Asian Music and Dance

Sarangi – The Voice of Pain and of Paradise

In remembering Sabri Khan, Ken Hunt was moved to write in depth about the virtuoso musician’s chosen instrument, the sarangi.

Cast your mind back to the first time you heard the sarangi sing. Now put yourself in the position of somebody on the brink of epiphany who has never heard this bowed, soprano-voiced stringed instrument. Of all the instruments in the Indo-Pakistani musical firmament, nothing sounds as old and familiar yet so utterly new as the sarangi. It is the voice of birth cries. It is the bold brushstroke of joy and the squirrel-hair brush detail of pain. It is the sound of Hindustani high art. It is the sound of folk music played around camp fires or spot colour in Bollywood films. Above all else, it is the voice of pain and paradise. 

“…old and familiar yet… utterly new…”

Sabri Khan, who died on 1 December 2015 in Delhi, was one of the virtuoso pioneers and a transitional musician who brought the instrument’s inimitable vocalisations to ears around the globe. Three decades before Ramesh Mishra’s sarangi (in the guise of ‘exotic guitar’) supported the US rock group Aerosmith wailing ‘Gotta love the sweet taste of India/Lingers on the tip of my tongue…’ in 1968 this hereditary sarangiya or sarangi player brought the instrument to international attention as part of Ravi Shankar’s Festival of India. On that package tour and recording project, he supported vocalists Lakshmi Shankar and Jitendra Abhisheki. In so doing he swung open doors to an ancient realm of musical accompaniment.

Earlier recordings featured typically unnamed players accompanying, say, the vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (whom Sabri Khan also accompanied) as he delivered thumris – a light classical song form with erotic, romantic and playful themes. Rarely recalled, sarangi sometimes coloured qawwali, the Muslim devotional Sufi song form. An example might be Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s early recordings on EMI (Pakistan), reissued on Audiorec’s Revelation/Ilham (1993).

In Victorian Britain this so-called ‘Hindoostanee fiddle’ was originally spelled sarungee – for example, in the Great Exhibition’s illustrated catalogue of 1851. In the chapter ‘Music in Hindostan, Siam, and Java’ in A Popular History of Music From The Earliest Times (1891), F. Weber, described as ‘Organist of the German Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace’, explained: “The sarungee with four catgut strings, tuned in perfect fourths, is of the same class [as the sarinda]; generally it also has 13 metal wires of unequal lengths under the catgut strings, which are never touched by the bow, but reverberate when their tones are played on the catgut strings, in unison or in the octave, and thus increase the sonorousness of the instrument.” If only it were that simple. There are a number of permutations but common to all are three or four main playing strings over multiple sympathetic strings. Incidentally, the Oxford English Dictionary also records the slightly Frenchified sârangi usage in 1851.

Sabri Khan’s career mirrors many of sarangi music’s changes in fortune. His date and place of birth are usually given as 21 May 1927 in Moradabad in the soon-to-be Raj-era United Provinces, renamed Uttar Pradesh in 1950. He was born into a hereditary musical community. “My grandfather was my very first teacher. From my childhood he made me practise a lot.” He fell naturally into the traditional system and discipline of the onward transmission of knowledge and skills. His sarangi-playing grandson Suhail Yusuf Khan, for example, is part of the trio with James Yorkston and Jon Thorne that released and toured Everything Sacred (2016) in Britain.

“…a long and chequered history.”

Sabri Khan’s chosen instrument had a long and chequered history. Its reputation was bound up with folk music or tawaif (‘courtesan’) and nautch (‘dancing girl’) entertainment. Early illustrations of the sarangi, whether drawings, paintings or postcard art, frequently depict a sarangiwala or two with a sarangi slung in a cummerbund-like waistband pouch enabling playing while standing.

Twentieth-century music-making in Hindustani semi-classical or classical contexts had coincided with the decline of Raj-era – and earlier – certainties. Courtly and monied patronage had created an inbuilt inertia for professional, hereditary musicians, many with caste and biradari/bradri – the Muslim ‘brotherhood’ counterpart of caste – backgrounds. Already superannuated by All India Radio or Akashvani (‘Voice from the Sky’), first launched in 1930, with Partition courtly patronage was effectively moribund.

