Friday, February 24, 2012

The meteoric rise of the Sarod

The Sarod is today a rival of the Sitar for popularity and stature. Its maturity conceals the fact that its transformation from a crude acoustic machine into a scintillating musical instrument has taken place largely in the 20th century.

Instruments of the Sarod family (short-necked plucked lutes) are known to have been played in India around 600 AD, perhaps even earlier. However, the Sarod’s identifiable ancestors apparently came with soldiers from the Middle East. The instrument has two ancestors, different in design, but both called Rabab . One came from Persia, and the other, from Afghanistan. In terms of their basic design and idiom, the Persian Rabab and the Afghan Rabab evolved independently till the early 19th century, and converged finally in the present-day Sarod.

The word “Sarod” is probably derived from the Perso-Arabic “Shah-rud”, meaning song, melody, music. Its first use to denote an Indian musical instrument is encountered in 1830. The earliest significant Sarodist recorded in history is, Ghulam Ali Khan Bangash (early 19th century), an Afghan who had settled at Gwalior.

Because of its wooden body, skin-clad chamber, and catgut strings, the Rabab was an unstable instrument, reacting erratically to climatic changes. It adopted the present-day metallic fingerboard and metal strings probably from the Sursingar, a magnified variant of the Rabab, which is now extinct. With this change, the Sarod became the only plucked instrument in Hindustani music to have a shell made of wood, and an upper made of skin and metal, thus defining its unique acoustics.

Considerable re-engineering of the Sarod took place during the early part of the 20th century. This work delivered the rich acoustics of the Maihar design, which is now something of an industry standard, while alternative designs also have a distinguished following.

With constant re-engineering and exceptional musicianship enlarging the scope of melody, the martial history of the Afghan Rabab, and the robust aural experience are no longer dominant in Sarod music. But, they remain integral to the Sarod's musical personality.  

Stylistic legacies in Sarod music

Despite the obvious limitations of stylistic specialisation with reference to so young an instrument, certain lineages of Rabab/Sarod players have claimed distinctive status. The most authoritative recent identification of these lineages was done in 1991 at a Seminar conducted by the ITC Sangeet Research Academy. The seminar identified five lineages that have been represented by quality musicianship in the post-independence period.

(a) The Maihar lineage, also  referred to as the Maihar-Seniya lineage: The lineage is named after the town of Maihar in Madhya Pradesh, which   Allauddin Khan, its founder, made his home. The Seniya suffix refers to the founder’s principal Guru,   Wazir Khan of Rampur, a descendant of Miyan Tansen. After the demise of   Ali Akbar Khan in 2009, this lineage is represented by his son,   Ashish Khan, and a large number of Indian and foreign disciples. 

(b) The lineage of Mohammad Ameer Khan: The founder of the lineage, Mohammad Ameer Khan was 6th generation descendant of Ghulam Ali Khan Bangash. Through his distinguished disciple,   Radhika Mohan Maitra, this lineage has conserved the traditional Rabab idiom as the primary idiom of the Sarod. In recent times, this lineage has been represented by Maitra’s disciples, Buddhadev Dasgupta and Kalyan Mukherjea.

(c) The lineage of Ghulam Bandegi Khan Bangash: This lineage traces its origins to Ghulam Bandegi Khan Bangash, the grandfather of Ghulam Ali Khan Bangash, the first Sarod player on record. On the contemporary concert platform, this lineage is represented by   Amjad Ali Khan.

(d) The Lucknow-Shahjehanpur lineage: This lineage traces its origins to Najaf Ali Khan (1705-1760) of Shahjehanpur and Madar Khan (1704-1752) of Lucknow. Theirs was a lineage of Afghan Rabab players, groomed in the Dhrupad/ Rudra Veena idiom. The last significant Sarod player of this lineage was   Sakhawat Hussain Khan (1875-1955) who served on the faculty of the Bhatkhande Music University in Lucknow.

(e) The Niamatullah-Karamatulla Khan lineage: Niamatullah Khan was an Afghan Rabab player, who moved to Calcutta from Awadh in 1857 along with Nawab Wajid Ali Shah in exile. Niamatullah and his son, Karamatulla established a lineage of Rabab, Sursingar and Sarod players. Karamatullah Khan’s son, Ishtiaque Ahmed, was also an outstanding sarod player. The last significant exponent of this lineage was Shyam Ganguly.

Sarod styles today

The contemporary Sarod idiom reflects three principal tendencies. The traditional rabab-influenced idiom dominates the music of the lineage of   Mohammed Ameer Khan, represented by the disciples of   Radhika Mohan Maitra. The Rudra Veena-influenced idiom, incorporating several other influences, dominates the music of the Maihar Seniya stylistic lineage --   Allauddin Khan, and his son,  Ali Akbar Khan. In the lineage of Ghulam Ali Khan Bangash, his direct descendant,   Amjad Ali Khan is credited with driving the instrument’s idiom towards modern vocalism.

Considering the recency of the Sarod’s emergence as a front ranking instrument, and   Ali Akbar Khan’s towering presence over it, most music lovers may not discern the stylistic variety on display today. But, it does exist, and is being reinforced by systematic propagation in each lineage.

Note: For a detailed discussion on the Sarod, please refer to “Hindustani Music Today” and "Hindustani Music -- a Tradition in Transition", by Deepak Raja, DK Printworld, New Delhi.