The other day I found myself sitting with Shri Sarwar Hussain, a wonderful Sarangi player and a full of life character, late into the night. He showed me how his son is showing great promise on the Sarangi, we talked about Sarangi strings and bows and he played a beautiful Dādrā (6 beats) composition in Rāga Bhairavi for me.

He gifted my some old thick gut string for my lower octave which he had kept for the last 20 years and the like of which is not to be found any more. The response is great and authentic unlike the overly thick cello string which I had been using. Inspired by this, to get the most out of my instrument, I decided I must also get a decent Sarangi bow made here in Calcutta before leaving as I came to realize just how useless my one actually is. Luckily I found someone who will make me a bow according to the traditional design, of sufficient length, from ebony wood for the required weight and with the correct type of horse hair to get the robustness needed to play on thick gut strings. Upon collecting I requested the addition of even more weight by means of attaching a lead cap to one end of the bow as I observed on Sarwar ji’s bow. In typical Indian fashion they said it can be done and moreover within half an hour. In even more typical Indian fashion, 45 mins later they called me to the workshop where the guy was hammering away at a piece of lead as if he just started! The unsightly disc shape he was creating was hardly what I was expecting so after some heated discussion we came to the mutual conclusion that they could not create the moulded cap I require and that the best they could do is create a less protruding ring to slide on and off so we left it at that and I reconciled my disappointment by drawing my attention to the fact that they otherwise did a very good job with the bow. Sadly nobody makes bows according to the actual requirements of Sarangi playing these days.

Indeed the making of instruments like the Sarangi has become a dying art. There’s too few players and thus insufficient demand to sustain the livelihood of makers. The knowledge and subtlety of crafting a good Sarangi, refined from generation to generation over hundreds of years, has often disappeared along with the great craftsmen who had no lineage of disciples. Great names like Masita and his disciple Behra of Meerut made beautiful Sarangis. Now, in Meerut, Rajesh Dhawan of Oriental Music Palace makes good instruments based on an old Behra design but his bows leave much to be desired. Raj musicals in Delhi also make solid instruments but in both cases the attention to detail can’t approach the masters of the past.

It struck me as I spoke with the renowned Tabla maker, Mukta Das, the other day, how these artisans undergo just as much training and are just as important as the artists who play the instruments. Mukta Das spent almost twenty years learning the intricacies of Tabla making under the guidance of his guru! The popularity of the Tabla ensures the endurance of his breed. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the Sarangi.

The tradition of the master and apprentice is the medium through which artisans and their craft flourish from generation to generation. It is sad such traditions are not valued and given the respect they deserve in modern times, especially here in India. The precedent and novelty of a formal ‘western’ education and certificates still holds sway over the masses, I guess because it is an ideal which is still out of reach of much of the population. Manual labour is spurned as fit only for the uneducated, the low and backward castes not helped by the fact that it doesn’t bring in much money. Realisations take time I guess.