Prof Dr Shiv Sethi, Punjab

Music in the Bylanes

Rediscovering Rare Musical Instruments — Every musical instrument is endowed with an individual character that is deeply rooted in the ethos of its region. This book is an attempt to understand rare, regional musical instruments such as the Taus, Nafiri, Shreekhol, Saranda, Surinda and Sarinda, their significance within the regional culture, their present state, and the urgent need for their revival and preservation. The writer, Dr. Alokparna Das, has been a journalist for 30 years and besides being an award-winning author of four books, she is also a trained classical musician.

Excerpts from her upcoming book, Music in the Bylanes:

The world of traditional art forms is fast shrinking and this is especially true in the case of musical instruments. Though there has been always a parallel stream of instrumental music in India, it has received less attention than vocal music, which is, apparently, the dominant performing art. Instruments have risen to prominence only when there have been several talented and popular performers or maestros who have been individually as well as collectively instrumental in popularising it in formal concerts across the country and on international platform. This has been the case with Sitar and Sarod.

India has a rich musical history in terms of forms, styles and the kinds of instruments played. While some of these forms and instruments have got their share of national/ international fame successfully, there are others which could not enter the mainstream and have remained regional, confined to specific communities. Such instruments have interesting histories that need to be told to a large audience. Modernity, combined with the need for ease of playing, has led to the death of many instruments. In such a scenario, memory cherished by master musicians and instrument-makers becomes the most precious intangible asset that one can have. At times, a musical instrument such as the Taus or the Shreekhol even becomes a symbol of one’s identity, a vehicle of non-violent protest that vocalises the aspirations of a regional or religious or linguistic community, its sense of belonging and beliefs. There are instruments such as the Sarinda, Saranda and Surinda that celebrate music beyond linguistic and cultural barriers.

Pulling out lost musical instruments from oblivion, restoring, reviving, and popularising them is a complex task. The first step in the revival process is to find craftsmen who can manufacture instruments such as the Taus, which one rarely sees or hears today. Bhai Baldeep Singh, a 13th generation musician who plays both stringed and percussion instruments besides being a vocalist, poet and expert instrument-maker, has revived an entire range of lost musical instruments used in the Sikh tradition such as the Rabab, Saranda and Taus after having discovered the last traditional luthier, Gyani Harbhajan Singh Mistri, in 1991. Bhai Baldeep Singh says that the first ‘revived’ Taus, which was closest in terms of shape and sound to the original instrument played in the 17th century, was handcrafted by him and Mistri in October 1995.

If the story of Taus is a revival saga, ceremonial pipes or wind instruments – to be played during auspicious occasions – that were once so integral to the Indian social calendar are gradually falling silent. Time was when no wedding procession in Delhi was considered complete without the Nafiri players leading it and every Ramlila performance was supposed to begin with auspicious notes being played on this musical instrument. Unfortunately, with Bollywood tunes dominating band baja baraat these days, the Nafiri is struggling for survival and its exponents are forced to choose other vocations. A seventh generation Nafiri maestro, Jagdish Prakash, and his younger brothers have seen the Nafiri gradually fade away into oblivion. In the past, Jagdish has even headed Delhi’s Nafiri players’ association. Now, the shop selling garments, which he has set up close to his home in Delhi, takes up most of Jagdish’s time.

Instruments also come to be associated with certain emotions. Take the case of the Shreekhol that has come to be identified with the devotional Hare Rama Hare Krishna chant of the ISKCON. However, this percussion instrument was originally a classical music instrument. There were five main gharanas or musical lineages of the Shreekhol – Rar or Manoharshahi that was started by Srinivas Acharya or, according another school of thought, by Bipradas Ghosh; Garanahati of Narottam Thakur; Reneti of Shyamanand Prabhu; Mandarini; and Jharkhandi of Ballabhdas. The Garanahati school had 108 talas in their repertoire, the Manoharshahi school had 54, Reneti had 26, Mandarini had nine.

Not just musicians, musical instruments too travel across regions. A stringed instrument that looks like a lute or fiddle and is perhaps an older cousin of the classical Sarangi, the Sarinda – also known as Sarinja, Surinda, Saranda – is played across South Asia – from Sindh to Rajasthan to Punjab in the west, from Tripura to Assam to North Bengal and Bangladesh in the east, as well as in Nepal. Scholar Joep Bor has claimed that the Sarinda reached its highest development in Punjab, Rajasthan, Sindh, Baluchistan, Afghanistan and the eastern provinces of Iran, migrating from there to east India.

With legacy fading due to changing times and the needs of both practitioners and audience, documentation of lesser known musical instruments can be the first step towards their revival.

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