Khair Nagar in old Meerut is a hub for pharmaceutical businesses, a warren of shops lining its busy streets. Not a trace remains here of the time when a legendary luthier crafted the most exquisite sarangis with signature inlay work at their head – a bird in a downward swoop, topped by a reverse heart icon with three dots.

Rajesh Dhawan has searched high and low in its lanes for some remnant of that magic-making – a workshop, a living quarter, a tool or trick that could hold the key to the life and work of Abdul Aziz Behra, the sarangi maker whose handcrafted instruments were, and still are, played by masters such as Abdul Latif Khan and Ram Narain and prized by antiquarians.

Dhawan’s quest landed nothing.

“I was looking for something, anything that would give me a sense of how he crafted his sarangis,” he said. “I came up against a total blank.”

Dhawan, 55, is an entrepreneur who runs a music instruments shop in Meerut, but he has also been crafting and selling some of the most sought-after sarangis in India and across the world since the mid-1990s. For him, the ultimate dream is to achieve the mellowness of Behra’s creations.

A resonant bowed instrument, a sarangi has a rich tonal quality that Hindustani musicians believe approximates the human voice the best. It was once used primarily for accompaniment but is now assertive of a solo status. Most Indians are familiar with its rich and incredibly appealing sounds. This is thanks to its widespread use in Hindi film music: practically every classic you can recall carries its strains. Its mellow sound invariably backgrounded tragic scenes, sad love songs and, of course, mujras.

Rajesh Dhawan crafts and sells some of the most sought-after sarangis in the world. Credit: Malini Nair.

“Usually, a new sarangi takes around two years to ‘settle’, when the skin and the wood begin to produce the sound you are looking for. Which is why most sarangi players seek out old instruments like Behra’s,” said the sarangi maker who bagged the Manohar Muley Award for instrument makers in 2004. “I have been striving to craft ones that can be put to use almost as soon as they are bought and now, I am there.”

Centre of music

In Meerut’s cantonment area, off Arvind Puri’s smart main roads lined with assorted public schools, lies Bhadbujewali Galli. This is a lane where, as the name suggests, men roasted and sold gram in an age where that made for a breakfast staple. In a by-lane off it stand a row of houses, backing onto an old masjid. This is where Dhawan lives and works on his precious sarangis with a bunch of craftsmen.

Like many western towns of Uttar Pradesh, such as Kirana, Moradabad and Bulandshahr, Meerut too has a rich history of Hindustani classical music of which there is little evidence today. It is the home of the Ajrada gharana in tabla playing. And the birthplace of great sarangi makers. It is also, incidentally, the biggest and oldest centre for brass band instruments.

To trace the sarangi’s connect with Meerut, it is important to dip into the pathbreaking research by the Dutch musicologist Joep Bor. His work, The Voice of Sarangi, is an exhaustive story of the instrument, its working, antiquity, myths and realities around it, as well as its documentation in classics and miniatures.

Here is what he says of the stories around the sarangi-making centres that he heard during his early research in India in the 1960s when he had been smitten by the sounds of the instrument played by wizards such as Ram Narain and Bundu Khan:

“‘Jaunpuri sarangis are the most famous,’ writes Shahinda in 1914, whereas S. Bandyopadhyaya informs us that sarangis made in Budaun (Uttar Pradesh) are considered the best. The musicians I spoke to, however, always refer to Meerut as the main centre of sarangi manufacture and Masita (c.1840-1920) as the best maker. He is said to have learned the art from Mendu Khan, who lived during the time when the form of the large sarangi was determined.”

What then happened to this skill once Meerut’s domain? To understand this, it is important to return to Dhawan’s workshop that is an extension of his home. At any given time, he has material for about 250-300 sarangis in various stages of assembling. But he sells no more than 15-20 a year, and then too only directly to musicians. In his shop in town, he does not stock sarangis – it has hardly any market, unlike Western instruments, or the appeal of the sitar and harmonium.

Dhawan’s workshop is an extension of his home in Meerut. Credit: Malini Nair.

“It is a hard business to run and if I had been only dealing in sarangis the losses would have drowned me,” he said. “I do this as a passion. What I earn from it is not a fraction of what it costs me.”

A sarangi fetches Dhawan no more than Rs 30,000 even though making one – if you were to time the instrument’s birth from the felling of a log to placing it in musician’s hand – takes an astounding 10 years. It takes 7-8 years for the wood to be drained of moisture, naturally seasoned, reduced from as much to 20 kg to 2.5 kg. Then there is the carving, laying of the skin and stringing. The last stages of the work, especially the tuning of the strings, are handled only by Dhawan because the sarangi has the reputation of being the hardest classical instrument to tune.

Though he is not a concert performer of the sarangi, Dhawan knows it as well as any musician. Tuning a sarangi is said to be a fraught task and Dhawan excels at it, so much so that his skills were featured at the rare instrument festival at the Sangeet Akademi this June.

