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Strings for the moment

  • A young sarod player from the Banaras gharana is adding pickups and playing Western riffs on the snazzy new electric sarod
  • This experimentation is in keeping with the evolution of the sarode itself, which is a result of a tweaked Afghan rabab

Anshuman Maharaj playing the electric sarod at his home in Varanasi
Anshuman Maharaj playing the electric sarod at his home in Varanasi (Sanjay Gupta/Mint)

A scorching summer isn’t enough to deter tourists—both Indians and foreigners—from walking along the ghats of Varanasi. When we visit during peak summer, travellers seem willing to brave the deathly swelter of burning pyres on Manikarnika Ghat, walk cheerily across to ride a giant and spectacularly lit Ferris wheel on Assi Ghat, or jostle for space among thousands of sweaty onlookers to catch the city’s holy magnum opus—the Ganga arti on Dashashwamedh Ghat.

Just a couple of kilometres away, however, is an area strangely bereft of both heat and holiday-makers. Kabir Chaura’s cool, narrow lanes resound with a discordant harmony. The neighbourhood, believed to have been home to the mystic poet and saint Kabir, emits a seamless blend of sounds from the dhrupad with thumri forms; the sarod with the sarangi; the rhythmic gallop of the tabla with the aggressive tinkling of ghungroos on dancing feet. But as we move deeper into the heart of the Banaras gharana, founded over 200 years ago, the sound from a blaring amp breaks the classical reverie.

Anshuman Maharaj, 35, is sitting in his blue-walled drawing room, wearing a silk kurta over faded indigo jeans that match the interiors . The noise of his screechy fan is completely obliterated by what looks like an unassuming sarod but sounds like something right out of a Led Zeppelin concert. On closer inspection, it seems the sarod is plugged into an equalizer, has a pure wooden tabli instead of the customary leather-skinned covering, and comes with a metallic pickup (which converts string vibrations into electricity). “I have customized the classical sarod and made an electric one," he says, noticing our befuddled expression.

Electrifying classical music

The concept of electric classical instruments in India is a relatively new phenomenon. Leading sitar exponent Niladri Kumar introduced a swanky red rendition of the sitar—the zitar—back in 2008, which was a hit with younger audiences who had abandoned Indian music for Western forms. Other classical musicians seem to have caught up—whether it’s creating innovative new instruments or introducing technological gimmicks to stand out on the global fusion music stage, with centuries-old instruments being revamped to keep up with the times.

“Experimentation in instrument-making has always taken place even when all instruments were completely acoustic. In fact, we tend to ignore the contribution of master craftspeople who have worked in collaboration with musicians to improve the sound and quality of instruments and make them more efficient for performance," says Aneesh Pradhan, a leading tabla maestro and a curator for the music discipline of the Serendipity Arts Festival 2019, scheduled for December in Goa. “I feel that experimentation should and will continue in every possible way. Electric instruments are the outcome of such experiments. Whether or not they will stand the test of time is a matter that cannot be predicted. But personally I am not against such experimentation," he adds.

Pradhan is right. The sarod in its traditional form is a result of similar, if not as high-tech, innovation. “Like chicken tikka, the sarod is a sublime product of the Moghul influence in India," wrote Simon Broughton, editor-in-chief of Songlines magazine, back in 2006.

Centuries earlier, in the mid-1700s, three men from the Bangash tribe from Afghanistan had brought a lute-like instrument called the Afghan rabab to India, specifically Rewa, in present-day Madhya Pradesh. The sarod evolved from this rabab, which was made of mulberry wood—its metamorphosis is credited to different musicians and lineages over generations, depending on which gharana they belonged to. But the rich and full music the sarod produces today is a product of constant experimentation—it is now made from teak and metal, its tabli is covered with goat skin and sympathetic (or auxillary) strings give it the depth and melody that the rabab’s more rough and staccato sound lacked.

Anshuman’s sarod (right) and electric sarod
Anshuman’s sarod (right) and electric sarod

Stringing things along

Anshuman sits cross-legged on the floor of his living room between his two sarods—traditional and 21st century—as he talks about his childhood. He grew up in the Banaras gharana of tabla players Pandit Nanku Maharaj (his grandfather) and Pandit Prakash Maharaj (his father). “We used to love going out to play as children but the first thing we did in the morning was riyaaz (practice); everything else followed," he says.

