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Next only to the human voice 

 
One of the most spectacular features of India's rich musical tradition is the evolution of a wide range of musical instruments-percussion instruments, wind and string instruments-from which the only exclusion is the keyboard type of instruments. The experiment that began long ago has, over time, yielded a rich harvest.

Sculptures and paintings on temple walls depict the instruments that were in use over various periods in history. They document the process of adaptation and improvement over time and experience. Mystical treatises from ancient times and present records are fairly accurate sources for judging the evolutionary path of Indian musical instruments.

It is when we come to the modern period that the fall in the number of musical instruments, especially in the classical tradition, presents an alarming situation. Originally estimated to be over 500, the instruments in use now are just about a tenth of that number. That many instruments have survived in the folk tradition and are treasured by a minuscule population in small pockets of the country is not very reassuring. After all, much of that folk tradition itself is fighting for survival.

A very versatile instrument that faces the danger of fading into oblivion today is the sarangi. The sarangi has a unique distinction. It comes closest to the human voice in its richness and melody. It is the sarangi that has long been associated with bards and minstrels, brothels and mendicants, and which could move people to ecstasy. It was described by Yehudi Menuhin as an instrument that "most poignantly and most revealingly expresses the very soul of Indian feeling and thought".

Does the sarangi have a future? Should we resign ourselves to its gradual disappearance from the Indian music scene? Should we dismiss this decline as something which cannot be avoided? Or is it time that we accord this instrument the recognition it deserves, being one of the most expressive and versatile instruments to have evolved in India?

But before we try and predict the future, let us delve into the past-into the origin of the sarangi. The story of its evolution is rather romantic. Legend has it that long, long ago, a hakim (physician), weary and footsore from his travels, lay down to rest under a tree. Suddenly, he heard melodious notes emanating from the dense forest. A search revealed the dry hide of a dead monkey stretched over the branches of a tree. As the gentle winds caressed the hide, melodious sounds emanated from it. Another version attributes the origin of the sarangi to a disciple of Pythagoras, an Egyptian named Boo Ali Ibn Sina.

However, no `authentic' account of its creation is available. It may be assumed that the sarangi evolved, like most other known Indian instruments, from the Dhanuryantram (bow and arrow) used by primitive tribes for hunting. Descriptions in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata of the reverberating sounds of Rama's bow, Sharang, and Arjun's bow, Gandiva, lend credence to this hypothesis.

It is believed that this particular sound later inspired the design and shape of bowed instruments used by primitive tribes. The curvature of the bow provided the idea of constructing the body of the instrument and connecting both ends with gut string. Primitive man used the intestine of wild animals to make the strings. There are indications that horse-tail hair was used to manufacture the bows.

From the point of view of shape and structure, an ancient musical instrument without the frets, known as the Ghosvati or Ghoshak Veena, was perhaps the closest to the latter day sarangi. In modern parlance, the Pinaki Veena, a gut-string bow instrument described in Sarang Deva's Sangeet Ratnakar (AD 13) bears close resemblance to the sarangi we know.

We find that practically all over India, instruments akin to the sarangi have been in vogue. Unlike the polished and perfectly shaped sarangi popularly used today, these instruments, the Ravana Hatha in Western India, Kingri in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, Kunju in Kerala, Pen in Manipur, Kamayanch in Rajasthan, and Banam and Kenara in Orissa, were made of ordinary wood or coconut shell. They were devoid of all ornamentation.Another variation is the Saran in Jammu and Kashmir: it has two steel and two gut strings and 19 subsidiary strings (taral) with the resonator covered in sheep or goat skin. The Sindhi sarangi, Jogia sarangi, Gujaratan sarangi and Alabu sarangi are other variations.

The introduction of the sarangi into the classical tradition has been slow, though the instrument seems to have established its credentials as a great accompanist as early as the days of Tansen. The veena had acquired solo status. The range and pitch of the sarangi, the power of its tone, and its rare capacity for reproducing the gamak, which is indispensable to the khayal, dhrupad and thumri, made it a natural successor to the veena.

With the patronage of Hindustani classical music passing into the royal courts, and the emergence of kothas and havelis as an integral part of the elite way of life, the sarangi began to be identified with mehfils and nautch girls. In fact, some of the all-time greats of Hindustani music like Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustad Amir Khan, who had started out as sarangi players, had to disown their past on the road to fame.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, sarangi-playing bards singing religious songs and heroic ballads began flocking to the cities. But they were at best tolerated, and could in no way compete with the established beenkars and rababiyas. A decent living could perhaps be made by teaching and accompanying vocalists.

Today, even though artists like Ustad Bundu Khan, Ustad Mamman Khan, Pandit Gopal Mishra and Pandit Ram Narayan have succeeded in making a name as brilliant soloists, the situation of the average sarangi player has not improved. Even as an accompanying instrument to classical singers, the sarangi is losing ground to the harmonium, which is a more economical substitute. To be or not to be, then, is the dilemma of the sarangi today.

-- Courtesy www.rpi.edu

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

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