Classical music

Strings attached: Masters of the sarod, from 1820 to the present

In India, technology and music have evolved in tandem, each propelling the other to greater heights.

Despite the dominant rhetoric about the antiquity of Indian classical music, many instruments used in performance, not to mention some of the repertoire, are fairly modern. For instance, the first sarods were played only around 1820. The sarod tradition, like many other aspects of Hindustani music, is, in fact, the Indo-Gangetic plain’s response to its brush with modernity and its most palpable fruit: technology.

The sarod, sometimes spelled sarode, to rhyme with ode, is considered one of the few instruments capable of expressing Hindustani raga music in great detail, and is known to possess an appealing sound in the hands of a capable player.

This instrument came into being as a result of a chance synthesis of the Afghan rabab and the Indian sursringar. As the images below show, the primary difference between the sarod and the Afghan rabab lies in the material out of which the fingerboards and strings are made – the rabab has a wooden fingerboard whereas the sarod employs one made of polished steel. The rabab uses gut strings, while the sarod, like the sursringar, uses metal strings.

A rabab. Credit: Aga Khan Museum
A rabab. Credit: Aga Khan Museum
A sarod. Credit: Sylvainescoffier.files.wordpress.com
A sarod. Credit: Sylvainescoffier.files.wordpress.com

These are largely what distinguish the sound of the sarod from that of the rabab. Add to it the technique of sliding on the string with fingernails, a sursringar legacy, and you have sarod music as we know it.

Arnab Chakrabarty plays raag Gaud Sarang on the sarod.
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Homayun Sakhi plays raag Yaman on the Afghan rubab.

The sarod shown below is about 130 years old, although its tuning pegs have been modified recently to include a planetary gear mechanism instead of traditional friction pegs, enabling swift and precise tuning as well as giving much greater stability.

An heirloom sarod. Credit: Arnab Charkabarty
An heirloom sarod. Credit: Arnab Charkabarty

The instrument shown below, the one I use, is of modern construction, built in 2013 by the master sarod maker, Nabakumar Kanji of Kolkata. It is inspired by the venerable older instrument, although with several modern tweaks that allow a sarod player to play with greater efficiency and ease, and perhaps attempt things that, even a generation ago, were considered technical impossibilities.

A few of these improvements are a balanced action height; a slimmer, more navigable neck; and a less voluminous second barrel, enabling greater ease in accessing the third, and highest, octave. Consequently, today’s leading sarod players are able to play supple slides up to an octave without losing sustain, and taans covering the entire three-octave range with ease, leading to interesting melodic possibilities. Unlike most modern sarods, this one has gear-operated tuning pegs.

A modern sarod. Credit: Arnab Chakrabarty
A modern sarod. Credit: Arnab Chakrabarty

While we Indians love to glorify our past, and despite the great music produced by past masters, the sarod continues to become more capable and expressive as an instrument, and with this, the music can surely not be held back for long. Technology and music have evolved in tandem, each propelling the other to greater heights.

Early sarod masters

There have been considerable additions to the sarod’s repertoire over the past century or so. The grand old masters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries relied primarily on rapid-fire stroke work to make their point musically because the sarod lacked a sustained voice despite the improvements in its technology. A “sustained voice” is the ability of an instrument to play a phrase as close as possible to how it would be sung, with as low a stroke density as possible, with precise, contoured slides.

In the first half of the 20th century, the style of playing did not change much, as recordings of players in this period shows. For example, in the following recordings, while each master has unique personal features in his playing, one can safely state that there isn’t a wide stylistic disparity.

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Sakhawat Hussain Khan (1875-1955) plays raag Pilu, recorded in 1937.

Listen to Chunnu Khan of Rampur (1830-1912) play raag Bageshri-Bahar, recorded in 1906.

Listen to Allauddin Khan (1880-1972) play raag Lalit, accompanied on tabla by Ali Akbar Khan, recorded in 1934.

From 1940 to 1970

In this period, we witnessed a dramatic change in the playing style of Allauddin Khan. He and his family attribute the shift towards a strong melodic bias to his comprehensive training on the sursringar under the rudra veena master Wazir Khan. Wazir Khan was the chief musician at the court of Nawab Hamid Ali Khan of Rampur, and as per family history, a direct descendant of Saraswati Devi, Tansen’s daughter. Allauddin Khan also effected considerable changes on the sarod’s physical structure, making his instrument louder and more resonant, and perhaps capable of a greater tonal range.