Anshuman, who started learning the tabla from the age of 4, would do 2-4 hours of riyaaz in the evening as well under the tutelage of his grandfather. “Then there would be a baithaki at night—my grand-uncle Pandit Kishan Maharaj, Sitara Deviji and other big artists who lived in Kabir Chaura would gather with my family and discuss sangeet (music)," Anshuman recalls excitedly.

By the age of 12, however, Anshuman had switched to the sarod—too many people around him were playing the tabla and there was always stiff competition and pressure. He wanted to choose an instrument that was different from the tabla but required the same rhythm and bol (mnemonic syllables). He started training under Rajesh Chandra Moitra of the Maihar Senia gharana and then moved on to his present guru, Pandit Narendra Nath Dhar of the Shahjahanpur gharana.

Today Anshuman is a teacher and performer in his own right. Collages of photographs hanging on his drawing-room walls show him with politicians such as former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, Rita Bahuguna Joshi and Mahesh Sharma at various events.

However, it was in 2005 in Goa, while performing at a charity event to raise funds for tsunami-affected victims, that the idea of the electric sarod came to him. “There were musicians from all over the world—Australia, England, the US, New Zealand, Germany. And on stage I found that the sound of the sarod was completely drowned out by the other instruments," he says.

By this time, technology had already started trickling into his practice. Anshuman would conduct classes over Skype on a weak internet connection at the request of some foreign students. With their support, he began conceptualizing the electric sarod, one that would take centre stage in ensemble performances without him having to play fast and loud, entirely losing the nuances of melody in order to be heard. “After doing research and working on it over time, I got help with a pickup from European friends and students, a magnetic condenser, a processor, and removed the leather from the tabli to avoid feedback—I have got this designed with help from an instrument manufacturer in Delhi. It has been a collaborative effort," he says.

Praashekh Borkar on the esarod at a concert
Praashekh Borkar on the esarod at a concert (Suhasini S Borkar)

It was also around this time that Praashekh Borkar, 31, from Pune, son of leading sarod player Pandit Shekhar Borkar, decided independently to design an electric sarod. “It was a necessity for me. When I was in college, the other musicians loved what I was playing but the moment I called it Indian music, they had this thing in their mind that it was boring," he says over the phone from Australia, where he now runs his own sarod academy.

Borkar cut up an old sarod, wired it, modified it, glued it back and created his own electric sarod—and with help from a sarod-maker in Pune, perfected the design. In January 2014, he even got the the name e-sarod registered as a trademark. “Once people heard the electric sarod, they would say, ‘Oh I want to hear more of that!’, and they even started coming for classical gigs."

The videos on his Facebook page are testament to his efforts to blend the traditional and contemporary, Eastern and Western. There’s an e-sarod cover of Let It Be by The Beatles and a classical sarod cover of Hedwig’s theme, a composition from the Harry Potter movies, a video of him experimenting with slides (ghaseet) on the e-sarod and others featuring the alaap for Raag Parameshwari and Raag Yaman on the traditional instrument.

It’s important, however, that in this race to make the classical sarod “cool", the authentic sound of the instrument isn’t lost. “It’s a big challenge—the leather on the tabli ensures you can’t increase the volume above five notches, you have to see whether to use magnetic pickup, contact mic or a piezo pickup. It’s a transition period with the sarod and we have to see what will work best, because the characteristics of the sound should remain the same," says Ajay Sharma, an instrument maker, sitar player and owner of the famous Rikhi Ram & Sons in Delhi’s Connaught Place.

This is perhaps why Borkar and Anshuman are continuing to experiment and perform with various iterations of their work-in-progress electric sarods. Borkar is working to create an acrylic (completely transparent) version and has figured out the perfect magnetic pickup which brings the sound of his e-sarod close to the traditional, even somewhat resembling that of the veena. Anshuman, meanwhile, is adding more strings to the reduced eight on the electric, as against the original 26, and is finally able to play at audible decibel levels at fusion concerts without compromising on the quality of taans (fast melodic passages).

“Finally, it is the aesthetic quality of music that determines its longevity," says Pradhan. “And, needless to say, the efficacy of experiments is as much related to the musicians using such instruments as it is to the people involved in manufacturing them," he adds.

Fortunately, in the case of the sarod, the young generation of musicians is doing both. So while Ustad Amjad Ali Khan may have introduced the world outside India to the sarod, it seems Gen Next is bringing the world outside India to the sarod.

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