Cultural crossover

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Jaya Ramanathan

Documents the musical and cultural history of the classical Hindustani stringed instrument sarod

INVENTING THE SAROD - A Cultural History: Adrian McNeil; Seagull Books, 26, Circus Avenue, Kolkata-700017. Rs. 575.Another book on essentially an Indian musical instrument, a painstaking labour of love and predictably once again, by a non-Indian. In tracing the cultural and historical origins of the sarod under an Australian fellowship, the author purports to record the development of the instrument over the past three centuries for which he is able to get data, but in order to discover the origins of the string instrument from which the sarod could have evolved in stages, he goes back 2,000 years.


It goes back to the rabab, played by the musicians of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, then known as Pashtunistan; even today the ancient instrument in India is known as Afghani or Kabuli rabab. What is interesting is that this could have come to this part of the world with Alexander and the Greeks and its creation is attributed to a person known as Fishew-Ghorus or more familiarly, Pythagorus (whether it is the same mathematician who was behind the theorems is not clear here!) But there are disagreements as to whether it travelled to India or had its genesis within and evolved out of the chitra vina and sursringar. The Afghans would carry their rababs into battle, hanging it round their necks, thus they came to India. In India as the instrument gained popularity the sarodis became ballad singers, eulogising heroes and narrating genealogies.When documented history becomes available, the lineage can be traced to Tansen (the Senia gharana as it came to be famously known) when the rababiya (plucked instrument) tradition descended through his son Bilas Khan and the beenkaar (wind instrument) via his daughter Saraswati and son-in-law Misri Singh. The descendents of the Senia gharana were to make physical changes to the rabab till it metamorphosed into the sursringar and to resemble the surbahar and the sitar.


While the present Senia gharana traces its descent from Ghulam Ali Khan (whose grandson, Hafiz Ali Khan is the father of Amjad Ali Khan, the most high profile sarod player today) there were other regions where the tradition was nourished and developed - Najaf Ali Khan of Shahjanpur whose descendents kept alive the Lucknow, Rampur and Bengal schools; Allauddin Khan, better known for his surbahar, the father of Ali Akbar Khan and Annapurna Devi and father-in-law of maestro Ravi Shankar, his school eventually flourished in Calcutta. His versatility with the string and wind instruments earned him great royal patronage and he is credited with a number of innovations in playing the instruments. Of course there were several crossovers and marriages between the different schools, which only added to the richness of the musical rendering.


With Independence the patronage changed, state institutions replaced royal support to music and musicians. Broadcasting apart, there was broad based cultural patronage in the form of organisations like the ICCR, which arranged for musicians to travel abroad for concerts. There were also several private music forums (sabhas) that regularly held festivals and invited musicians to perform. The recording companies also provided ample opportunities.The content of the sarod also saw some changes in the 1950s. While the dhrupad (which itself has its origins in the Sama Veda) had all along prevailed as the idealised form of instrumental music, khyal started gaining popularity. With this paradigm shift there came about a loosening of the aesthetic conventions that governed the playing of instruments. Be it Pannalal Ghosh on the flute, Bismillah Khan on the shehnai or V.G. Jog on the violin, they all exulted in innovations. Amjad Ali Khan went further and developed ekhtara tanas of khyal on his sarod.In the past century, the sarod and the sitar have become the most important solo musical instruments. When you consider its relative obscurity and its transition from the rabab to sursringar and its travel from Afghanistan, if not Greece, the modern sarod can be said to be a proud offspring of different strains of musical traditions.



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