Sounds of the Strings : Sarangi

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.

Sultan Khan – Raga Bageshri :  Download

Gurdev Singh (?) – Raga Gauri Kalyan :  Download

Ram Narayan – Raga Jaunpuri :  Download

Aruna Narayan – Raga Shuddh Sarang :  Download

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.

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Sounds of the Strings : Sarod

The present day Sarod, came into vogue through an evolutionary process. Its predecessor, the ancient Rabab, was played in the Mughal court of Emperor Akbar. It is a six stringed instrument with its lower gut string used as a resonator. The founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak, favored this instrument. The guru’s closet disciple, Bhai Ramdass, usually strummed on it and it is believed that the guru poured out his immortal devotional hymns to the sounds of the melodious Rabab.

The high point of difference between the Rabab and the Sarod is that the Sarod is endowed with an extra dose of melody and this is due to the inclusion of a metal chest plate across the front rod of the instrument. The fingerboard is thus a steely glide. As gut strings would create a dull sound effect on a steel surface, it necessitated the introduction of metal strings of variable thickness.

Ali Akbar Khan – Raga Mian Ki Sarang :  Download

Krishnamurthi Sridhar – Raga Kaushik Kanada :  Download

Amjad Ali Khan – Raga Bhairav :  Download

Amjad Ali Khan – Raga Pilu :  Download

These innovations were the work of Bandegi Khan Bangash, a camel caravan driver of Afghanistan. The ace Sarod genius, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan is a direct descendant of this family and like his illustrious family he has included a new aspect of creative element into the still evolving instrument. The musical element of the thumri form of singing has entered his Sarod playing style. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and of course his father and guru, Ustad Allauddin Khan were considered to be the best exponents of Sarod during the last century.

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Sounds of the Strings : Sitar

From rudimentary folk beginnings, string instruments of India have now reached the heights of concert glory, giving endless moments of ecstasy and delight to listeners. The strumming of a series of taut metallic strings is capable of creating an enthralling experience of vitality and emotion. As the player slides over the notes, the listener experiences moments of pure bliss. There is an entire tradition in Indian music where musical instruments of the stringed variety form a separate classification, termed as ‘Tata Vadya‘ or the sound of the strings. These instruments are also termed as chordophonic, which means string sounds.

Kanwar Sain Trikha – Raga Bageshri :  Download

Nikhil Banerjee – Raga Malkauns :  Download

In the western world the Sitar is perhaps the most well known musical instrument of India. The Sitar is a plucked string instrument that uses sympathetic strings and a long hollow neck along with a gourd resonating chamber in order to produce a very rich musical sound along with a complex harmonic resonance. The Sitar is predominantly used in Hindustani classical music. This instrument is one that has been used all throughout the Indian sub continent, particularly in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. What’s not known is its exact origin. The Sitar has been in existence for thousands of years in one form or another, but there are several theories as to who invented it.

Rais Khan – Raga Darbari Kanada :  Download

Usman Khan – Raga Kaushik Ranjani :  Download

There is a common story attributing the invention of the Sitar to Amir Khusrau. Amir Khusrau was a great personality and is an icon for the early development of Hindustani classical music. He lived around 1300 AD. As common as this story is, it has no basis in historical fact. The Sitar was clearly nonexistent until the time of the collapse of the Mughal Empire. Most people agree that the modern Sitar first appeared in the 1700s at the end of the Mughal Empire.

Raga Bairagi at a Sitar shop in Paharganj, New Delhi :  Download

Legendary musicians associated with the Sitar include Vilayat Khan, one of the most prominent Sitar players of the 20th century, and of course Ravi Shankar, who brought the Sitar to Woodstock.