There is a mohalla named Bangla Sarodi in Shahjahanpur. At one time, says sarodist and scholar Chandrima Majumdar, it likely resonated with the sounds of the sarod. But today, the neighbourhood’s name is about the only thing musical in this town in north-eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Shahjahanpur was once one of the historic Afghan settlements in the Rohilkhand area that lies to the east of Delhi. Beginning the 18th century, Pathans came here in large numbers, bringing with them their beloved rabab, an ancient lute-like instrument common to many central Asian countries. The rabab’s haunting, melancholic notes are so evocative of the Afghan culture that Bollywood invariably used it every time a Pathan appeared on the scene – recall Manna Dey’s nostalgic Ae Mere Pyare Watan (Kabuliwala) and the robust Yaari Hai Iman Mera (Zanjeer).

With Afghan horse traders, soldiers, mercenaries and musicians, the rabab travelled across the Khyber Pass and north-west frontier and on to Punjab, the doabs and then the Gangetic plains of Moradabad, Bareilly, Saharanpur, Shahjahanpur, Rampur, Lucknow, parts of Bihar and finally Kolkata. A folk instrument, it was played to pass time, keep the troops upbeat with marching tunes or accompany dancers.

Over the coming century, the rabab transformed into the sarod, with various iterations to accommodate the distinct features of Hindustani classical music. With it changed the players (from amateurs to ustads) and their playing (from folk to stylised), finally coalescing to create the highly competitive gharana styles that survive to this day.

But this was by no means a one-way cultural street between Afghanistan and India. “There is a long history of reciprocal relationship,” said music historian Katherine Schofield. “There were Afghan musicians at the Mughal court and in the mid-19th century, the court in Kabul court asked Indian ustads to train rabab players using the raga and tal concepts, resulting in new musical modes there.” This interplay led to Afghanistan’s own art music, the klasik, that draws from ragdari but has a unique charm and sophistication of its own.

Built over generations, now this musical heritage stands in danger of destruction with the Taliban regaining power in Afghanistan. There are already fears among musicians that their life, work and precious instruments will suffer as they did during Taliban’s last rule from 1996 to 2001. There are reports that music schools and artistes have silenced themselves.

“They have no ilm (awareness) of the value of life or art. Yeh hamari badnaseebi hai,” said Daud Khan Sadozai, a Cologne-based classical rabab and sarod player, his voice breaking in despair. Sadozai is the disciple of the legendary Afghan rabab player Mohammad Omar whose breakthrough 1974 recital of Bopali (Bhopali) and Pelo (Pilu), among other ragas, with tabla wizard Zakir Hussain at the University of Washington is now the stuff of cult. Sadozai is also an ardent shagird of sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan.

Mohammad Omar performs Bopali with Zakir Hussain.

Origin Story

The art of many klasik ustads – such as Qasem Khan, called the “father of Afghan music”, the great rababiya Qorban Ali and vocalist Mohammad Hussain ‘Sarahang’ – can be traced to the heritage left behind by the Indian classical musicians in the 19th-century royal court of Kabul.

Between the klasik rabab and the classical sarod of now lies a continuum of musical forms and styles. Fascinatingly indicative of the confluence of the neighbouring cultures, the Afghan raga format played by solo rababiyas is also called naghma-ye-chartuk/yashal (song of four parts). This is because it is divided into the prelude or the shakl that mirrors the Hindustani alaap, followed by a set composition or naghma divided into astai-e, antara, abhog, and sanchari – divisions of dhrupad music.

The story of this synthesis is to be found in the oral histories of various gharanas and the works of musicians like sarod legends Karamatullah and Kaukab Khan. It has also been extensively documented by scholars such as Allyn Miner, John Baily, Max Katz and Adrien McNeil drawing on old Sanskrit and Persian treatises.

As is often the case with the origin stories of Indian arts, views are sharply polarised on the sarod too – between those who firmly believe it has Sanskritic or pre-Muslim roots in something they call the “saradiya veena”, as Miner points out, and those who cite historic texts and illustrations to trace its ancestry to the rabab.

A concert by Daud Khan Sadozai, a Cologne-based classical rabab and sarod player.

The rabab could have arrived in India as early as the 16th century with Babur’s armies. This meant that by the time of Akbar, the rabab had already been absorbed into the earliest forms of Hindustani music. “Tansen was considered one of the greatest rabab players of the time,” pointed out Schofield. This led to the creation of the dhrupad rabab and its school, Senia (derived from Tansen). Guru Nanak and his companion Mardana are often shown playing the dhrupad rabab in Sikh iconography.

But the rabab’s widespread presence in India began only in the 18th century when Afghans arrived in India in large numbers. Rohilkhand, where many of them settled, became a place where the rabab changed and evolved as musicians began interacting with Hindustani musicians in neighbouring courts and reaching as far east as the more prosperous Awadh.


