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Two Forgotten Pillars of Sikh Music


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Two Forgotten Pillars of Sikh Music

Sunday 27th March, 2005

Prof. Surinder Singh

(KP) Guru Arjan Dev Ji, the fifth Guru of Sikhs, had a great passion for folk music, and looking at his contribution to the musical heritage of India, we see a huge line up which is influenced by folk traditions. The Saranda took birth from his passion for music. However, there are varying statements and opinions by scholars as to who actually created the Saranda. Some say it was the idea of Guru Angad Dev Ji and was developed by Guru Ramdas Sahib, the fourth Guru. Examining the facts concerning that time period, and the musical interests related to that period, it makes more sense to believe that Guru Arjan Dev Ji invented, or developed, the Saranda. "Saranda" makes a bridge between the musician/listener and the Almighty, so that our soul can walk spiritually and merge into Akal-Purkh.

Time and region also play a huge role in any instrumental development. The Saranda basically vanished from the Sikh traditions in India around one hundred years ago, and now can mainly be found in museums and among only one or two Sikhs who still play this instrument. The Sikh congregation, from what is now Afghanistan, had a great relationship with Guru Arjan Dev Ji, and they adopted this instrument to promote it in singing the Almighty's praise. Nowadays, the Saranda can be found with some folk singers of Baluchistan, in Pakistan. Its shape has made some changes. For some Sarandas, the sound box has been made slim, some are big and round. Some Sarandas have a similar fingerboard to the classical Sarangi. Some have been developed for use in folk music and some for the majestic look befitting display in museums. Again sadly, this beautiful instrument is vanishing from the music for which it was conceived.

A beautiful body, carved from a single piece of wood known as tun, the base of the Saranda is hotlow, and half-covered with deer or goat skin. On top of the base sits the main bridge which holds the sympathetic and main strings. The middle body of the Saranda has sympathetic strings laid similar to the Sarangi: thirteen to fifteen under the main strings, and nine on the side. The top part of Saranda has five or six tarabs (sympathetic strings) on each side. All of the sympathetic strings are made from metal, and the main three strings are made from gut.

The Saranda is held vertically while playing (the same as the Sarangi), with the belly placed on the floor, or on the lap between the feet; and the peg-box, on the top, rests on the left shoulder. The horse-hair bow is held in an underhand grip and drawn with the right hand, while the strings are stopped with the left hand.

The Sarangi of the Sikhs was brought in and promoted by the sixth Guru, Hargobind Sahib, to sing the ballads from Siri Guru Granth Sahib or from Bhai Guru Das' poetry. Vaaran (ballads) are to be found in great number among these works, and they incorporate an aggressive approach to singing and _expression.


It would appear that the Sarangi was a folk instrument long before it came to be accepted in classical music as an accompanying instrument. This was most probably during the rise of the Khayal gayaki (style) at the time of Mohammed Shah 'Rangila'. By the nineteenth century, the Sarangi came to be associated with dancing girls and courtesans, and was used as the standard instrument for accompanying Khayal, Thumri, and occasionally for Dhrupad. However, the decline of the Sarangi has set in over the last three quarters of the last century or so, partly because of these negative associations, and partly because of the technical difficulties in tuning and playing the instrument.

Although there is no standardization in the structure and dimensions of this instrument, the typical Sarangi is a rather small instrument - usually about two and one-quarter feet high - and having three main parts: the main body and resonator, the neck, and the peg-box. It is made out of a single, hollowed block of wood, which has a thickness of over an inch at the top and at the bottom, and around a quarter of an inch on the sides. There is a hole at the back of the instrument, as well as a wooden bar running from the top to the bottom, to strengthen the body. It has a belly which is covered with parchment, but often has holes cut in it; and it is pinched to facilitate bowing. The body is asymmetrical, the waist being deeper on the left side compared to the right. And the body and neck flow together in a straight line on the right, whereas on the left there is a bulge at the top of the body. The instrument has a tapered neck but is not as graceful as the Sarode (one of the most popular Indian instruments in current performance). At the bottom lies the wooden string holder, with holes drilled for the main strings. There is usually a metal plate, fixed at the lower end, to protect the body.

The Sarangi has three playing strings made of gut, and usually has a fourth brass drone, or sympathetic string. These strings are tuned by means of four pegs, located in the lower half of the peg-box on either side, while the upper half has around eleven pegs for the sympathetic strings. The Sarangi also has a large number of sympathetic strings, all made of metal. The number ranges from between thirty-five and forty; they lie below the main playing strings where some are tuned chromatically and others follow a diatonic tuning. Twenty-four sympathetic strings are tuned by means of pegs on the side of the fingerboard, where the strings emerge out of small bone rings in the front of the neck. Nine of the strings emerge in a straight row on the right hand side of the fingerboard, while the remaining fifteen come from holes set in a diagonal fashion from the top right-hand corner to the bottom centre. The Sarangi has no frets on the fingerboard, as such.

Usually, the Sarangi has four bone bridges for suspending the strings, two of which are essential, as they carry the playing strings. The main bridge rests on the parchment cover pasted over the belly, and it carries all the strings - the playing strings passing through notches on the top, and all of the sympathetic strings passing through the holes below. Since there is a great deal of pressure on the parchment at the point of the bridge; there is a leather strap, glued to the sides of the body, which passes below and supports the feet of the bridge. The other important bridge, at the top, carries only the three main playing strings, made of gut, and keeps them parallel by raising them about half-an-inch over the neck of the instrument.

The horse-hair bow is held in an underhand grip and drawn with the right hand, while the strings are stopped with the left hand. The method of stopping the strings is to use the nail, with fingers bent, so that the base of the nail near the cuticle is in contact with the string rather than the fingertip. Although the musicologist, Nell Sorrell, is of the view that the actual fingering is not standardized and each player has his own technique. Joep Bor states that the there is a standardized fingering which is different for each school of Sarangi playing. The middle finger is used more than the index, while the third finger is used the most, particularly in the higher register. It is used for playing consecutive notes for at least an octave. The little finger is considered too weak for any playing, and is hardly used, except in rare cases.

There is a special quality in the sound of the Sarangi because it is produced by bowing on gut strings, and also because of the way in which the sympathetic strings are suspended to enhance the jawari (slightly buzzing) effect. This sound quality is said to be the closest, among all musical instruments, to the human voice. It would, however, not he wrong to state that the Sarangi's advantage is also a disadvantage. As indicated, much of its sound quality is the result of the sympathetic strings. But whether as many as 35 or 40 strings are necessary, is the question, particularly when proper tuning of these can take a long time. This is one of the reasons that have been advanced, for the reduced use of the instrument for accompaniment.

Saranda and Sarangi are not in use the way they should be, in present time, and rumours are out there, for the Sarangi, because it was played with the dancing girls in the 'kotha' (brothel). But the Tabia and Harmonium are also played in the same disreputable locations. Why are those not banned from Sikh Kirtan, as well?

The real answer to the disappearance of the Saranda and Sarangi from the Sikh court is due to ignorance about the instruments, or laziness about learning to play or practice, but nothing else. We need to use these instruments more, not just to preserve their heritage, but also for the essence of Gurmat Sangeet. Otherwise the "ignorance is bliss" attitude will kill a great legacy of Saranda and Sarangi in the musical world.

© Copyright 2005 Prof. Surinder Singh of Raj Academy of Asian Music.

More information about the author and Raj Academy is available at www.rajacademy.com

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