When we go to listen to a sitar or sarod or sarangi recital, how many of us know anything about the instrument? The fact is that most of us are not familiar at all with the structure of the instrument, how it acquired its present form and what kind of limitations its structure imposes on the musician and the style of playing.
One is not sure if the knowledge would help one enjoy the music more, but it would certainly make the listener more empathetic towards the performer.
Moreover, these instruments are cultural artefacts that should be recognised as the embodiment of our cultural traditions. A long tradition of craftsmanship is associated with them, as they have evolved over centuries as a result of the innovations made by both their makers as well as their players. The Hindi-speaking region can boast many towns that emerged as prominent centres for crafting these instruments, especially those that are commonly used in the Hindustani system.
Books have been written about musical instruments but their number remains rather small. One recalls reading a book on the sarangi written in 1986 by Joep Bor, a Dutchman who heard a French LP of Pandit Ram Narayan and two old HMV records of Ustad Bundu Khan in the mid-1960s and was so much smitten by the sound of the sarangi that he came to India to become a disciple of the former. He quotes Shahinda who wrote in 1914 that “Jaunpuri sarangis are the most famous” whereas S. Bandyopadhyaya in 1980 opined that sarangis made in Badaun in Uttar Pradesh were considered the best.
Yet, Bor found that the musicians he spoke with always referred to Meerut as the main centre of sarangi manufacture and Masita (1840-1920) as the best sarangi maker. His disciple Abdul Aziz Behra died rather young in 1945 and could not make many instruments. But the ones he made were real beauties.
Pandit Ram Narayan, Pandit Inder Lal Dhandhra and Ustad Kadir Bakhsh, among many others, played on a Behra sarangi that carried an additional signature mark of an ‘inverted heart with three black dots’ on the top of Masita’s ‘bird’. His son Jassin carried forward the tradition of master craftsmanship and made much lighter sarangis that had excellent timber.
Bor’s book “The Voice of Sarangi” was published as a special number of its quarterly journal by the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai.
Sadly, in the hierarchy-driven world of Hindustani music where feudal values are openly glorified in the name of ‘tradition’, sarangi players were placed at the lowest rung and were generally looked down upon despite the fact that tuning a sarangi perfectly is much more difficult than tuning any other instrument, and mastering the art of its playing is no less challenging.
No sarangi player could dare sing in public. To do so, he was expected to give up sarangi. Many of the master vocalists we revere today began their careers as sarangi players but had to give it up for the sake of becoming respected vocalists. Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustad Amir Khan are some of the names that instantly come to the mind.
By the mid-1980s, the number of sarangi makers and sarangi players had dwindled to such an extent that, in an effort to draw attention to this unfortunate development, a three-day Sarangi Mela was organised at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal in September1989 in which nearly 150 sarangi players from all over the country participated.
It was here that Abdul Latif Khan, an artiste on the staff of All India Radio, Bhopal was discovered as a major talent during the performance sessions and he achieved nationwide fame soon after.
I still remember Ridhmal Khan Langa, a sarangi maker from Jodhpur, telling me that he made one sarangi in a month and was paid Rs.2,000 for it. This resulted in sons of sarangi makers looking for other occupations, and the art of making and playing sarangi suffered a severe setback.
Rajesh Bahadur, a disciple of Ustad Bundu Khan and brother of Sheila Dhar, narrated several anecdotes about the ustad and his complete dedication to his art.
However, even nearly three decades later, the situation does not seem to have improved. The voice of the sarangi is more muffled now.
(The author is a literary critic)