As happens often with gharana discourses, the issue of exactly which ustad of Afghan descent fashioned and played the modern sarod is disputed quite acrimoniously and has been documented by both Max Katz in Lineage of Loss and Adrien McNeil in Inventing the Sarod. The Bangash-Gwalior school of Amjad Ali Khan’s family traces it to their Pathan forefather, Ghulam Ali Khan Bangash, while the Lucknow-Shahjahanpur gharana, with Irfan Muhammad Khan as its current khalifa, traces it to their ancestor Niyamatullah Khan.

Niyamatullah Khan (1804-1902) was the founder of the Lucknow-Shahjahanpur gharana. Courtesy: Irfan Muhammad Khan.

The Lucknow-Shahjahanpur telling of the rabab-sarod story goes back to two cousins, Madar Khan and Khan Sahib Gul Khan, who travelled to India from Ghazni and Jalalabad in the early 18th century, carrying their rababs. Of them one was a cavalry officer and the other a horse trader. “There were three kinds of rababs then – kalan (big), darmiyan (mid-sized) and zaleecha (small sized tuned to a high pitch),” said Irfan Muhammad Khan. “Of these we can assume that they had one of the latter two because these could be carried on the horseback.” The cousins and their families settled in Shahjahanpur and Bagrasi, near Bulandshahr.

Niyamatullah Khan, who descended from this clan, found tutelage under Basat Khan, a descendent of Tansen, at the court of Awadh’s Wajid Ali Shah.

Around this time, Hindustani music was rapidly transforming in the Awadh of the 19th century, said Miner in Sitar and Sarod in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The dhrupad was giving way in popularity to khyal, thumri, tarana, and sitar audiences were growing. The rabab was simply not up to the demands of these music forms.

“The rabab sound tends to be staccato and it works very well when you are standing on a note but it can’t be used to play in-depth alaap, do meend (glissando) ka kaam or seek fine shruti (microtonal) nuances that are so critical for Indian classical music,” pointed out sarodiya Chandrima Majumdar who learnt from Narendranath Dhar, a shishya of the great Radhika Mohan Moitra – all musicians who formed another line of the Shahjahanpur school.

Irfan Muhammad Khan, the current khalifa of the Lucknow-Shahjahanpur gharana, performs in Berlin in 2015.

While the rabab shifted shape, mid-19th century Awadh was heading for an upheaval. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was exiled to Metiabruz in western Kolkata by the British. The nawab, a great connoisseur and artiste, took with him his court and musicians, including Basat Khan, who hurriedly managed to have priceless treatises copied as he fled.

These texts are currently in the possession of Irfan Muhammad Khan. And it was his forefather, Niyamatullah Khan, who likely crafted the sarod – replacing the gut strings of the rabab with steel, removing its frets and substituting the wooden fingerboard with a metal plate, as per Max Katz. The late 19th century pretty much marked the end of the rabab as a popular instrument in India, replaced almost entirely by the sarod. However, the rabab continues to be played by several musicians in India, especially in Kashmir.

Return To Violence

The Bangash-Gwalior gharana is the other claimant to the sarod story. It says that a Pashtun horse trader and rabab enthusiast, Mohammad Hashmi Khan, settled in Rewa in modern-day Madhya Pradesh, and it was his grandson, Ghulam Ali Bangash, who invented the instrument.

Over the next few decades, through complex inter-gharana links of family and studentship, the sarod underwent several changes, moving increasingly further from its Afghan origins. Today there are as many as five sarod gharanas, as per scholar Deepak Raja.

Mohammad Omar performs Raag Bihag on the rabab.

The rabab influence stays strong in her gharana’s sarod playing, says Majumdar. “Our right-hand technique is influenced by rabab playing,” she said. “We use a combination of up and down strokes to sustain a note while others use just the downward stroke.”

What has remained strong through the 50 years of upheavals in Afghanistan is the camaraderie between the sarodiyas of India and the rabab players and klasik fraternity of Afghanistan. One of the first Indian gestures of solidarity after the Taliban were routed in 2001 was to gift Kabul a cache of musical instruments.

“I was in Kabul for six years,” said Irfan Muhammed Khan. “The first time in 1984-’88, teaching the sarod and sitar which are hugely popular there and I have students there for who I am now worried. I spoke to them last week and they were worried because musical instruments are among the first things the Taliban destroy.” Irfan Muhammed Khan has played for former Afghan presidents Mohammad Najibullah and Babrak Karmal. He was again in Kabul in 2010-’13 to set up the Indian music section at the famous Afghan National Institute of Music.

A week ago, the institute closed down, its instruments returned by frightened students and its faculty in hiding, according to musician-director Ahmad Sarmast. For the Afghan people and artistes, its music with its amazing syncretic history have been an abiding source of strength, helping them tide over the repeated phases of tumult and violence, scholar and rababiya John Baily says in his book War, Exile and the Music of Afghanistan. It is a sustenance that musicians like Sadozai hope will see the country and its people through the uncertain days to come.

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.