By Meena Banerjee
The sarangi, despite being closest to the human voice and by far the best instrument to emote the gayaki-ang, is rarely heard now. But in some important concerts in Kolkata in the past few years, the sarangi’s sensitive strains were noticeably audible while accompanying khayal-s, thumri-s, tabla solo and Kathak dance. The instrument was also in the news in this region when the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award was bestowed upon its eminent exponent Pandit Ramesh Misra.
“This award, presented to me by the President of India, will definitely encourage younger sarangi players. This is Ma Kali’s blessings. My listeners have raised me to this level. I am grateful to Kolkata,” said a visibly moved Ramesh Misra. For a person belonging to Uttar Pradesh, he speaks flawless Bengali, revealing his long association with the city of joy. “Yes, when my father Ramnath Misra joined the Rabindra Bharati University as a faculty member, we shifted from Benaras, my birthplace, in 1957. I grew up here. Then from 1985, I started touring abroad. The sarangi’s amazing resemblance to the human voice intrigued Westerners. They started showing interest and that made me shift base to New York. I have a few American and Japanese students there. But I have a small house in the suburbs of Kolkata and I return home every winter.”
“I am a student by nature. I love teaching and performing and keep learning even during concerts. I love to pick up everything that inspires my imagination. And since my instrument is literally ‘sau-rangi’ – with a hundred hues, it absorbs it all lovingly.”
“It all started pretty early. My father initiated me into sarangi playing, then my uncles Hanuman Prasad Misra and the late Gopal Misra – the finest musicians of the Benaras gharana – trained me with great care. Later I observed and kept learning the finer nuances of every gharana and each musician’s style while accompanying them on the sarangi. This is absolutely essential for an accompanying artist, even for a soloist, for the simple reason that the sarangi is capable of emoting anything associated with vocalism. Gatkari (the whole gamut of instrument playing) too is not beyond its reach. Many play in the gatkari-ang these days. But jod and jhala-playing is a different game altogether.”
“There was a time when no dhrupad recital was complete without sarangi accompaniment. But the dhrupad-ang is almost extinct now. To understand all these aspects better I continue to learn from Pandit Ravi Shankar.”
Misra’s profound knowledge of Indian classical, folk and light music and his vast experience of music performance and recording are amazing. His mesmerising melodies can be heard in sitar maestro Ravi Shankar’s Live in Kremlin and the Grammy-nominated album Legacy produced by sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan. He also participated in Aerosmith’s much acclaimed album Nine Lives and in the production of Concert for George at Royal Albert Hall in London.
“The tonal quality of my sarangi is different,” Misra smiled happily. “I am glad it impresses the listener. I worked hard on it. I like to keep it as intimately tender as possible. To get the desired results I went on experimenting with the strings. Some Afghani friends helped me with gut-strings of the harp and the rabab. A German student of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan gave me a variety of strings and I kept on trying. Now I can say that my sarangi is different. I do not mind sharing my secret with you. Nobody asked me about it earlier.”
“Apart from this aspect, my sarangi remains the same old, traditional instrument – extremely demanding because of its fretless nature and its playing technique, which involves bending the finger and working with the nail, next to the cuticle. The third finger is used most often while playing, the middle and index fingers next. On rare occasions, the little finger is used. Melody is the most important aspect of this instrument played with a bow made of horse-hair. But virtuosity too plays an important role as the musician has to prove his worth – sometimes in a small filler piece while playing for commercial recordings or during the solo rounds of a classical recital.”
“Going by the response from the listeners, I do not believe the sarangi has lost its charm. It is an ancient instrument that reached its zenith during the Moghul period. Even dhrupad exponents needed sarangi accompaniment. The socioeconomic changes pushed it towards the singing girls’ quarters which were considered infamous. It was the most convenient instrument to support singers. You could change the scale easily, though it demands tremendous practice. That is how thumri became associated with the sarangi.”
“Since it is a difficult instrument to master, very few come forward to learn the sarangi. Besides, accompanists always get sidelined by the main artists. Soloists like Pandit Ram Narayan, Ustad Sultan Khan, Dhruba Ghosh and a few others have made a lot of difference in this regard. Roshan Ali’s technique is extremely sweet. He is the only veteran sarangi player Kolkata has now. But he tends to lose contact with his own place and fraternity. The next generation is coming in the form of their sons and nephews. So is my son Rohan. A few young sarangi players like Sarvar Hussain show great promise. Musicians like Pankaj Misra and Ramlal need to learn other idioms of classical music like dhrupad and dhamar.”
“I find that foreigners make very dedicated students. They give it their best shot, whereas here in India, the students keep asking for more palta-s. The guru’s assessment does not count. There is lack of humility; or perhaps, monetary problems force youngsters to chase organisers even before completing their lessons. My earnest appeal to aspiring musicians is: “Continue to learn constantly”.