International Museum Day saw the Sangeet Natak Akademi organise a one full day’s programme of interaction/documentation on the making of the Sarangi, with reputed artists having an exchange with the craftsman in question – Rajesh Dhawan, hailing from a musical family in Meerut. Along with graduation, he had managed training stints under Gopal Misra, also a specialist on the vichitra-veena and Bharat Bhushan Goswami whom he met in Brindavan. He mentioned Behram Khan, a great instrument player of the 1960’s who unfortunately died young, and his skill died with him leaving behind no disciples. After his passing away, said Rajesh Dhawan, new Sarangi instruments being made almost came to a halt in the region. He himself, working for a larger company making different types of string instruments, was asked by well wishers to take up Sarangi making as part of his profession, and he has acquired a name today for being one of the rare makers of this instrument in the country. His work, he believed, was helping the general effort in providing a platform for this instrument today.

Closest to the human voice, thanks to the all- pervading presence of the Harmonium, at one time banned in AIR concerts, the Sarangi has been pushed to the fringes of the North Indian Classical Music scenario of today. After late Ramnarayan the reputed Sarangi icon, who became known for his solo concerts, this instrument has been relegated largely, to the status of an accompaniment – and that too in rare cases. One of the most versatile instruments (“only the sarangi can speak the language of the heart,” said Bharat Bhushan Goswami present on the occasion) in the bygone days great pundits like Kanhaiyalal Swami sang playing the sarangi. “The parampara insisted on any singer accompanying his voice with the music on the instrument which he himself played– generally the sarangi. Swami Hargovind Raslila Goswami was an example. Rajan Sajan Misra from the Benares tradition of singing favour the Sarangi as accompaniment for their concerts. Nowadays where are the solo Sarangi concerts, even on AIR? I have served them for over thirty years and when I joined AIR we boasted of over 250 instrumentalists hired by the broadcasting department. Now there is hardly anybody. I myself have taught Rajesh Dhawan for a while.”

In what evolved into a most absorbing session, Rajesh Dayal explained with an easy Hindi/English mix the hurdles faced by the Sarangi maker. Made of Tun (Red Cedar), to get the right block of wood in the required size (the instrument made out of one block of wood has no joints) calls for a tree about sixty to seventy years old. Teak can be used but for soft grains and lightness of weight Tun is unbeatable. Forests and plantations of this tree are government protected and the wood is difficult to procure. Also Tun is now in great demand for furniture and door making – being of high quality and less expensive than Sal.

The tools used in Sarangi making are completely traditional and handmade, and using automatic saws or power-driven machines affects the grains in the wood and thereby the entire seasoning process, with moisture being retained in the wood, lessening durability of the instrument – apart from affecting the tonal quality. The block of wood cut to size, is left for 4/5 years for natural seasoning. Then after hollowing out the belly portion and whatever spaces need to be dug out for the needs of the instrument, the wood is again (rounded like the tumbe of the tanpura bottom) left for some seasoning but not for too long, for if one does that the wood develops cracks. Fully seasoned, with what is not needed for the instrument removed, the weight of the wood becomes just 20 percent of what the original block weighed. The final product with the light polish for a finished look, from start to end relies on natural products again with no chemicals. Grains remain very loosely packed, and it is constant playing that gives the instrument its tonal finish. So only 5 to 6 years after a Sarangi is made, with constant playing will one begin to savour the full tonal richness of the instrument. The craftsman also said that unlike the Tabla and the Sitar which are totally standardised, the Sarangi can accommodate small adjustments made for the individual player. He also said that the Sur for each player was different. Music critic Manjari Sinha, intervened giving the parallel of how the ex Rudraveena expert Asad Ali Khan had talked about the Rudraveena being fashioned for the individual player (the metaphor used was that the rudra veena is draped on the player). As soon as Rajesh mentioned that Moinuddin Khan Saheb had played on one of his recently made Sarangis and admired its tone, he was challenged by Ustad Munir Khan, who was in the gathering and who refuted the claim of anybody providing a platform for the Sarangi, for the platform, according to him, had been provided by the past greats. He also added that the old knowhow had been lost and the changed shape and sur that he had invested the instrument with now, had robbed the Sarangi of its tonal quality. Veterans even today prefer to play on old sarangis. Only learners are given these new instruments. It takes years of riyaz to master this instrument. Do not forget this is “Sau rangi” (one hundred colours) which is the range of this instrument, he concluded.