Listen to Allauddin Khan play raag Alhaiya Bilawal.

Hafiz Ali Khan (1888-1972) of Gwalior did not record early in his career. His latter-day recordings reveal a strong preference for a highly vocalised idiom in alap and jod, and a predilection for long meends (a glide from one note to another). Such preferences necessitated modifications to the relief of the fingerboard and to the string action setup, which Hafiz Ali Khan achieved through collaborative design work with Govardhan Sharma of Darbhanga, a legendary sarod maker. Sharma’s family eventually migrated to Howrah, across the river from Kolkata. Hafiz Ali Khan, having learnt traditional sarod material from his father and uncles, also became a disciple of Wazir Khan, and studied the sursringar as well.

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Hafiz Ali Khan plays raag Darbari Kanada.

Radhika Mohan Maitra (1917-1981) was a pupil of Mohammad Amir Khan (1873-1934), Hafiz Ali Khan’s nephew. Given how Amir Khan’s sarod does not lack sustain or possess any sort of limitation that would prevent implementing vocal ornaments, it is safe to assume that Maitra had a head start as far as instrument technology is concerned.

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Radhika Mohan Maitra plays raag Kamod.

It is no wonder, therefore, that in Maitra’s earliest recordings, made in 1937, one hears a considerable preference for khayal ornaments, in contrast with earlier sarod players with vocal leanings, who were usually rather demonstrative of their purported dhrupad antecedents and did not publicly embrace the khayal form.

Radhika Mohan Maitra plays raag Todi.

Throughout his career, in order to improve the acoustic properties of his instruments and enable greater melodic emphasis, Maitra collaborated with instrument makers, such as Govardhan, his son Gopal, and his nephew Durgaprasad, all of the famous Sharma family of Howrah. Maitra also studied rudra veena and sursringar with Dabir Khan, the grandson of Wazir Khan.

The recordings of Ali Akbar Khan, whom everyone knows and reveres as a genius; Buddhadev Dasgupta, my second sarod teacher; Kalyan Mukherjea, my final guru, also a disciple of Radhika Mohan Maitra; and Amjad Ali Khan, show that the instrument has shaped the player’s personal idiom. In four of these cases, musical intent, which is the desired character of the music as defined by the techniques one needs to be able to execute on an instrument, also shaped the final form of the instrument adopted by these players.

Kalyan Mukherjea plays raag Jaunpuri.

The exceptions are, for a variety of reasons, Ali Akbar Khan and Kalyan Mukherjea, both of whose sonic horizons were shaped by their instruments, rather than them creating an instrument to suit their needs.

Gayaki ang, or vocal idiom

In all modal music, and especially in Indian music, instrumentalists have aimed since as early as our collective memories will recall to “sing through their instruments”. This is a euphemism for generating the fluidity and versatility of expression from a plucked instrument that one generally associates with the human voice.

Many Hindustani musicians refer to this focus on imitating the voice as the gayaki ang, whose literal translation would be “vocal aspect or idiom”. In the context of Hindustani music, instruments with the longest sustain enable a closer imitation of the voice. Plucked instruments, by default, have a shorter sustain than bowed or wind instruments.

It is, therefore, a combination of technology and technique that enables a musician to play music that has identifiable analogues in vocal music. The conquest of the technology and technique required to make one’s instrument “sing” imparts prestige to a musician’s reputation, impelling many to claim credit for inventing or adapting the gayaki ang.

The truth of the matter is that making an instrument “sing” is primarily a function of a given musician’s temperament, and then their willingness to grapple with technological and technical challenges and their ability to overcome them. One such genius was Vilayat Khan, the legendary sitar player, whose work was to revolutionise how subsequent generations came to see instrumental phrasing. While Vilayat Khan’s “vocal” ornamentation drew heavily from the filigree weaves of thumri and khayal phrasing, the baroque vocalism of sitarist Mushtaq Ali Khan’s (1911-1989) been baaj was equally noteworthy.

The sarod, while possessing a greater range of sliding than other plucked instruments, has had wildly variable sustain across models. As a result, the stylistic idiom of the sarod has largely been biased towards greater stroke density and syllabic patterns. Such a musical idiom, while attractive in its own right, veers away from the Hindustani musician’s ideal of delivering vocalised extemporisation on an instrument. Even so, musicians like Radhika Mohan Maitra and Hafiz Ali Khan were, for their time, delivering outstanding musical value in terms of vocalised expression.

