A brief history
The origins of the shruti box can be traced back to the Chinese sheng, an ancient wind instrument still in use today, which makes sound when air passes through small bamboo reeds. These free-reeds were later to influence a new family of Western instruments, including the harmonica, accordion and harmonium.
Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723-1795), Professor of Physiology at Copenhagen, was credited with the first free-reed to be made in the Western world after winning the annual prize in 1780 from the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg. The new metal reeds were used in the harmonium, a foot-operated bellows instrument invented in Paris in 1842 by Alexandre Debain. The harmonium proved to be very popular in small chapels and churches as it was smaller and much less expensive than the pipe organs of the day.
A later version of the harmonium was developed which enabled the bellows to be operated by hand, and which featured a smaller keyboard and less stops (the small knobs pulled out to create a sustained note). This lighter, more portable instrument was taken by travellers to India where it was adopted by the native musicians and further refined to suit the folk and classical music styles. The keyboard was finally removed to make a new, smaller instrument designed solely for the purpose of producing sustained notes and chords to accompany singers and musicians. It was called the sur-peti and later became known as the shruti box.
In the 1960s travellers to India began bringing shruti boxes back to the West. The poet, Allen Ginsberg was one of the earliest well-known players to use it to accompany his poetry readings. Since then the shruti box has slowly crossed geographical boundaries and musical genres to become a true world music instrument.