The making of music

The old: Ustad Asad Ali Khan with the traditional rudra veena.

The old: Ustad Asad Ali Khan with the traditional rudra veena.  

The bond between a musician and his instrument is very special. The demands of the New Age are impacting this relationship in new ways. LEELA VENKATARAMAN explores this evolving area.

BUDHADEV DASGUPTA once remarked, "Playing music on another person's instrument is like walking with somebody else's shoes" indicating the special bond between a musician and his instrument. The waxing and waning of instruments through history makes an interesting sociological study, for connections between musician, music and the instrument stem from a whole way of life, with all the changing accents. Discussing this were musicians and musicologists from both the Carnatic and the Hindustani disciplines, at "Vadya Darsan" symposium organised at New Delhi by the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi some time back.

A craftsman who has fashioned over 100 rudra veenas, Calcutta's Murari Mohan Adhikari — despite his clumsy Bengali/Hindi/English mishmash — gave a fascinating peep into the unique world of instrument making — which starts with an elaborate prelude of ritual and prayer before selecting the right wood, seasoning it and then sizing and fashioning it to the exact torso and neck measurements of the individual musician! After decorating the body comes the attaching of strings to produce pure and perfect notes without any sympathetic strings or tarap as in the sitar or sarod.

With the entire process taking about a year, is it any surprise that the average price of a rudra veena is Rs. 50,000 or above? Add to this the long preparatory training in Dhrupad and playing a sitar before graduating to the rudra veena, not to speak of the need to sit in the Vajrasana for hours while playing, and one has a fair idea why the Khanderbani style of playing the rudra veena has at present no more than one great musician in Ustad Asad Ali Khan.

Three equestrians from Afghanistan introduced the rabab to India. Its music was used for soldiers marching to battle. From this as emerged the magnificent sarod. While there was also the Tanseni rabab, the Afghani rabab was played mainly with the right hand. The sur singar, another precursor to the sarod, replaced the catgut with metallic strings. While the latter could be played to produce vilambit alap of sonorous dignity, the rabab was meant for the marching soldier, which had the percussive punch for rhythm-oriented music. For today's generation, music needs to accommodate both the serene and the fast paced and the sarod — evolving into a sophisticated acoustic instrument under the experiments of late Alauddin Khan and his brother Ayer Ali Khan, acquiring further melodic, richness under ustads like Ali Akbar Khan and others — ended the awkward practice of playing on the sur singar for alap and the rabab for percussion, in the same concert.

The new: Suma Sudhindra wih her invention.

The new: Suma Sudhindra wih her invention.  

The veena, India's oldest instrument, went through several manifestations in Hindustani music like Tantra Veena, Shiv Veena, Shrutee Veena and Batta Been. But the most popular was the vichitra veena with four main strings, three side-strings, two chikaries and 15 tarabs or sympathetic strings with a superb range of four octaves. "When I settled down in the Padmasana, with the baby I was asked to look after ("or else no food," was the thread held out) on my lap, and practiced for hours, the little one just slept through," said Pandit Gopal Krishnan, referring to the soporific power of music received from proximity to the resonator. Today both gurus and students are sadly on the decline.

Sur sagar, precursor to the sarangi, was a brass instrument with several strings facilitating being bowed and plucked, but only three pieces were crafted. So its reign could not have been long. For the today's musician, in Damascus today, in New York a couple of days later, travelling with large instruments with two resonators like the veena can be a nightmare. Vainika Suma Sudhindra of Karnataka has invented a new instrument named Tarangini — one that is compact, light, weather resistant and travels well. Sruti stability, ensured by guitar keys, does away with the pegs of the veena. The acoustic resonator of the conventional veena is replaced by a magnetic pickup and the hind resonator made of fibreglass can be unscrewed and packed away separately! But its music sounds more like the electric guitar. Some instruments, it would seem, will not be easily substituted.

The computer age wants quick results. Not for it the arduous and lonely journey of years under gurus — a journey at the end of which one cannot promise success or prosperity. Gliding the tips of the finger on the strings of the sarangi or even pressing down the strings of the surbahar, another rarely played melodious old instrument, can result in sore fingers for learners. How many would opt for such physical discomfort? An instrument like the shehnai, part of the rituals of birth, marriage or even death, taxes one's lungs. In the South, despite its association with temples, good nagaswaram music is becoming rare. How many know that the shehnai mouthpiece or reed is made from a grass growing around the edges of a salt lake in Bihar — the saline content and weather giving a quality enabling a sweetness of sound that the same plant cannot produce when grown elsewhere?

Teak forests are no longer plentiful and other types of wood have to be used for making musical instruments. Raw material like bone and ivory are no longer easily available and substitutes are being experimented with Ravi Kiran, the chitra veena expert recounting his experience with the instrument, said that after trying out many metals for the slide bar called gottu used to glide on the strings, he now uses a Teflon side bar, which is smooth and easy to wield.

Large auditoria and the performances have their own compulsions, making themselves felt in the music world. The love for the contact mike in vainikas (just amplifying sound with mikes does not seem to be enough) has destroyed notions of music as the sum total of heard and unheard melodies. The whispered notes, the silences are all lost.

While the amplifying system has made music different in both the north and the south, the Carnatic musician in particular shows a preference for in-built amplification in the instruments. The new recorded sruti device, while cutting out the laborious transportation of the tanpura with its resonator and providing a drone like effect, can never match the sound of the original filling the auditorium with its resonance.

The instrument is, doubtless, a big factor in making music. But the musician's creativity will be the ultimate decider and this will triumph over all odds.

Gopal Krishnan, the vichitra veena maestro, was jailed during the British Raj. He mesmerised the hardened criminals in his cell with music played on ektara, the only instrument he was allowed to take with him. He played it like a veena and his live demonstration during the symposium floored all with its undiluted sweetness.

Just like the fractured approach to aspects of life, where we seem to have lost that integrated wholeness, music too is raore fragmented now with chopped non-melodic aspects and speed acquiring greater.

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