Though its name comes from Persian, and though it can be compared to other Middle-East instruments like Zurna, Surna, etc., the instrument is itself very much Indian. If we break the word shehnai in two words, we get “Sheh” and “Nai” respectively. Sheh, or Shah, means the king and Nai or Na means flute, so this instrument can be regarded as the “King of Flute” or “King of Wind Instruments”.

The presence of shehnai can be traced back to the Vedic era and before because of the description of shehnai like instrument can be found in almost all the earlier scriptures, including ancient Vedas, murals, and sculptures of Ajanta and Ellora and also in the Terra-cotta structures.

Over the centuries, the instrument was given a different name for example while the Rig Veda called it the “Naadi”. The Matang in his Brihaddeshi calls it “Mahuvari”. Sharang Dev described it as “Madukari” and “Kahal” and in Ahobali Sangeet Parizaad one comes across the name “Sunadi”.

However, this beautiful wind instrument got its present name “Shehnai” probably in the Mughal era.

About 100 years ago, shehnai was basically a folk instrument and playing style was very limited. For example, the style included folk songs from north India especially thumri, daadra, chaiti, sohar, pujaiya, etc. and apart from these very few small compositions based on basic raga were rendered on shehnai but because of the efforts of the virtuoso like Ustaad Bismillah Khan, Pandit Anant Lal, Pandit Daya Shankar the dimension of shehnai playing was broadened with the introduction of new technique and style. It is solely because of the efforts of these masters that shehnai is considered a classical instrument on which almost any raga accompanied by any tala can be played with marvelous clarity, beautiful sound, and modulation, and it has become very famous Indian classical instrument.

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