Saturday, December 9, 2000

Dying strains
of sarangi
By Vrinda Patil

AMONG all of India’s classical music instruments, the sarangi is supposed to produce sounds closest to the human voice. It is said to be the "queen of all musical instruments" and has been traditionally used as an accompaniment to vocal recitals.

Today, the sarangi is on the verge of extinction. Other instruments like the harmonium and violin have usurped its place. Besides the few exponents who had once tried to elevate it to the status of a solo instrument, there are few takers for it now.

Pandit Ram Narayan, one of the few sarangi artistes who holds solo recitals, says barring an occasional invitation to perform on radio or television, he is virtually without work. His son Brij Narayan has taken to playing the sarod instead of the sarangi which earned his father a place among the great Indian classical musicians.


Dethroned: Sarangi, the queen of all musical instruments "At one time, sarangi exponents used to be called gurus and ustads because they were so learned that they could teach vocalists a thing or two," reminisces Ram Narayan. "It wasn’t surprising that many of them turned into vocalists and made a name for themselves independently."

Among the early sarangi players-turned-vocalists, the better known were Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali and Ustad Amir Khan. There were others like Ustad Bundu Khan, Pandit Gopal Mishra and Ustad Shakoor Khan who were good vocalists but remained faithful to the instrument.

Those were the times when sarangi was also associated with the performances of nautch girls in the so-called "houses of ill-repute’. For connoisseurs of arts, these might have been temples of music and dance, but the stigma attached to the courtesans also rubbed off on the sarangi players.

"Sarangi players did not get the recognition and respect they deserved," explains Bollywood music director Khayyam, who has used the instrument extensively in his compositions. "Even today, the best sarangi artistes can be found in the brothels of red-light areas."

Worse things were to follow. Once Bade Ghulam Ali became furious with his accompanist, Shakoor Khan, when the latter stole the limelight in his presence. He dispensed with the sarangi player thereafter. Before long, other vocalists like Ustad Amir Khan followed suit and switched to harmonium.

Sharan Rani, one of the few surviving women exponents, says: "Vocalists avoided sarangi players simply because most of them started competing with the main artiste. If you are the main artiste and someone disturbs you on stage, your creative process is wrecked.

"So the sarangi players have only themselves to blame. The discipline necessary for accompaniment was sorely lacking in them. Among contemporary vocalists, Bhimsen Joshi and Jasraj had sarangi players till recently for their recitals. Now, however, they have dispensed with them and are using the harmonium instead."

She points out that the harmonium can just about fill in the gaps in a musical rendition and has more of a ‘decorative value’, whereas the sarangi supplies minute detailing and colour to the song. "I am not surprised that even ghazal singers like Jagjit Singh have dropped the harmonium for the violin," she adds.

Yet another reason for the easing out of the sarangi is that it is one of the most difficult instruments to master. "Unlike the sitar, there are no frets, which means that every note has to be extracted from a thin string in a sarangi," Khayyam points out. "Even tuning the instrument is extremely difficult."

Like Khayyam, there were several music composers in the sixties and seventies who used the sarangi for their film scores. The compositions of Madan Mohan, Roshan, O.P. Nayyar and Naushad Ali were all classical and they could not do without the instrument.

"The present-day films do not require that kind of music," says the composer of costume dramas like Umrao Jaan and Razia Sultan. "Today, noise has replaced music in Hindi films. So along with the old composers, all the sarangi players are unemployed!"

The only sarangi artiste other than Pandit Ram Narayan who holds solo recitals is Ustad Sultan Khan. There is also the gifted Hafizullah Khan, son of the great vocalist Ustad Wahid Khan.

"These days we are hearing the dying strains of the sarangi," observes Ram Narayan. "Those, too, are played on radio and TV when the passing away of a national leader is mourned. The happy days of sarangi are over. Its association with death is symbolic." (MF)