Author - ITC SRA
In both Hindustani Classical music and folk music, the Sarangi is valued as the only string instrument that comes closest to the human voice. Originating in the northwestern region of India, the Sarangi, a bowed instrument, was initially used for folk and religious music. The Sarangi emerged on the classical scene only in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. This was partly due to the waning popularity of the dhrupad style in the seventeenth century and the gradual advent of the khayal form. The veena was the accompanying instrument for dhrupad. But the veena was found to be not suitable for khayal. Being the only instrument that can produce almost all the nuances of vocal music in any style – dhrupad, khayal, thumri and tappa, - the Sarangi enjoyed importance as the only stringed accompaniment suitable for classical vocal music. Some of the most famous vocalists of our time were initially trained in playing the Sarangi and later took to vocal music - for example, Abdul Karim Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Amir Khan.
Scholars opine that Haider Baksh, a court musician of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II in the early nineteenth century was responsible for the classical status of the Sarangi. Sarangi players from the Kirana gharana and some other towns around Delhi also contributed in good measure to build and grow the stature of the Sarangi.
Unfortunately social forces precipitated the decline of the Sarangi. The patronage of Hindustani Classical Music passed into the royal courts. Kothas and havelis emerged as an integral part of the Nawabi way of life. As a result, the Sarangi slowly began to be identified with mehfils (soirees) and tawaifs (dancing girls). This association diminished the respectability of the Sarangi. Thus even after it started associating with khayal singing later, leading to high expectations from a Sarangi player, the social status of the Sarangi player remained low. Moreover, in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, the harmonium in particular and also the violin emerged as important alternatives to the Sarangi. The future of Sarangi and Sarangi players was at stake.
Efforts were made from the early part of the twentieth century to establish the Sarangi as a solo instrument. The genius, Bundu Khan of the Delhi gharana initiated this process. Several decades later, virtuosos like Ram Narayan went on to carve out significantly successful careers as soloists. But today, despite the emergence of brilliant Sarangi soloists, the Sarangi is losing ground to the harmonium, which is a more economical substitute. The harmonium does not impose the rigorous discipline and the complex and exacting skills required to tackle the difficulties of playing the Sarangi. This has further led to the decline of the erstwhile reputed Sarangi families.
The classical Sarangi varies in shape and size, depending upon the need of the artistes. Usually made out of a solid piece of ‘tun’ wood, it is between 64 and 67 centimetres in length. It has three melody strings that are usually made of gut and around thirty-five metal sympathetic strings that provide a bright echo. The heaviness of the bow contributes to the solidity and resounding vocal quality of the Sarangi. The difficulty of the Sarangi technique is legendary The three melody strings are stopped with the cuticle of the left hand. Needless to say, initial training on this instrument does require blood, sweat, and (sometimes) tears.