In Pakistan, the sarangi, a traditional instrument, sinks into oblivion

Difficult to master, high maintenance costs, competition from modernity… Known for its similarity to the human voice, the sarangi is gradually disappearing from the Pakistani music scene.

In the shadow of the red brick mosques and palaces of Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan, Zohaib Hassan plucks the strings of a sarangi, filling the streets with a melodious and sad sound. This traditional bowed string instrument, known for its sound close to the human voice, is typical of the Indian subcontinent. But it tends to disappear from the musical scene.

Difficult to master, expensive to maintain and offering few financial opportunities to those who play it, the sarangi is experiencing a decline that seems inevitable, explains to theAFP Mr. Hassan. “We try to keep the instrument alive, not worrying about our miserable financial situation”he says. For seven generations, his family has played this fiddle-shaped instrument. He himself is renowned throughout Pakistan and is regularly invited to television, radio and private parties.

“My family’s enthusiasm for this instrument forced me to become a sarangi player, without even finishing my schooling”he said. “I live in precarious conditions, because the majority of directors (artistic) organize musical programs using fashionable orchestras or pop groups”he laments. In Pakistan, a country where 60% of the population is under 30, traditional instruments face competition from R&B or pop.

As an illustration, Zohaib Hassan teaches a few students to play the sarangi, while the majority of music lessons today are devoted to pop music and RnB. Aamir QURESHI / AFP

According to Sara Zaman, a classical music teacher at the National Arts Council in Lahore, other traditional instruments such as the sitar, santour and tampura are also on the verge of extinction. “The programs are devoted to other disciplines, such as pop music, and they forget classical music”she regrets. “The sarangi being a very difficult instrument, it was not given the importance and attention it deserved, which led to its gradual disappearance in Pakistan”she adds.

The decline began in the 1980s, after several virtuosos of this instrument and classical singers died, says Khwaja Najam-ul-Hassan, a television producer who created an archive of Pakistan’s leading musicians. The sarangi was “dear to the hearts of internationally recognized male and female classical singers, but it began to fade after their deaths”he observes.

Ustad Allah Rakka, one of the world’s most renowned Pakistani sarangi players, died in 2015, after a career that saw him perform for orchestras around the world. Now, sarangi stars say they struggle to live on their mere performance fees, which are often far lower than those earned by guitarists, pianists or violinists.

The instrument costs around 120,000 rupees (590 euros) and most of its components, including its steel strings, are imported from neighboring India, where it remains an integral part of the musical heritage. “The price has gone up because there is a ban on imports from India”says Muhammad Tahir, owner of one of the two shops in Lahore specializing in the repair of this instrument. Pakistan suspended bilateral trade with India after New Delhi revoked Indian Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status in August 2019.

The sarangi’s body is hand-carved from cedar wood native to Pakistan, its main strings are made from goat gut, and its 17 sympathetic strings – a common feature of traditional instruments from the subcontinent – are made from steel. No one produces these steel strings in Pakistan due to lack of demand, points out Mr. Tahir, which can take up to two months to restore a damaged sarangi. “The sarangi players and the few people who repair this wonderful instrument are not admired”laments Ustad Zia-ud-Din, the owner of another repair shop that has been around, in one form or another, for nearly 200 years.

Some promises for the future

Efforts to adapt to the modern music scene, however, hold some promise for the future. “We invented new ways to play, including making the sarangi half-electric to make it sound louder when performing with modern musical instruments”, says Mr. Hassan, referring to the academy he runs in Lahore. He presented this modified instrument several times on stage and said that the initiative was well received.

Some young musicians, like Mohsin Muddasir, 14, have abandoned more modern instruments like the guitar for the sarangi. “I learn this instrument because it plays with the strings of my heart”said the teenager, nicely.

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