The shop is just a hole in the wall, six feet across and 15 feet deep, in Benares’ Panji Ghar tola, just behind Chowk Chitra cinema. On one side is a general store. A banner in front says Bharat Band Party in white letters. The inside walls are pink. This is where Mehboob sits day in, day out.

On this crisp November morning he’s gazing at the Bisi Raziya masjid in front of him. Brother Manzoor is away collecting dues for playing at a wedding. It’s a commentary, in a way, on the times because the brothers are part of a special, highly skilled craft circle that is dwindling by the day. They are the heirs of Mohammed Safi, legendary shehnai maker, keepers of a tradition that catered mostly to the common people. Nowadays there isn’t much call for their services but they have a backup. They have a band that plays at family functions and celebrations. In fact, the band earns them their bread.

For that they have their father’s farsightedness to thank, for it was the eldest Safi who started the band 55 years ago.

“We don’t have any orders for shehnai right now,” Mehboob says, a tinge of concern creeping into his voice.

In the Eternal City, where Shiva whispers his mantra into the ears of the dying, and bathing in the Ganga cleanses the soul, everyone is cramming all they can into the moment, behind and in front of every crumbling wall. Around the shop are decay and rejuvenation, chaos bleeding into momentary order, and then tumbling back into chaos, on and on.
A row of bicycles is bunched up against a crumbling wall, some cannibalised and the functional ones given for rent. The stench from the garbage mounds is overwhelming and mixes with the aroma of marigolds, urine and urban rot, contrasted with the sweet-smelling delicacies prepared in gurgling, hissing oil in a nearby shop. Mehboob knows it all intimately, it’s the air he’s breathed all his life.

The sun slants into the shop, glancing off two drums, dazzling, blindingly bright. Three trumpets hang on the wall, the brass coloured by time; in the cupboard, metal bells called pyala lie scattered; beneath the cupboard, lots of carpenter’s tools. A dusty green carpet lines the floor.

The plight of shehnai makers is precarious, a far cry from the days of plenty. They linger at the edges of public consciousness, far beyond the pale of official policies.

They are artists in their own right but rarely recognised as such. They chisel, lathe, and shape the wood into basic forms, and set the tune for orders that come only seasonally, or when an artist comes calling, or calls up on phone. Each instrument sells for ₹ 1,000- ₹1,500. Sometimes, it’s ₹2,000.

The sun dissipates the smog hovering like a transparent, if murky, blanket, and brings his features into sharp focus. He is of medium-height, the bristles on his chin and jaw speckled with grey.

“We all work together,” he says offering tea all around. An old retired Urdu teacher often comes here and chats with him. “You can’t live off the shehnai only,” the man says, peering from behind his black glasses.

“His father, Safi, was a great man, great shehnai maker.” Mehboob’s face lights up at the man’s acknowledgment.

The reeds of the Benares shehnai are fashioned from a grass called narkat, the hydrilla plant and it grows only on the bank of a particular pond in Old Bhojpur village in Bihar’s Buxar district. From raw cane to fount of music it’s a long journey. The plant shouldn’t be too old or young. Over-mature plants are used for floor mats. It’s cut once a year and sold to shehnai makers in Benares.

To visit a shop like this is to listen to the collective voices of generations of artisan and artists, to experience, even if on a very minor scale, the efforts that have gone into preserving a sliver of the universe of sound, and the yearning of the soul for something unknown.

After Mohammed Safi, his sons took up the craft. But they admit that their father’s skill, the feel he had for the instrument, was different.

Mehboob’s family, including his brothers, totalling nearly 40, is into power looms. They find comfort and livelihood there. Children go to school.

“Our people aren’t at all interested in this. Sometimes we get orders from Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai and Delhi,” says Mehboob.

The shehnai is an old and familiar instrument. Its sound was once everywhere, especially at weddings and other happy occasions; ubiquitous because it is considered auspicious. When Ustad Bismillah Khan, that angelically gifted player, was alive, people recognised the instrument, and the demand for souvenirs was constant.

“We don’t get orders for souvenirs, except once in a while,” says Mehboob, his face a delta of despair.

“The shehnai’s basic form consists of the pattur (reed)—you blow into it and it vibrates, producing sound—the main body of the instrument,” says Dr Suneera Kasliwal Vyas. “It’s shaped like a cannon in reverse, narrow at the blowing end and widening towards the other end. The pyala (metallic bell) usually made of brass, is fitted at the other end. Also, there is the nari (a metal tube made of German silver) one end of which is inserted into the main body at the blowing end, and the other end contains reeds.”

