The origins of music in India are deeply spiritual and devotional. Many of the Hindu Gods and Goddesses are associated with music and rhythm and often depicted in the act of music making. Lord Krishna is able to seduce his followers with the enchanting sound of the bamboo flute, Saraswati is inseparable from the Vina, while Shiva dances to the beat of the damaru (hour-glass) drum. Even today, the auspicious sound of the shehnai, filling the atmosphere with a soothing sweetness and sublime peace, can be
heard in temples at the time of early morning and evening prayer while its presence at a wedding is said to bring good fortune for the newly wed.
The precise origins of the Shehnai, also known as the oboe of Northern India, are uncertain. One line of research links it to the Persian Nai, which is depicted on Egyptian tombs as early as 3000 BC. One of the earliest pictorial representations of this instrument is found in the Gandhara region of North-West Pakistan from about the beginning of the Christian era, where a straight blown instrument having a flaring bell is depicted with the player's fingers clearly splayed to stop holes on the instrument.
In India, the Shehnai was one of the nine instruments associated with the ensembles of royal courts where it was called Mangal Vadya, which translates to"auspicious instrument."
It was the main the feature of the naubat, traditionally played by musicians in courtyards or over gateways in palaces and temples to mark the hours of the day. The Hindu elephant God Ganesh is also depicted playing the shehnai in ancient sculptures. Although the shehnai has played a prominent role in Indian music culture for centuries, its introduction in classical music has come only in the last century. This recording features Shehnai master Daya Shankar whose family have been associated with the instrument for 250 years. Daya Shankar was born and brought up in Benares, a vibrant city of culture which has produced a plethora of Indian music greats, including tabla maestro Kishan Maharaj and celebrated vocalists Rajan and Sajan Misra. His father, Pandit Anant Lal was one of the first shehnai players to gain recognition as a classical player receiving the prestigious Sangeet Natak Award from the President of India. His son, Daya has inherited a style of playing that demonstrates a purity and simplicity of execution creating a soothing and calming influence on the listener.
A typical shehnai recital features a shruti peti, which serves the purpose of a tanpura drone by giving out just one or two notes. On the percussion side, the shehnai is traditionally accompanied by a nakkara, a pair of small kettledrum played with sticks. In modern times, it is accompanied by the tabla. Generally, a leading shehnai player will sit for a recital, accompanied by two or three other shehnai players. In this case Daya Shankar is joined by his two sons Sanjeev and Ashvini. For accompaniment, his third son, Anand, has combined the tabla and duggi, a small earthen kettledrum played with fingers.
A player holds the shehnai vertically, blowing into the double reed made of a kind of cane called patti or pattur. Semi-tones are produced by partially closing the holes with the fingers as well as by adjusting the blowing pressure in the pipe. The shehnai is an extremely difficult instrument to play and calls for great breath control, training, practice and dexterity.
This performance by Daya Shankar was captured on the opening night of the twelve day annual Saptak music festival in Ahmedabad, Gujarat on the 1st January 2004.
He begins his recital with Maru Behag, a playful raga associated with the evening time. Each raga is assigned to a particular time of day or season and is invested with the power to evoke a state of feeling related to both the human condition and to nature. Most members of the Kalyan family of ragas including Maru Behag belong to a time of calm introspection and radiate a feeling of deep serenity typical of early evening. Ragas which are associated with the later night time, including Khamaj, hold a more lyrical and romantic quality. The introductory part of the performance is known as Alap (track 1). It is a slow, serene movement acting as an invocation through which the raga gradually unfolds. The composition that follows is set in a rhythmic cycle of twelve beats in a slow tempo that is usually associated with khayal singing. This structure allows the soloist to fully explore all the nuances and colours of the raga. The second composition (track 3) is a livelier affair which allows more elaborate improvised playing. Dhun (track 4/5) is a light instrumental music form, usually based on traditional Indian folk themes, which is free from the usual disciplines and structures of classical music. Although the dhun is often based on a specific raga to begin with, the performer is given license to introduce notes and phrases from other ragas.