The last stage in the creation of a sarangi is the tuning of the strings, which Dhawan does himself. Credit: Malini Nair.

Other than classical musicians, the sarangi enjoys near sacred status with its variants – the taus, dilruba, tar shehnai and sarinda – in Sikh gurmat music. Dhawan makes all these instruments, except the tar shehnai, for Sikh bodies seeking to promote them, such as the UK-based Raj Academy.

As much works of art as tools of musicmaking, sarangis are gorgeously styled instruments. Most of them come with elegant ivory and now bone carving and wooden embellishments. The older instruments, their wood ageing and grooved by the musician’s fingers, are a treasure trove of history and craft. Enthusiasts travel to obscure pockets of east Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where the tawaif culture thrived to collect instruments in old bazars.

Masita’s instruments are highly prized, but it is his disciple, Behra’s, that are most widely sought out and used today. Behra is believed to have died in the 1940s, aged 45, in penury and in a state of disillusion. There is a story, Dhawan says, that the luthier’s married daughter came to his workshop asking for money to buy firewood for her kitchen. In despair at not being able to help, he is believed to have handed her a sarangi instead.

According to Bor’s account, Behra’s son, Jassin, carried on the tradition. Dhawan, however, says that in the 1990s, when he met one of the legend’s sons – around 70 then – in the Kabaadi Bazaar area that once housed tawaifs, the latter was working in a rickshaw-making unit.

At any time, Dhawan has material for 250-300 sarangis in his workshop. But he sells no more than 15-20 a year. Credit: Malini Nair.

Decline and fall

Behra’s death left a void in Meerut’s sarangi-making reputation. Between the 1960s and 1990s, no one looked to the city for these instruments. In a way, Meerut’s death as a centre of excellence paralleled the fading away of the sarangi as well.

It was a chance encounter between Dhawan, whose family sold music instruments in the city, and sarangi player Bharat Bhushan Goswami and later Ram Narayan that shifted the scene. “I was 20 when I met Goswamiji and he asked me why I don’t work at reinstating the city’s sarangi tradition,” Dhawan recalled. It was a single-minded pursuit, with encouragement and advice from Narayan, that he kept up over the decades despite the odds.

It was only towards the latter half of the last century that we get to hear of the contemporary sarangi, though it has a long and rich history of use in other avatars in folk music, such as the ravanhatha of Rajasthan. By the mid-1850s, the sarangi was identified almost entirely with the performative arts of the tawaif culture, borne out by many illustrations of the period: a player with the instrument strapped to his waist can often be seen standing close to the dancer. Many of the sarangi greats of the early decades of the last century had symbiotic associations with tawaifs, teaching, performing, travelling and living as a part of their larger household. This led musicologist Nicolas Magriel to famously described a sarangi as the “black sheep” of Indian music, “most difficult to play and of the lowest status”.

Some of the greatest vocalists of Hindustani music were trained in the intricacies of sarangi playing in this very ecosystem – Amir Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, among them.

From the felling of a log to placing it in musician’s hand, a sarangi’s creation can take an astounding 10 years. Credit: Malini Nair.

But with the courtesan system disappearing by the mid-20th century, sarangi players were pushed into the shadows, described in colonial accounts as “vulgar”. It was still sought after for accompaniment but this too changed with the harmonium’s rising popularity. Another reason for its disappearance from vocal concerts, Bor points out, was the intense and legendary creative rivalries between sarangi players and vocalists, especially when the former tried to outshine the latter at mehfils.

The decades until the mid-1980s were perhaps the darkest for the sarangi though even these years threw up some masterly performers – the unmatched Bundu Khan, Gopal Mishra, Abdul Majid Khan, Inder Lal Dhandhra, among them. There were hundreds of others, unsung, as documented by sarangi aficionados and scholars such as Magriel, Bor and Regula Qureshi. But the situation was alarming enough for bodies such as Bharat Bhavan, a multi-arts complex in Bhopal, to step up to host a Sarangi Mela in 1989 to pull musicians from obscurity.

It was in these years that Dhawan’s life changed too. His family had arrived in India during Partition, and opted to settle in Meerut because of his grandfather’s military background. His father, a trained radio engineer, set up a shop for musical instruments, Indian and Western. Dhawan started learning the sitar seriously from Gopalkrishna Sharma, when his insight into instruments deepened.

After a slow start, Dhawan began honing his sarangi making skills. He still keeps an old Behra instrument as a model, and spends his free time studying its structure. By mid-1990s, Dhawan’s reputation had begun to spread. One of his sarangis was played by Moinuddin Khan for a recording and his career as a luthier took off.

Dhawan says he is now dealing with a surprising uptick in demand from young amateurs, especially from Bengaluru, but he is despondent at the general indifference towards classical instruments. “We have to expose our children to the potential of these traditions. We think nothing of coughing up Rs 1 lakh-1.5 lakh for a Fender or a Gibson (guitar). Why should these handcrafted sarangis mean any less to us?”

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