Another approach, of course, was that of Ali Akbar Khan, which entailed internalising the distillate of vocal phrasing without really attempting to reproduce all the details verbatim. With every passing generation, sarodiyas’ access to technique and technology has increased considerably, allowing subtle increments in their ability to claim greater gayaki pedigree for their music.

While the ability to loosely imitate the melodic phrasing of khayal and thumri, is not alien to modern sarod players, in today’s context, a gayaki approach to the sarod essentially means a desire and ability to use phrasing from established khayal and thumri bandish material, and in some cases, the bandish material itself, in a form as close as possible to what is sung.

By extension, the sarod music that might have been considered gayaki ang 50 years ago might very well seem, to our ears, examples of “orthodox” instrumental playing, and with further refinement to sarod technology in a few decades, what we play today might seem “stroke-biased and orthodox”.

Sarod players and knowledgeable listeners consider a player to be less conventional and more modern if the execution of his or her melodic phrasing is more fluid and the stroke-density lower. The point here, however, is that none of these terms used to qualitatively describe music are absolute and static.

The contemporary scene

Most modern sarod players have a very refined technique and are all capable of speed, accuracy and power, despite practising far fewer hours than we read about in the biographies of legendary musicians, after accounting for obvious exaggerations in these accounts.

But many of today’s musicians lack the width and depth of erudition and repertoire possessed by musicians of the earlier period, especially the likes of Ali Akbar Khan, Radhika Mohan Maitra, Buddhadev Dasgupta and Kalyan Mukherjea. This is because the ever-improving quality and user-friendliness of their instruments allow players to be more efficient about their practice.

This makes acquiring a world-class technique on the sarod easier and less time-consuming. One might have imagined sarod players using the time freed up to think about music. But some neglect investing in thinking about the music precisely because their excellent technique now allows them to more easily win undemanding and not very knowledgeable listeners, who tend to dominate audiences today.

The development of a wide repertoire necessarily entails spending long hours listening, decoding, emulating and composing. Since the primary focus of a contemporary Indian classical musician seems to be to practise technique and polish performance material, this “polishing” often leads to premeditation in musical ideas, which in itself, in large doses, is antithetical to the values of Hindustani music. Such an approach to practice impedes the creative process, which should ideally go beyond polishing memorised and orchestrated pieces for performance.

Some performers’ focus on technique and polishing music to a fault could be the result of anxiety about what they believe the market wants. But commerce and creativity do not necessarily have to be in conflict with each other. The onus rests on musicians to balance the two.

Taking audiences for granted and assuming that dumbing down is a prerequisite for commercial success are ideas that drive the engagement strategies of a majority of the visible “mainstream” of Hindustani instrumentalists today and also of a visible minority of vocalists. However, the increasing appetite among listeners for serious, uncompromised art music reveals that such a strategy is deeply flawed and harmful to the music. ­

From my purely subjective perspective, the most technically fluent sarod players of the current period are Prattyush Banerjee (46), Debashish Bhattacharya (54) and Abhishek Borkar (24). All three players have worked with Kolkata-based instrument makers Nabakumar Kanji and Dulal Chandra Kanji to arrive upon instrument designs that facilitate greater speed. Neither has compromised on sustain – all three players can be said to possess a complete command of instrumental technique.

Banerjee has mastered the art of playing into a microphone, thereby, obviating the need for a very loud instrument. Abhisek Lahiri (34), another remarkable virtuoso, plays on a sarod that is equally amenable to deft handling at high speeds, but given his predilection for quick staccato taans and strong rhythmic bias, the focus of his instrument design is more on enabling rapid-fire stroke work and fast linear taans.

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Prattyush Banerjee plays raag Desh.
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Debasish Bhattacharya plays raag Kamod.
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Abhishek Borkar plays raag Bihag.
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Abhisek Lahiri plays raag Shree.

This is the first of a two-part series. In the second part, the author will take a look at the creative demands, power play and commercial pressures that confront a contemporary musician.

Arnab Chakrabarty is an accomplished sarod player who will perform in Mumbai on Friday, November 11, at a concert presented by First Edition Arts and G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture. The highly respected tabla player Abhijit Banerjee will accompany Chakrabarty. This article has been adapted from a talk he will give before the concert.

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