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Friday Review » Music

Updated: August 15, 2009 11:53 IST

Fading tunes

SHALINI SHAH
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Old-world charm: Rare instruments at University of Madras Photo: Avinash Chandrashekar
Old-world charm: Rare instruments at University of Madras Photo: Avinash Chandrashekar

While it’s easy to locate Spanish and electronic guitars, violins, percussion instruments, sitars and veenas in most music stores, their less-famous counterparts have become collectors’ items.There are instruments dying due to want of patronage, restricted to certain maestros and musical families — such as the sarangi, balasaraswati, surbahar, swarmandal and bulbul tarang.

Indian classical instrumental music is an anthology of string, wind and percussion instruments dating back centuries. In each category, there are instruments that enjoy extreme popularity — such as the sitar, veena, santoor, violin, flute, tabla and mridangam. At the same time, there are others dying due to want of patronage, restricted to certain maestros and musical families — such as the sarangi, balasaraswati, surbahar, swarmandal and bulbul tarang.

While it’s easy to locate Spanish and electronic guitars, violins, percussion instruments, sitars and veenas in most music stores, their less-famous counterparts have become collectors’ items.

V. Raman, director of Lakshmansruthi, says that even the harmonium, previously used by vocalists for keeping sruthi, is making way for the more portable sruthi box. “Now, we sell 10 harmoniums for every 200 sruthi boxes. Also, in film music, the electric guitar has largely replaced the mandolin,” he adds.

However, Melvin Ranjan of Musee Musicals says the popularity of the sruthi box has more to do with convenience.

Rikhi Ram, an online store for music instruments, sells the rare dotara, surbahar and swarmandal. Owner Sanjay Rikhi Ram says they sell one to two surbahars a month, and four or five swarmandals, orders for which mostly come from Germany. The dotara is only used in meditation centres and institutions, so we either get bulk orders or nothing.” The sarangi, famously used in the song ‘Manidhan enbavan’ in the 1962 classic “Sumai Thaangi”, is part of the rich Hindustani music tradition. “Scholars say a sarangi was found in a temple attic in Tirunelveli, which leads us to believe that the temple oduvas used it as an accompanying instrument,” says Premeela Gurumurthy, professor and head, Department of Indian Music, University of Madras.

“The sarangi, however, has been replaced by the violin,” she says. “The sarangi, and even dilruba, was beautifully used by composers such as Viswanathan-Ramamurthy. Unfortunately, the instrument is now associated with melancholy,” she adds.

Says Murad Ali, a sixth-generation sarangi player of the Moradabad Gharana: “Most universities do not provide formal training in the sarangi. In ancient times, the sarangi and tabla were associated with courtesans. While the tabla managed to enter the mainstream, the sarangi is still viewed in negative light. Also, very few music festivals feature it as a solo instrument. This leads to disillusionment among the younger players.”

The Hawaiian guitar, an import from the West like the violin, has also been assimilated in Hindustani music. However, few are aware of its worth. The mohan veena invented by Grammy winner Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is a modification of the Hawaiian guitar, and incorporates elements of the sarod, sitar and veena.

However, because of low demand, those wanting to purchase a Hawaiian guitar might have to place orders beforehand, as most stores modify a Spanish guitar into the Hawaiian by inserting a bridge and elevating the strings.

The disappearance of the old is also seen in folk music instruments. Svaram in Puducherry specialises in old and modern musical instruments, and research. Says sound master and educationist Aurelio of Svaram: “The western setup of electronic instruments such as keyboards, guitars and drum sets is replacing many rare and specialised native instruments. While classical expressions of music are somehow supported and protected, folk forms are quickly disappearing.”

He adds: “In our search for old folk instruments of Tamil Nadu, we found that many found in collections and catalogues are not made anymore. Neither do they have a single exponent or craftsman or inheritor of the special skills.” Instruments such as the kudukkuddupu and kilikillipu form part of Svaram’s collection.

S. Karthikuyan, production manager of the store, rues that “Most people don’t even know about these instruments. Many want them only for display.” Turning the tide would need concerted effort. Probably an orchestra featuring traditional instruments, suggests Dr. Premeela. “Vadya Vrinda is the Indian counterpart of the orchestra — pieces used to be written for each instrument. Kutapa is an ancient term for orchestral music, but somehow it got lost. We need to start thinking on those lines.”

Some have already stepped up efforts. Murad Ali has started a group called the Sarangi Ensemble, comprising 12 young players. “My father, Ustad Ghulam Sabir Khan, has composed music for the ensemble. And, new players are welcome.”


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