Small encyclopedia with Indian instruments
The text is taken from an excerpt of Suneera Kasliwal, Classical Musical Instruments, Delhi 2001


Shahana, shahanay and shahanai all are said to be synonyms of surna, which is described as follows: It is a wind instrument made of special wood and is accompanied by duhul. The instrument is found in Iran in different shapes, and its size is half a metre.

Though the name shahanai is of Persian origin, reed instruments have a very ancient history in India.

In fact, in India, the shahanai is an ancient instrument like the vanshi. If in a vertical flute we add a reed in the blowing section and a cup shaped resonator at the other end, what we get is more or less a shahanai type of instrument. Since time immemorial, these instruments in various shapes and sizes have been associated with auspicious occasions and festivities of common people. They are also deeply attached to temples, and are an important part of the ceremonial procession in which the deity is taken out.

In India, there are plenty of instruments in use in different regions, which bear a resemblance to the shahanai. These are pendre and shanai of Bihar, tute and surnai of Jammu and Kashmir, tota and sanai of Rajasthan, pipari and sundari of Maharashtra, mohuri of Orissa, mori of Karnataka, nafiri of North India, mohuri of MP and nagaswaram and mukhveena of southern India. Nafiri, raushan chawki, naubat, surnai and sunadi are the synonyms of shahanai.

Shahanai is a compound of two words, i.e. shah + nai = shahanai which means the king of all wind instruments. Its Indian name madhukari and sunadi also carry almost the same meaning. Madhukari means sweet sounding and sunadi means the same.


Shahanai in our catalogue

Shahanai, nagaswaram, sundari and nafiri have structural similarities and the only conspicuous difference is in their sizes. Nagaswaram is the biggest and longest amongst them, shahanai is medium-sized1 whereas sundari and nafiri are small-sized oboes. All these oboes have more or less the same mechanism for sound production. However, the number of apertures and techniques differ from instrument to instrument. All of them are essentially open-air instruments, deeply associated with festivities and ceremonies. All of them are considered mangal vadya, i.e. auspicious instruments. Instruments in this category have a special mechanism for controlling the entry of air into the instruments, i.e. the reeds. There are two reeds with a small gap between them. These two reeds that beat against each other, are made of palm, cane, narkul or narkad, etc. However, in shahanai, the reed is made of a kind of cane called patti or pattur. This pair of reeds, which act as a valve, is fixed to a metal staple inserted into the tubular body of the instrument. Thus instrument can be divided into three main functional parts:

  • The reeds: Mechanical valve.
  • The tube: Main body of the instrument, also acting as a resonator. It is conical in shape, narrow near the blowing end and gradually widening at the other end.
  • The metallic 'bell' or pyala at the farthest end of the instrument is of brass, silver, gold or of any other metal.

Shahanai has seven finger holes. The length of the instrument from the tip of the reed to the end of the metal bell is approximately fifty to fifty-one centimetres. The instrument is constantly provided with a drone (the key note) by a similar type of instrument. This instrument has no finger holes, but if it has any it is closed with wax to adjust the sruti.

The wood mostly preferred for its making is old Burmese teak; sagwan or vijaysar wood is also used. (In old texts red sandalwood is suggested to make all double reed wind instruments.) The pitch is C sharp, i.e. the first black of the harmonium. This pitch makes the artists comfortable while playing solos as well as duets. The total note stretch of the instrument is about V/i - VA octaves. However, an expert would be able to produce upto two octaves. All musical notes are controlled by breath, and nimble fingers are required for swift taans and gamaks. Apart from the techniques of breath control, with different movements of the tongue, lips and fingers, almost all the nuances of Indian classical music can be played on it.

In the performance of a classical shahanai, naqqara has been replaced by dukkar, a small earthen kettle drum, played with fingers. Like naqqara, dukkar is also played in a pair. The higher pitched right drum is called jheel and the lower pitched left one is known as duggi. However, modern shahanai players sometimes use the tabia as an accompaniment. It is also not uncommon for both the tabia and dukkar together accompanying the performance of a shahanai group these days.