People have been listening to the instrument since time immemorial. “It’s a double-reed instrument. Most important is the reed. The biggest double-reed instrument in south India is the Nagaswaram. The smaller ones are sundari, mukh vina, and the nafiri of north India. The shehnai is the mid-sized one,” says Vyas. She is a professor at the Department of Music, Faculty of Music & Fine Arts, Delhi University, and is a regular artist of AIR and Doordarshan. She’s also the author of Classical Musical Instruments.

“Different size means different pitches. The longer the instrument, the lower the sound, more bass. With the shehnai, on the other hand, both lower and higher octaves can be played,” she says on the phone.

It doesn’t end there. Temperature and humidity affect the instrument. They affect all instruments, but with shehnai it’s different. Too hot and the shehnai will sound sharper; too humid, you have more bass and it gets difficult to control. Benares shehnais are 16-18 inches long and have seven holes. In Maharashtra, it’s 18-22 inches and has eight holes. In Rajasthan, the instrument is called mahuri, and it’s 8-12 inches long.

The reeds of the Benares shehnai are a different grass game altogether. They are fashioned from a grass called narkat, the hydrilla plant and it grows only on the bank of a particular pond in Old Bhojpur village in Bihar’s Buxar district. From raw cane to fount of music it’s a long journey. The plant shouldn’t be too old or young. Over-mature plants are used for floor mats. It’s cut once a year and sold to shehnai makers in Benares.

It takes a lot of soaking in water and drying, for a long time.

Later on it is cut into one-inch pieces, at the most 1.25 inches, “It depends on the quality of the cane”. Before concerts, it’s kept in the mouth for some hours so that the reed opens up its pores, and the instrument sings. 

“From the thick reed at the base of the cane you get a powerful, full-bodied sound. If you take the reed from the tip or mid-section, it’s soft,” says Sanjeev Shankar, one of the younger crop of shehnai players that includes his brother Ashwani Shankar. It takes eight or nine months to work the reed to concert condition. In all other regions, they use palm leaf for reeds.

“The shehnai was not a classical instrument, to start with,” Vyas says. “Bismillah Khan and Pandit Anant Lal and their forefathers worked hard to make it a classical instrument. Basically it’s an outdoor instrument with a shrill sound, but techniques were later developed to overcome that.”

“Shehnai artists continuously worked towards systematic improvisation of ragadari in slow and medium pace, presenting almost all varieties of tones and embellishments of notes. Most important, to have it accepted in Hindustani music, was the conscious cultivation of a certain sweetness of sound and good tonal quality. Almost all renowned shehnai exponents also had training in vocal music. This added refinement to their shehnai performance. This training also provided a background to facilitate the performance of gayaki on the shehnai,” she writes in Classical Musical Instruments.

It was Bismillah Khan and Anant Lal who brought the shehnai its glory. “Khan sahib’s repertoire of ragas is beyond categorisation. As is Benares tradition, he mastered the technique of introducing semi-classical folk, chaiti, influences on the shehnai. That’s his forte,” says Dr Supriya Shah, Assistant Professor (Sitar), at the Department of Instrumental music, Faculty of Performing arts, Benares Hindu University, and wife of shehnai artist Sanjeev Shankar. She learnt the sitar from Pandit Uma Shankar Mishra, a disciple of the late Pandit Ravi Shankar and follows the Maihar tradition of sitar playing.

What a shehnai artist plays differs from region to region. Shankar says: “For instance, in north India, Benares, that is, the subject has more of folk elements. In Delhi, it’s more for marriage halls, not a place for concert-level proficiency. In Maharashtra, though, the approach is more classical.”

After all, it’s the sound that gets people taking to an instrument. Shankar feels, “It comes out as in the voice of the nightingale, travels through the instrument, becomes like a female voice.

“When I listen to it, I feel good. There is something about its sound that feels sacred. That is why it’s played at festivities, social gatherings and marriage functions, processions in which deities are taken out,” says Vyas, while for Shah it’s always, forever, a peaceful sound.

Sanjeev Shankar, coming from a family of shehnai players—Pandit Anant Lal is his grandfather; Pandit Daya Shankar, his father—was enamoured of the sitar. He also speaks of Ravi Shankar.

“He is my guru. His passing is a terrible loss. It was he who told me to continue the family legacy, playing shehnai. It took some time to sink in,” he says on the phone.

