Instrument museums and elderly ustads recount the names of peers adept at playing several instruments, but what is offered during concerts nowadays isn’t much: a sitar, a sarod, and a smattering of guitar and flute sounds. The recent Festival of Rare Musical instruments (held at the India International Centre from April 9 to 11), curated and conducted by Suneera Kasliwal, showcased gems such as the jalataranga, esraj, surbahar and rabab — instruments still popular among a small, dedicated group of performers.
The jalataranga, one learnt, dates back to the Vedic times and was taken back to Greece by King Alexander after his invasion of India. Consisting of an assemblage of 18 to 20 porcelain cups of varying sizes filled with water, the instrument produces the right sound pitch when these cups are struck with a pair of sticks. While bamboo sticks produce the base sound, nutmeg sticks are used for sharper notes. For the komal notes, the player dips the stick into water; for the shudh notes, he taps lightly on the edge of the rim at the same spot each time. A glide across the top or along the bottom edge can create alternate sounds.
Unlike most instruments, the jalataranga is played by northern and Carnatic instrumentalists. It is played in the house of Vidwan Anayampatti S Ganesan whose father was instrumental in propagating it. Ganesan plays the compositions of legends along with folk ditties such as the snake charmer’s song or maguri.
Since they have a rich history, these instruments have been the progenitor of others as well. The esraj, for instance, has bifurcated into three forms: taar shehnai, dilruba and esraj, with slight modifications in each of them. Even the parent instrument at times has undergone major alterations and adaptations. Allaudin Khan, the seniormost practitioner of esraj today, has devised a larger model of the traditional instrument by increasing its bridge size, its fret board and sound box which was handled by his son Arshad Ali Khan at the festival.
The surbahar, on the other hand, is an eyeful to behold on stage. Along with its becoming proportions and sophisticated ornamentation, this precursor of the sitar is gifted with a deep baritone sound quality and strong resonation, making it an all-enveloping musical draw on stage. The top end of the instrument is shaped like a swan’s neck while the lower body, near its sound box, is decorated with ivory carvings.
The instrument makes music out of the difficult passages of kharaj (base) notes with a resonating dignity, evident in the performance by Jagdeep Singh Bedi. Add to its old-world graciousness, the rhythmic accompaniment to the surbahar is done on the pakhawaj. The instrument is ideal for singing dhrupad, the most ancient genre of Hindustani classical music.
Classical instruments like the rabab have now become rare because their folk versions have become more popular. Take the case of Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra, a gifted rabab player of the 20th century. Even he preferred to play the sarod on stage. According to his disciple, Somjit Dasgupta, the diminishing sounds of the rabab were the direct outcome of the diminishing fortunes of the Durbar culture. As patrons of the rabab became smaller principalities, the instrument came to be neglected.
Apart from their dwindling fortunes, there are very few of these instruments left. “The smaller rabab is a portable folk instrument that is popular with caravan travellers from Afghanistan to Assam,” says Dasgupta. “But the concert classic is no longer being manufactured.”
Nowadays, instrument makers put a steel plate on the playing platform and metal strings in place of the silk chords of yore, he adds. “The instrument looses its character and becomes a sur shringar.” Dasgupta’s own rabab has silk strings and a strong seasoned wood sound box made of ebony teak or gumbhar from Nepal.
To revive the popularity of these instruments, one needs to identify specific areas of their performance. Once that is understood, Indian classical music will no longer bemoan the passing of a musical era but will be able to link every music format with its unique set of instruments to herald an enriched musical oeuvre.