IN September, I had begun a monthly series on Indian musical instruments. The aim was two-fold: one, to make Indian readers aware of certain artistes they might not have heard before, and secondly, to expose relatively new audiences, mainly from the West, to the melodic or rhythmic beauty that various Indian instruments offer.
In this series, I shall not go into too many technicalities and playing styles. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style. However, while I have tried to name all the main musicians, the lists mentioned are by no means exhaustive or complete. In all parts of the series, I shall use a similar format to maintain uniformity, and some portions on the concert structure may be repeated verbatim if needed.
The first three parts of the series talked about the violin, sitar and bamboo flute, respectively. This month, we feature the sarangi and other similar instruments.
ON December 18, I attended a tribute to sarangi maestro Ustad Sultan Khan at Mumbai’s Ravindra Natya Mandir. The event was held to mark his first death anniversary, which was on November 27.
The concert featured tabla wizard Ustad Zakir Hussain, his brother Fazal Qureshi, the Salim-Sulaiman duo, violinist Deepak Pandit, singer Akriti Kakar and Sultan Khan’s son Sabir Khan. Though the programme started an hour late, and the compere went on and on, it served its main purpose.
Sultan Khan (picture on right) has been one of India’s foremost sarangi players. His association with Zakir Hussain and many younger musicians, and his singing efforts like ‘Piya Basanti’, have made him popular among the newer generation. However, the credit for actually popularising the sarangi as a classical instrument goes to the great Pandit Ram Narayan (picture on left). The other well-known player is Ustad Sabri Khan.
We shall talk of other sarangi players later, but let’s begin with a description and brief history of the instrument. We shall talk of its use in various genres, and then discuss similar instruments.
Description and history: The sarangi is a bowed, short-necked string instrument that is used in Indian, Nepali and Pakistani music. It is said to be the Indian instrument that sounds closest to the human voice.
The name comes from the Hindi words sau (hundred) and rangi (colours), though another theory is that it’s derived from the Sanskrit words saar (summary) and ang (body).
Though it was originally used in north Indian and Nepali folk music, it found increasing use in classical music following the efforts of Ram Narayan, who even elevated it to the status of a solo instrument. Today, it is also used in Sufi music, ghazals and even in international music.
Hindustani music: In Hindustani music, the sarangi often plays the role of an accompanying instrument, though musicians like Ram Narayan, Sultan Khan and Sabri Khan have used it for solo rendition with tabla accompaniment.
In the former role, the instrument is used as an accompaniment in a vocal concert, or in a tabla solo recital, where the sarangi player provides the melodic mood and the lehra (repeated phrases while the percussionist is improvising). Though many vocalists later preferred the harmonium as an accompanying instrument, purists often say the sarangi sounds better because of its closeness to the human voice.
If the sarangi player is doing a solo concert, he usually begins with the rendition of a classical raga, the melodic mode used in Indian music. The first piece comprises a three-part movement beginning with the slow alaap, increasing tempo with the jod and reaching a faster climax with the jhala. Here, there is no tabla accompaniment.
After the alaap-jod-jhala sequence, the instrumentalist plays two or three compositions in the same raga, with percussion accompaniment. These are known as gats or bandishes. Once this first raga is over, the sarangi may play another raga, or may play certain light ragas, folk tunes or devotional pieces, depending on the time allotted.
As mentioned before, Ram Narayan is singularly credited with elevating the status of the sarangi to a solo instrument. In fact, once he established himself as a solo artiste, he practically gave up playing the role of an accompanist, though he continued to play in films. He helped popularise the instrument abroad through his visits to Afghanistan and China, and then to western countries.
While Ram Narayan’s son Brij Narayan opted for the sarod, his daughter Aruna Narayan Kalle and grandson (Brij’s son) Harsh Narayan are active on the sarangi circuit.