While playing, he says, he goes into a different world, where the joys and sorrows of this world don’t matter.

Every instrument has an intrinsic impossibility. You can never get it to the platonic ideal. The craftsman and artist wishes he would be better off oblivious to it. Nevertheless, they work through or around it; in the process, they might rise above it.

“Nothing matters, actually. I am not a person then. No world around you then. State of mind is nothing matters when you have that unison between the instrument and you.”

Among many, he treasures two shehnais. One has been with him for more than 20 years. The other belongs to his grandfather. “My grandfather’s shehnai sounds so different. Full of emotions and deeply personal connection. Both are very close. I use them for my concerts. When he was alive I didn’t get it although I wanted it. In his last days, he called me and handed it over, and said, ‘Take care of it.’ Whenever I play, I try to keep the notes pure, create a mood. My grandfather always kept the notes pure.”

Dwelling on the relationship with the instrument, he says, “It takes time to develop a relationship with the instrument; the instrument is a bridge between your thoughts and its capabilities. It might take a year or so to develop this relationship.” No artist or instrument is perfect, he feels. “It’s the love that unites artist and instrument to create something beautiful.”

His personality sings through the shehnai. “The texture of sound depends on the artist. I always love playing a full-bodied, rounder sound, bass, mids and highs in equal amounts. Some may play it softer and mellower, very straight and sweet. But that’s not me.”

Talking about the difficulty in learning to play it, he says, “It’s not like you take it and play. It takes almost one year to play a single pure note. You feel frustrated, you feel like being somewhere else. It depends on how much time you spend with it to make it behave as you want it to behave. It also takes one year or so to get the feel for it, to know what you can do with the shehnai and what it is capable of. That is why you get just two or three great artists in a generation.”

Shankar contends that the instrument is not out of style. New things are tried out on it. “Audiences have accepted it as a classical instrument. It is definitely in a better position. It’s evolution. Respect for the instrument and artist has improved. It’s not like the old days where you were never called inside. We get a lot of respect. Manifold things are happening with the shehnai.”

“My grandfather Pandit Anant Lal is the first shehnai player to introduce bada khayal,” says Shankar. “I am happy the tradition is taken forward. More young players are attaining concert-level proficiency.” Influenced by the sitar, Shankar introduced Dhrupad ang (Dhrupad style) on shehnai. “Elements of khayal, dhrupad for aalap and jod aalap.
A sitar can take you up in the air, floating in the immensity, while a shehnai takes you deep into the primordial earth and breath. While a musician blows his breath into it, lining up a conga-line of lyrical notes, you feel like your breath is coming back to you.

Every instrument, in particular— every craft and art, in general—has an intrinsic impossibility. You can never get it to the platonic ideal. The craftsman and artist wishes he would be better off oblivious to it. Nevertheless, they work through or around it; in the process, they might rise above it.

The shehnai maker first carves the wood from outside and then creates an inner hole from top to bottom. In the old days, they used a hot iron rod to scour the wood out of the piece. Now they drill through the wood with a machine. “In Bansuri, the hole is natural, it’s already from inside because it’s bamboo.” Then they mark the shehnai for finger holes, and drill them. Next comes the step of making it cylindrical, narrow at the blowing end and widening towards the other end, where they make a groove for pyala, the bell. Nari, the metal tube made of German silver, shouldn’t be too short or long, nor should it be too thick or thin. Otherwise, the sound goes haywire.

When an artist or buyer comes calling, they sit with the craftsman and inspect the instrument. “We usually prefer checking with them, sometimes, we say a certain note sounds a bit odd, which requires a bit of grinding and scouring inside,” says Shankar. After two or three months of playing, the player’s saliva enters the instrument and the texture of sound changes. “That again requires some more adjustment.”

Khalil is a contemporary of Safi and another legend, now an old man used up by time and circumstances. His clothes are ragged and torn, he’s wearing a sweater, and his face is a splintered landscape, crisscrossed by deep furrows. 

If he were apparently empty like the shehnai, full of felicitous space, from where all the ragas come to life, maybe you could see where his pain lives.

It’s a drop of ink on the verge of falling into a bowl of water, surrounded by memories of the days when his instruments were aesthetic in ambition and functional in execution, when his craft had takers, and the instrument had players, when the shehnai was bigger than himself. Now the Shehnai man sits, his legs dead to sensation, and looks like the broken-down piece lying in his son Yunus’ house. Yunus lives in the labyrinthine alleyways of Seshamn bazaar, Rajapura.