Rajesh Dhawan with dignity explained that like a pyjama having its folds or the length adjusted to suit the tall or short person while still retaining the identity of the pyjama, the adjustments he spoke of were for making the instrument more easy to wield according to the physique of the player, and these did not interfere with its basic identity of the instrument. “Besides, even in the old Sarangi instruments which often come to me for repair, the ‘taargehen’ (on which the strings are anchored ) on the rear of the instrument’s neck, gives way frequently and I have bolstered it now with a brass sheet. Besides the old sarangi played mainly with Dhrupad gayan had thicker gut strings to play on lower notes. Today the higher scale needs thinner strings. The Namdhari Sikhs for their music use a slightly altered sarangi which I produce.” Raj Dhawan also spoke about the six instruments along with the Jodi (like the tabla) used by this community of Sikhs, which was keeping alive very ancient instruments. The playing bow has a handle made of ebony or rosewood with horsehair for the playing, and a screw at the bottom for tightening is the only modern addition one sees. The Sarangi players of old times were taught to look after the hairs (sau sringar is what they called it) on the bow in a very special way. Neither the guru who wants to transmit this intricate knowledge, nor the disciple who could take it up with such seriousness can be easily found today.

Measured by placing a plastic cut-out of the final shape, which the workers call the ‘firmout’, on the seasoned block of wood, outline markings are made leaving a little space all round to shave off and trim. Thereafter, the hollowed out belly portion, after being made smooth has a round wooden rod inserted in a tight fit from the bottom to the top, to ensure that the wood through this stretched out method does not get any space to shrink and lose shape. This bottom broader half of the instrument is covered with a top sheet of thin goat skin (skin of the rib part of the goat is never used, the thigh portion is the best for good tone), its edges pulled tightly spilling on to the sides where it is pressed down to stick firmly to the surface with the glue applied all round.

The instrument has 11 resonating strings on little pegs on the forehead, nine strings on one side, and fifteen on the other, all resonating strings. 3 mukhya taar “sa, pa, sa” (last in madara sthayi) are anchored to big pegs, two on one side and one on the other. All pegs are made of teak wood. Firmly fixing the pegs in holes, at distances which do not interfere with one another, while providing the right tension so as not to apply the wrong kind of pressure on the strings, needs a lot of expertise. In all, there are 35 strings. So the instrument has the ‘taargehen’ at the back of the neck, the bridge on top in front over which all the strings are stretched to be anchored to the ‘taargehen’, and the bottom of the instrument has the tailpiece called ‘langot’. The white inlay work on the instrument, which used to be made of pieces of the elephant’s teeth or tiger’s teeth, is now made with camel bone which has the qualities required. Holes are made and thin round rods of bone made to fit into these holes, have the part sticking out (leaving the white to be seen against  the wooden surface) shaved off. Resin from the trees allowed to melt in spirit, is all the polish used, and when ready, the instrument has to be played constantly to allow the tonal strength to emerge gradually over a period. Even while being made, the instrument has to be played. So, this kind of gestation period before an instrument can be found suitable to be used in a performance, pre-supposes a kind of commitment in the player, which in this age of the computer and instant solutions, is hard to find.

Rajesh, when asked, mentioned making three to four sarangi instruments per year! When there are such few players, from where will more orders emerge?

Ustad Munir Khan said he had a few students and mentioned Ahsan Ali, Juned Ali, Mudassir Khan, Azim Ali as some of the disciples doing well showing promise. But chances for playing are few and far between, and most disciples do another full time job to bring in the money. Does this speak of a great future for the instrument? Similarly Bharat Bhushan claimed to have some students and his teaching over Skype was fetching him some disciples. But when compared to the numbers going in for classical music training (the experts present strongly criticised the present generation of youngsters drawn more to Western music than to Indian classical music), what do these numbers say for the sarangi’s future? Rajesh Dhawan concluded that with much effort, the art of making the instrument was still being kept alive. He himself had two assistants Dharam Singh who used to work with his grandfather, while having to walk 8 to 9 kilometres every day to cover the distance, and another young man.

When asked by the onlookers if the problem of having more plantations of Tun (which was getting very rare) was being considered, Rajesh mentioned the efforts of Sardar Vallabhai University which was growing scarce plants and trees in its plantation. Uttaranchal has some trees. The trees growing on hilly areas and those on plains will have a difference in the way grains are packed and this will have its impact on the tonal quality of the instrument.

Has a fine instrument lost its use for the general community of musicians? Even those who are very good are not wanted as accompanists, because vocalists prefer the harmonium. What the future holds for the sarangi remains to be seen. Right under our nose, a tradition is being slowly starved. Do we care enough?

LEELA VENKATARAMAN