Ravanahatha, a musical instrument from Rajasthan

Leon James plays the Ravanahatha   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A plaintive melody fills the café adjoining the Clusters Institute of Media and Technology, Peelamedu, as musician Leon James draws a bow across the strings. The instrument seems to be made of a hollowed-out bamboo, coconut shell, something that looks like canvas and plastic wires. “Bamboo, coconut shell, goat skin and hair from the horse’s tail,” Leon corrects me.

He reaches into his backpack to pull out another set of hair and encourages me to touch and feel them. As the individual strands separate, the delicate white shimmers in the gloom of the late evening.

What Leon is playing is the Ravanahatha from Rajasthan. As the name suggests, the instrument is said to have been made by King Ravana of Sri Lanka and brought to India by Hanuman after the war. “Of all the instruments that I play, this one has been the most mysterious,” says Leon in between his demonstration. “I was fascinated by how it is made and how the sound resonates so much.”

The morsing (bottom) and its predecessors

The morsing (bottom) and its predecessors   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Leon found a Ravanahatha maker and player called Jagadish based in Rajasthan, “all thanks to the Internet,” smiles the musician known for his interest in and love for exotic instruments. “His instruments are very expensive but I told him I was a musician and wanted to learn.” With phone calls and photographs being exchanged, Leon got down to making one. “It’s actually pretty simple. It’s made the same way it has been over centuries. Most of the musicians are found around Jaisalmer fort. Many people who hear this think it’s the sarangi.”

The Hapi drum has to be hammered at to produce a series of rippling sounds

The Hapi drum has to be hammered at to produce a series of rippling sounds   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A rod inside a hollow bamboo anchors the pipe to the coconut shell. The horse’s tail hair is then stretched over the frets and tied to keys. A bow made of wood or cane and the same hair is drawn over them to produce the sound. Leon indicates the sympathetic strings that give resonance to the sound, the main string made of multiple hairs and the supporting drone string.

Twangs and hammers
  • Leon also owns the “big brother” of the morsing, used commonly in Carnatic kutcheris. He shows three kinds, all made of bamboo. “One is used in Nepal (murchunga), one in Assam (gogona) and this one in Indonesia (kubing),” he says and proceeds to demonstrate how each one sounds different though they look similar. “I have tried and tried but I just cannot make it. It’s so delicate and tricky. I have lost 15-16 bamboos in my trials,” he laments. “It looks easy but is very difficult.”
  • Another acquisition is the Hapi Drum (the name coming from the company that manufactures it). “It’s been around for seven-eight years. Originally it was called tank drum because it was made from propane tanks, which had slits cut into it. Now these are laser cut.” And has he made them? “Of course, with a petromax tank. It was a super success and I used it for concerts.” Now made with metal, the rippling notes remind one of the jalatarangam, albeit with an metallic overtone. Leon finishes his demo and wrings his hand. “It’s hard, given we’re actually hammering on it with our fingers,” he grimaces.

The sound depends on the number of hairs; fewer gives a sharper sound, while more offers a bass. “More hair also gives a grip on your fingers,” adds Leon, “the Rajasthani players grow their nails and those develop grooves so that they can just slide along. I can’t grow mine that long because of the other instruments I play.”

Watching him play, I am struck by how different it is from the violin. The latter is tucked under the chin and the fretboard offers support for the fingers. Leon points out that the Sri Lankan Ravanstron also has a fretboard. “Here, I have to hold it tucked in the crook of my elbow and there is every chance of my fingers slipping and losing the note. Making it is simple but playing it is very difficult.” He settles it comfortably and then launches into a rendition of ‘Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram’. “It’s an easy tune,” he laughs. It took him four attempts to make the Ravanahatha; something either broke or the skin tore...

Going forward, “Of course I am going to use this in concerts and am planning workshops,” he exclaims. “I don’t want the Ravanahatha to belong only to Rajasthan. Music cannot be limited by geographical boundaries. It belongs to everyone. First, I want to create awareness about the instrument. If you can’t buy it, you can make it. It’s as simple as that. And if you know the seven notes, you can play tunes with it.”

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 6:58:51 PM |

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