Yunus builds shehnais and repairs musical instruments. “My father gave me the training, he is my guruji,” says the 49-year-old. He studied up to Class Eight, and made instruments for Ali Abbas Khan and Bismillah Khan, Raju Manju Dhumal, Ghajanand and Pramod Gaeikwad, he says.

He sometimes gets orders from Meerut, Delhi, Kanpur and Nasik. “I provide the best quality, the awaaz, the tune,” he says. He often sits among the carcasses of trumpets and repairs them. “Whenever I get an order, I do it.”

The relationship between maker and artist is an important factor in the production of musical sound. For the shehnai to sing as one wants, it requires harmony among its various parts, and between the maker and the artist, as perhaps no other instrument does. It can’t be done with a nip here and a tuck there. It’s as much the artist’s enterprise as that of the maker. For people who don’t know its intricacies and idiosyncrasies, the shehnai is a show-piece.
“Unless we work together, there is no shehnai proficiency,” says Sanjeev.

“I remain close to Manzoor and others. I always order more than is required so that they also earn. I don’t negotiate; whatever they ask, I give. Otherwise, the tradition will go away. They may take up more remunerative jobs and the tradition of making it will die. I try to do as much as I can for them.”

The other thing is there is no standard measurement for the shehnai. “It’s never perfect, extremely difficult to make.”

“The masters are gone. Their sons will take time to do well but marvellous pieces will come from them. It just takes time. The perfect one is the one that takes least effort from the artist to play.”

Manzoor, Mehboob’s younger brother, has just arrived on his bicycle after collecting the dues for playing the band. The air is chilly. The smell still lingers.

Safi, their father, passed five years ago. The profession Safi adopted in his youth gradually became who he was: somewhat like the shehnai, unheralded but singing everywhere. He made wood sing. He did it by feel, with years of musical experience and lots of musical sense. “My father had a keen sense of sound.” Manzoor says.

“He was a great mechanic of musical instruments,” cuts in Mehboob, beaming at the memory.

The brothers recall their training. Safi was affectionate. “He would handle the shehnai as if it was a new-born child,” says Manzoor, his voice wistful, his eyes glistening.

Mehboob remains silent, his look distant. Safi sent his sons to wood shops, to blacksmiths, made them listen to the instruments they wrought. If the sound was shrill, he told them to scour the insides, to get it right. They did. They listened. They learned.

“He would make us go over the instrument, again and again,” says Mehboob, coming out of his reverie, jarda paan firmly squished in his right jaw.

“He would encourage us always to learn,” Manzoor says.

“He was also stern, gave us an earful, sometimes a good whipping,” chips in Mehboob.

“But for our father, where would we be today? He was the one who made men out of us,” says Manzoor.

Manzoor is alternatively high-strung and utterly relaxed, quick to smile and quick to feel off. He is 42, stands more than 5.5 ft. with long hands tapering into calloused fingers. His is a deeply lined face; with wispy, bristly line of moustache, forehead marked by lines, like squiggles on a map. He speaks in nervous bursts, in a raspy voice, lubricated with paan juice.

To demonstrate he unzips a bag full of already-made shehnais, pulls a cluster of pyalas from the cupboard, and takes the tools from under the cupboard.

The instruments aren’t yet tuned. He takes a reed from a chapil (a slat) “for holding reed surakshit,” he says, and sends it down the metal tube. The reeds don’t fit in. They’re loose in there.

So he takes scissors and snips the top off the metal tube and files it with a fury fit for pugilist, his head jerking in opposite directions. The reeds go in. 

“These things cannot be done by a machine, they require fine detail and smoothness,” he says, inserting the metal tube into the dhari, the main body. The pyala, too, at the other end is loose, so he ties black thread around the end to close the gap, and the thing goes in and fits tightly.

Now, he blows, hunched on his left knee, elbow on right knee.

The shehnai shrieks and he winces. Picks out another set of reeds from the chapil and fits it in. He takes a tool called sampta, a long iron bar like a round file and scrapes the insides of the main body with it. The wood filings fall down. He gets the instrument, each part in its place.

He blows again. It sounds pleasant. “We have to tune it before we hand it over. Otherwise the swaras will be off.” 

“Many people make it, but not like us,” Manzoor says. “Damodar Thakur in Nashik, Maharashtra, makes them, but costly.”

Despite the money they make from shehnais, they are, at times, aware of the legacy their father has given them. So they press on.

“Unless we teach our children, how will we keep the tradition in the family?” So they make the wood sing.