Wind Instruments of India – A Quick Guide

The flute is the earliest known musical instrument in the world. Flutes made of bones and ivory were found in the caves of the Swabean Alp region in Germany. Archeologists dated these to be from the Paleolithic Age. The finding proved conclusively that music existed in prehistoric times. For more details on these archeological findings of prehistoric flutes click here.

The bansuri is the flute indigenous to Indian music. It is an aerophone made of bamboo and is referred to as nadi and tunava in the Rig Veda. The bansuri is made of a single hollow bamboo shaft with six or seven holes to produce the seven musical notes of a scale. The longer the bansuri, the lower the pitch and notes. “Previously it was the sitar that was the world’s most popular Indian instrument, thanks to the Pandit Ravi Shankar wave. Today, it’s the bansuri,” Pandit Nayan Ghosh talks about the history of the bansuri and how his uncle, Pandit Pannalal Ghosh, the legendary musician introduced the musical instrument in Indian music before Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia popularized it.

In the late 19th century flutists such as Sarabha Shastri, Palladam Sanjeeva Rao became popular in the carnatic circuit before the genius T.R.Mahalingam (Mali) made an appearance in the 20th century. Read an interesting article by well known Shashank, a child progidy himself on the history of the flute and players. He makes a very critical observation in this article that “Instrumentalists should never learn music through notations; they must be vocalists first and instrumentalists later. Most teachers in this century have committed the grave mistake of teaching students without knowledge of good vocal music, as South Indian classical music is almost meant to be a vocal form of music.”

The shehnai (Persian for king of flutes) is a double reed instrument similar to the western oboe. It is made of wood and has anywhere from six to nine finger holes. The sound is produced by blowing the reeds which are held together. Initially heard in folk music, the shehnai made a transition to the Hindustani music and popular music due to the pioneering efforts of Ustad Bismillah Khan in the 20th century. The instrument which requires tremendous breath control and good lung power by the musician is commonly heard in wedding festivities. One of the strongest images of a wedding in north India is the tearful bidaii ceremony of the bride (when she leaves the parental home) with the mournful music of the shehnai playing in the background. Shehnai player Pandit Ballesh who shifted to Chennai in the 1980s talks about how the shehnai makes an appearance in film music. Here is Bismillah Khan playing the shehnai.

The nadhaswaram is the carnatic counterpart of the shehnai. It is longer in structure than the shehnai and requires greater lung power and control to produce the sound. Here is Dr Sheikh Chinna Moulana a well known exponent of the instrument playing “Brova Baaramma”, a composition of Tyagaraja in raga Bahudari.

The harmonium is a smaller, modified version of the reed organ and its origins in India can be traced to the British rule. It was banned from All India Radio broadcasts in 1941 as it was deemed unsuitable for Indian music because of its inability to exhibit gamakas (oscillations) and semitones. The harmonium journey to India and making a presence in Indian music is an interesting story. The reasons for its ban and subsequent revival in film music also is fascinating to read. Watch a harmonium solo recital by Milind Kulkarni which highlights the versatility of this unique instrument.

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