Sultan Khan represented the Indore gharana, and was closely associated with taking the instrument to other parts of the world, through his participation in fusion experiments. His son Sabir and nephew Dilshad are taking that branch forward.
Sabri Khan represented the Senia gharana, and has also played a major role in popularising the instrument in the West, besides doing the duet with violinist Yehudi Menuhin. His son Kamal Sabri and grandson Sohail Khan also give regular concerts.
Some of the other sarangi players have included Hanuman Prasad Mishra, Mamman Khan, Nathu Khan, Sagiruddin Khan, Abdul Lateef Khan and Shakoor Khan. Those popular today include Dhruba Ghosh, son of tabla maestro Pandit Nikhil Ghosh, Ramesh Mishra, a disciple of sitar great Pandit Ravi Shankar, and Ikram Khan, a student of Sultan Khan.
Besides pure music, the sarangi is also used as an embellishment in dIndian classical dance, specially in Kathak.
Hindi film music: The sarangi has been regularly played in Hindi film music by Ram Narayan, Sultan Khan, Sabri Khan and others. In fact, Ram Narayan originally came to Mumbai to play in film music. He was a regular with OP Nayyar, and also played with Naushad in Mughal-e-Azam and Ganga Jamuna, Madan Mohan in Adalat and Laxmikant-Pyarelal in Milan.
For his part, Sultan Khan lent his voice to many Hindi films, including the well-known ‘Albela sajan aayo re’ in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, besides songs in Maqbool, Jab We Met and Parzania, and often used sarangi in these film songs. He played the sarangi in the films Gandhi and Heat and Dust, and in the Tamil film Yogi.
More recently, A R Rahman got in Dilshad Khan to play the sarangi in the Rockstar song ‘Tum Ko’.
Experimental music, fusion and others: Some of the best known uses of the sarangi in fusion are Sultan Khan’s work in the Tabla Beat Science project, featuring Zakir Hussain, producer Bill Laswell and others, and the album Bhoomi, with Salim and Sulaiman. His album Piya Basanti, with singer Chitra, also made good use of the instrument
Among the pop groups, Delhi band Advaita has made prominent use of the sarangi through its member Suhail Yusuf Khan on its albums Grounded in Space and The Silent Sea.
International music: American alternative band Blind Melon was one of the first to use the sarangi on its song ‘Sleepyhouse’ from its 1992 self-titled debut. But the world noticed it instantly when popular rock band Aerosmith got in Ramesh Mishra to play on the song ‘Taste of India’ from the 1997 album ‘Nine Lives’.
Other well-known instances are the progressive rock band Tool, on the song ‘Reflection’, and producer Robert Miles, on the album ‘Organik’.
Other similar bowed string instruments: Though the violin also falls in a similar broad category, it has a technique, tone and popularity of its own, and has been featured earlier in this series. Somewhat lesser-known instruments related to the sarangi include the esraj, dilruba and sarinda.
The esraj is primarily played in the states of West Bengal and Tripura, and also in Bangladesh. It is used extensively in Rabindra Sangeet from Bengal. While well-known exponents have been the late Ranadhir Ray and Buddhadeb Das, it was used by spiritual guru Sri Chinmoy while meditating.
In contrast, the dilruba is played mainly in north India, and has been used in Sikh religious music. Ravi Shankar played it in the early stages of his career, as a teenager, and in the 90s, Rahman utilised it in the songs ‘Dil Se’ and ‘Vande Mataram’.
The sarinda uses a different kind of bow and is played in a lot of folk music from Rajasthan, Assam and Tripura, besides Baul music of Bengal. It is primarily used as an accompaniment for folk singers.
Sadly, the esraj and dilruba have declined in popularity, almost becoming extinct, and the sarinda is used in limited forms of music. The sarangi, for its part, has a lesser number of exponents compared to the sitar, sarod or bansuri, and it’s now left for the younger players to carry it forward. It is one of the most beautiful sounding and intense Indian instruments, of course, and that’s what makes it so special.