It is not disrespectful to say that Sabri Khan was a jobbing musician. According to one of the most consistently informative and insightful commentators on the Hindustani condition, Regula Burckhardt Qureshi in her Master Musicians of India: Hereditary Sarangi Players Speak (2007), who studied with him, ‘his first employment [was] in the Tamil unit of All India Radio’ in Delhi, moving from nearby Moradabad after passing AIR’s audition at the age of 14. “When I first came to the radio…” he told Burckhardt Qureshi, “no one would let me sit near the mike because then my playing would be audible. I used to play wrong notes. I played in tune – that’s why they gave me the job. But I did not know how to play orchestra.” In the parlance orchestra meant playing from notation.

“I played in tune – that’s why they gave me the job.” 

The first glimmers of a new age of sarangi music dawned in 1955 with the French Hindologist and high-minded aesthete Alain Daniélou facilitating several major musicians’ microgroove débuts on the three-volume, 12-inch LP Anthologie de la Musique de l’Inde set, released that year. Beside Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, he included Narayan Das Mishra of Banaras playing sarangi. Sarangi still had a reputation as an instrument of the lower orders in the Hindustani hierarchy. In 1956 the Rajasthani musician Ram Narayan, born seven months after Sabri Khan on 25 December, took the giant step of renouncing accompaniment in the main and concentrating on becoming a principal soloist. It is hard to communicate Narayan’s decision’s symbolic importance. It started the roll-out.

“…will continue to transcend and transport.”

Sarangi is a nonpareil instrument of melody. Three musicians elevated it from its lowly beginnings. In order of appearance, they were Ram Narayan, Sabri Khan and Sultan Khan. Then and now after his and Sultan Khan’s death in November 2011, Sabri Khan’s sarangi will continue to transcend and transport. His interpretations of rāg Multani on his 1991 Auvidis album and Jog on his 2006 ARC album now ring with still heightened poignancy.

Tabla artist Sarvar Sabri talked to us about his father, Ustad Sabri Khan Sahib.

What kind of father and teacher was Ustad Sabri Khan Sahib?

My father was so busy a musician that as a child I remember not seeing him for weeks. He had a job at All India Radio (Delhi) and toured regularly. Now, as a touring and performing artist myself, I can appreciate how difficult it must have been for him. On the occasions when he was home he would always check my homework, teach me other languages outside my school curriculum, and always encouraged me to practise with him. 

We had a very busy household, full of students (some living with us), and with visits from some of the greatest Ustads. Part of my training was that he would suddenly order me to bring my tabla and play what I had been learning in front of the Ustads – a nerve-wracking experience as I might just have returned from school, tired and hungry. At other times I had to keep tala when he practised with a great tabla artist and this would go on for hours. It was boring then but now I appreciate its importance.

Describe his typical day.

If he was not on tour, Papaji would rise early and after prayers and breakfast would go to All India Radio and we would hear him broadcast live. Around 2pm he would return home and have a siesta. From the afternoon till late at night he would teach, and alongside the lessons several visitors would stop for dinner – at Papaji’s persuasion! He was kind and generous, and we never had a so-called ‘quiet evening’. 

What gave him the greatest joy?

Papaji greatly enjoyed the company of friends. He relished talking about learning and spending time with great musicians. He had an amazing memory and loved entertaining everyone, young and old, with stories of his most fascinating experiences. He loved watching WWE (wrestling) with his grandchildren. I remember when I revealed that WWE is all choreographed and well-rehearsed purely for entertainment, he totally refused to believe it!

What was his deepest satisfaction/frustration?

He was a spiritual person who relished visiting shrines and holy places. His connection to the Almighty gave him great strength. Frustration was not a trait of Papaji. It was moving for me to hear somebody say at his funeral service: “If only we could have a life and death like Ustad Sabri Khan Sahib.” 

What was his hope for the sarangi and the future generations?

He stressed how imperative it was to learn the art in its entirety – not only the technique but also ragas, talas, compositions, their execution and one’s connection with the audience. He said that merely watching videos and hearing recordings was not enough; unless one studies under the guidance of a learned Guru one will not be gifted with taasir (the emotional impact of one’s rendition). I recall in New York, where the audience who had never previously experienced sarangi music was brought to tears by Papaji’s recital. He explained to me later, “this happened due to the blessings of my Ustads and Gurus.” 



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