The Surbahar appeared on the Indian music scene in the early years of the nineteenth century around 1830. The Surbahar owed its genesis to the fact that seniya musicians would traditionally jealously guard their own music and not teach either the Veena or the Rabab to outsiders. A seniya beenkar, Umrao Khan, in an attempt to teach his skills to talented students outside his bloodline, created the instrument to teach the alap and jodalap of dhrupad anga to his favourite students. One of these students, Ghulam Muhammad went on to popularize the instrument.
The Surbahar was the forerunner of the modern sitar. Its basic structure resembled the sitar, though it was much bigger in size. Its sound is deep and mellow, while the resonance and sustenance of sound is greater than that of the sitar. The playing technique of the Surbahar is quite different from the sitar and is more suitable for the alapchari of the been anga than the fast rhythmic pieces played on the sitar.
Though initially the Surbahar was meant for students outside the gharana, as tonality and capacity of the instrument gradually developed and was fully exploited, musicians of the seniya lineage also started playing the instrument and acquired proficiency. But the proficiency and fame that Ghulam Mohammad and his son attained was unsurpassed.
Almost all the technicalities possible on the Veena could be incorporated on the surbahar. As a result, it grew in popularity between the mid nineteenth century and early 20th century, while the popularity of the Veena, restricted as it was to only the seniya families, gradually began to wane. Till the middle of the twentieth century, any musician learning the sitar was also conversant with Surbahar playing. However, it was around this time that the sitar too started evolving, both. technically and stylistically, developing an edge over the surbahar. As a result, over the last six or seven decades, the Surbahar has suffered a steady depletion in the number of competent performers.
Author - ITC SRA
Surbahar performance has evolved around two distinct traditions: the Dhrupad tradition, which still regards the Surbahar as the closest approximation to the Rudra Veena and the post-Dhrupad, sitarist tradition which treats the Surbahar as a specialist instrument for the sitar- type alap form. In the Dhrupad tradition, the most distinguished performer on the Surbahar, in recent years, has been Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan of the Seniya Gharana. His idiom on the Surbahar was a most faithful reproduction of the Rudra Veena. Daughter of Allaudin Khan, Annapurna Devi, a very imaginative and highly ranked artiste, also plays the Surbahar in traditional style. In the sitarist tradition of the surbahar, Ustad Imdad Khan (1848-1920 was a landmark figure. This tradition is being perpetuated currently by his grandson, Ustad Imrat Khan.