teed Rockwell has studied classical Indian music for fifteen years at the Ali Akbar College of Music and privately with Habib Khan and the Salamat Ali Khan family.