U.K.-based sarod maestro Arnab Chakrabarty is in Mumbai for a novel concert, in which the key focus is on a legendary musical instrument that he inherited from his gurus. Curated by First Edition Arts and presented in association with the G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, the concert is the first of a series called The Instrumentalists.
The series has been conceptualised to evoke the magical aura of Indian classical instruments and their inspirational impact on musicians. A famous bandish in the raga Shankara begins, for instance, by depicting the great god Shiva himself striking the first chords of his been (wind instrument, also called pungi ). “That original melody (and the instrument) is my legacy,” exults the composer, who was none other than the renowned Niyamat Khan ‘Sadarang’ of the Mughal court of Muhammad Shah in the 17th century. ‘Sadarang’ along with his nephew ‘Adarang’ is credited to have given Hindustani khayal singing its present form, which seems to have evolved a little over a century earlier than the emergence of the sarod.
It’s no mere coincidence that one of the descendants of Niyamat Khan ‘Sadarang’ was the Rampur maestro Wazir Khan. He was one of the dramatis personae in the sarod’s saga in early 20th century; the two renowned sarodiyas in living memory, Baba Allaudin Khan of Maihar and Hafiz Ali Khan, were his disciples.
The antique sarod to be featured in Mumbai is said to have been built for Chakrabarty’s great-grand-guru, Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra’s guru’s guru Ustad Abdullah Khan, in the 1880s. It was then passed on to his son Ustad Mohammad Amir Khan, who played on it until his death in 1934. “Radhu babu himself (the leading light of the Shahajanpur Gharana then) didn’t perform on it, and eventually passed it on to Kalyan da (Dr. Kalyan Mukherjee, who taught Chakrabarty) who played on it between 1983 and 1995,” says Chakrabarty. “I have had it since 2008 and it has seen everyday use,” he says.
As for the distinctive design of his heirloom sarod, Chakrabarty explains, “I dare say it was acoustically very advanced for its time, and remains an example of a high-sustain instrument even today, meaning it enables very long meends (or glissandos, which are smooth glides from one note to another) of more than a whole octave span. Maybe it was a freak success of that era, but in terms of meend , it remains almost unparalleled even today.” He adds that some ergonomic reworking of this basic design to facilitate more comfortable playing has led to the instrument he tours with, “Which is essentially a modern derivative of this 19th century model.”
While talking of lineage and pedigrees of instruments past, Chakrabarty says, “The sarod itself, for all its seeming antiquity, is of a fairly recent origin. It was only around 1820 that the first sarods were played. The instrument came into being as a result of a synthesis between the Afghani rabab and the Indian sursringar. The key difference in the Afghani rabab and the sarod lies in the material of their respective finger boards and strings: the sarod uses a polished metal one and metallic strings and the rabab depends on wood and gut strings. Add to it the technique of sliding on the strings with fingernails, a sursringar legacy, and you have sarod music as you know it.”
As he waxes about the ‘derivative avatar’ of his sarod, Chakrabarty submits that the instrument (while adding the disclaimer, “If I summon all the objectivity at my disposal”) sounds slightly richer in the middle octave, which gives it a bit more oomph. “Also, switching to this ‘less loud’ model with a sleeker, ellipsoid-shaped radiator, has helped me play more sophisticated ornamentations derived from the Gwalior and Agra gayakis ,” claims Chakrabarty. “And it has helped me integrate the musical wisdom (vocal) that I received from the late Yeshwant buwa Joshi. It can be safely said that what I play on the sarod is largely in the aesthetic realm of khayal music,” he says.
The evocation of khayal through the sarod leads to what’s otherwise called ‘ gayaki ’ or vocal aspect of instrumental music. Was this invented by some musicians of our own times? What is Chakrabarty’s take? “All Indian instrumentalists have aimed at this goal — to sing through their instruments — as early as our collective memories will recall. This is a euphemism for generating the fluidity and versatility of expression from a plucked instrument that one associates with the human voice. Although many claim sole credit for inventing this approach, the dry fact remains that making plucked instruments sing or express fluid phrasing is as old as instrumental music itself. Plucked instruments have, by definition, a shorter sustain than bowed or wind instruments and it is, therefore, a combination of technology, technique, not to forget talent and temperament, that enables a musician to play notes that have identifiable analogues in vocal music,” he says.
Working on new variants
Designing the ‘ultimate sarod’ has also been one of Chabrabarty’s major preoccupations in the past decade. Understandably the quest does not come easy. “It takes lots of time, multiple iterations of prototyping. There’s Murphy’s Law and mistakes do happen, each more expensive than the one before! And the whole thing is self-funded, which can limit the extent to which one can seek perfection.”
What with this hunt for the ‘perfect sarod’, how much time can he devote to old-style riyaz , which, by definition, is extremely time-consuming? Chakrabarty replies that since he’s a full-time musician and a also a stay-at-home husband and ‘dogfather’, he is able to extract at least six to seven hours a day from daily chores, to practise and think about music; not all this time is devoted to physical riyaz, but he’s always strategising his next move in the raga that he happens to be thinking about.
As a musician known both for his emotive virtuosity and cerebral approach, Chakrabarty admits that he does not so much believe in “simplifying music to cater to popular tastes” as much as he revels in “manipulating the operative rules of the ragas to create interesting expressions”. Making the “raga game” as accessible as possible, without compromising on the fundamentals, therefore, remains a vital and challenging aspect of Chakrabarty’s continuing musical quest.
Vithal C Nadkarni is a senior editor and columnist