In the fourth part of this series on Indian musical instruments, I choose the stringed instrument sarod. I hear it all day, as my neighbour Suresh Vyas, a student of surbahar legend Annapurna Devi, teaches disciples and does his practice too, besides live performances.
After the sitar and tabla, the sarod is probably the most recognised among western audiences. And this was primarily because of the efforts made in the late 1950s and 1960s by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan to popularise Indian music abroad, just as Pandit Ravi Shankar did with the sitar. Within India and mainly among the younger generation, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan has also played a major role in spreading the instrument’s reach. In the early 1980s he released a sarod album for children.
The sarod is mainly used in Hindustani or north Indian classical music, and unlike the sitar which had become a craze among western musicians, its use in fusion and experimental music has been relatively limited.
What makes the sarod challenging to play is the fact that it doesn’t have any frets, and thus requires total mastery on the musician’s part to play notes with sheer practice. The eye contact with the audience requires plenty of training. However, its ability to play meends, or continuous slides between notes, makes it delightful to hear.
Here, we shall look at the instrument’s origins and playing styles, how it is played, major players ― or sarodiyas ― and its use in other kinds of music.
Origins and playing styles: Generally, it is believed that the sarod (some spell it sarode) has descended from the Afghan rabab, popular in Afghanistan and central Asia. It was said to be brought to India from Afghanistan by Amjad Ali Khan’s ancestor Mohammed Hashmi Khan Bangash and later adapted by his grandson Ghulam Ali Khan Bangash.
The schools largely practised today are the Gwalior-Bangash gharana, popularised by Amjad Ali Khan’s father Hafiz Ali Khan, and the Senia-Maihar gharana created by Ali Akbar Khan’s father Baba Alauddin Khan.
Besides them, Radhika Mohan Maitra has played a stellar role as a teacher and sarod exponent. There is also the Lucknow-Bulandshahr gharana, whose best-known exponent was Ustad Sakhawat Hussain Khan. This tradition was hugely influenced by the dhrupad vocal style.
How it is played: The conventional sarod can have 17 to 25 strings, including strings to play the main melody, drone strings and sympathetic strings. The strings are normally made of steel or phosphor bronze, and are plucked with a triangular plectrum called java.
The sarod is primarily played by a solo artiste, with accompaniment from the tabla and from the stringed drone instrument tanpura. At times, it is also used as a duet (called jugalbandi) with other instruments, mainly the sitar. The best-known jugalbandis were between Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar.
A concert usually begins with the rendition of a classical raga, the melodic mode used in Indian music. The first piece comprises a three-part movement beginning with the slow alaap, increasing tempo with the jod and reaching an energetic climax with the jhala. Here, there is no tabla accompaniment.
After the alaap-jod-jhala sequence, the instrumentalist plays two or three compositions in the same raga, with tabla accompaniment. These are known as gats or bandishes, and while the sarodiya demonstrates his skill here, the tabla player also gets certain portions to play brisk passages, much to the audience’s delight.
Once this first raga is over, the sarodiya may play another raga, or may play certain light ragas, folk tunes or devotional pieces, depending on the time allotted.
Major players: We have already mentioned some of the greatest sarod players – Baba Alauddin Khan, Hafiz Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Radhika Mohan Maitra, Sakhawat Hussain Khan and Amjad Ali Khan.
Alauddin Khan’s nephew Ustad Bahadur Khan was also one of the stalwarts, till his death in 1989 at age 58. Well-known female sarod players are Zarin Daruwalla-Sharma, who learnt from many vocalists and adapted their style, and Sharan Rani Backliwal, who studied from Alauddin Khan and Ali Akbar Khan.
Other well-known practitioners are the late Vasant Rai, Kolkata-based Buddhadev Das Gupta, Biswajit Roy Chowdhury and Brij Narayan, son of sarangi maestro Pandit Ram Narayan.
Ali Akbar Khan groomed many talented sarod players. Besides his sons Aashish Khan, Dhyanesh Khan and Alam Khan, he has taught wonderful players like Ken Zuckerman, Rajeev Taranath and Tejendra Narayan Majumdar, who was earlier a disciple of Bahadur Khan. Partho Sarathy, another excellent sarod player, was under the direct guidance of Ravi Shankar.
Annapurna Devi, daughter of Alauddin Khan, known as a surbahar player as mentioned earlier, but she has also groomed sarodiyas like Pradeep Barot, Basant Kabra, Atul Merchant and Suresh Vyas.
From the younger generation, Amjad Ali Khan’s sons Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan have already made waves. Others in their 30s include Anupam Shobhakar, Arnab Chakravarthy, Apratim Majumdar and Abhishek Borkar. In Pakistan, Asad Qisilbash has established himself as a sarod player under the guidance of Amjad Ali Khan.
Some musicians have also created electric versions of the sarod. Pratyush Banerjee, adept at traditional sarod-playing too, has developed an electric sarod called Jyothi Dhwani. Amaan Ali Khan, with the help of instrument specialist, has developed an electric sarod called the Erod.
Use in other music: The sarod has been often used in Indian film music. Ali Akbar Khan has composed music for films in which he prominently used the instrument. These include Chetan Anand’s Aandhiyan, Merchant-Ivory’s The Householder and Satyajit Ray’s Devi, besides playing for composers Shankar-Jaikishen in the film Seema.
His son Aashish has played a major role in Indo-western collaborations and world music, and has performed with western musicians like George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, saxophonists Charles Lloyd and John Handy, pianist Alice Coltrane, the world music group Strunz and Farah, and the Philadelphia String Quartet.
For his part, Amjad Ali Khan has played with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, whereas Amaan and Ayaan have released the fusion albums Reincarnation and Mystic Dunes.
Vasant Rai, who died prematurely at age 43, has jammed often with jazz flautist Herbie Mann and also taught western musicians like George Harrison and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.
Among the younger musicians, Anupam Shobhakar has released the fusion album Wine of the Mystic and is also working on the album Way of the Warrior, besides doing a project with guitar-composer Joel Harrison. London-based Gurdev Singh, a student of Amjad Ali Khan, has played on Fate of Nations, the 1993 album released by Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin.
The fusion projects and international collaborations notwithstanding, the sarod is an absolute delight when heard in traditional Hindustani classical music. With its wonderful tone and ability to relax minds of listeners, it’s a sound that grows on you. And for those new to the instrument, an ideal way to begin is to hear Ali Akbar Khan’s raga Chandranandan, composed by him in the 1950s. Legend has it that it came impromptu at a recital. It’s simply beautiful.
In the only interview I did with Ali Akbar Khan some 18 years ago, I asked him a dodgy question. “Why is the sitar more popular than sarod? He replied diplomatically, “Different skills are involved. But both instruments have their beauty. Isn’t that so with all instruments in the world?”