Sarangi is the most important bowed stringed instrument of North Indian classical music. Its name literally means sau rang (hundred colours) indicating its adaptability to a wide range of musical styles and its ability to produce a large pallette of tonal colour and emotional nuance. It’s twanged metallic sounding tone with a pronounced echo might surprise one who hears its sound for the first time. The Sarangi is far superior for the accentuation of Raga scales to all known Indian instruments like the Sitar, Sarod or Santoor. Sarangi is revered for its uncanny capacity to imitate the timbre and inflections of the human voice as well as for the intensity of emotional expression. In the words of famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin, “The Sarangi remains not only the authentic and original Indian bowed stringed instrument but the one which expresses the very soul of Indian feeling and thought.” It is sad that a beautiful instrument like this one is becoming extinct.
Among different myths and theories that surround its origin, one says that the Sarangi originated in ancient times when a weary travelling hakim (doctor) laid down under a tree to rest in a forest. He was startled by a strange sound from above, which he eventually found to be caused by the wind blowing over the dried-up skin of a dead monkey, stretched between some branches. With this event as his inspiration, he went home and constructed the first Sarangi.
Coming from a large family of folk fiddles, the Sarangi entered the world of Hindustani classical music during the 18th and 19th centuries as the preferred melodic accompaniment for dancing girls or courtesans. It appears to have been the most popular North Indian instrument during the 19th century at a time when Sitar and Sarod were struggling to get noticed. So plentiful were Sarangi players that old paintings and photos of singing and dancing girls usually depict a Sarangi player on each side of the singer. Before the latter half of this century, most of the great female singers came from the courtesan tradition, and many of them were taught by Sarangi players.
Although Sarangi players and Tabla players were equally important in the ensembles of singing and dancing girls, the Tabla has, to a great extent, outgrown the stigma of association with them partially because of its enhanced role and more glamorous status in the accompaniment of Sitar and Sarod. In the popular imagination, however, Sarangi still remains linked to the world of courtesans. And that world has ceased to exist. With the end of what was once a lucrative market for Sarangi playing, the prospects for Sarangi players became bleak except for those who were either very talented or lucky enough to be employed by All India Radio.
Sarangi music is almost vocal music. It is quite impossible to find a Sarangi player who does not know how to sing. The songs are usually mentally present during the performance, and the player almost always adheres to the conventions of vocal performance including the organisational structure, the types of elaboration, the tempo, and the presentation of Khayal and Thumri compositions. Most Sarangi players learn to sing before they begin to play. Contrary to common belief, Sarangi is and has historically been a solo, as well as an accompanying instrument. Bundu Khan, Gopal Mishra, Sultan Khan and Ram Narayan were the most successful Sarangi players of the last century.