'It's possible to use the sarangi in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey'
Grammy Award-winning sarangi exponent Dhruba Ghosh chose to embark on a career in an instrument that until then was largely perceived as one meant for accompaniment. He speaks to Arunabha Deb on its diverse aesthetic appeal and its role in the growth of Indian classical music
The NCPA is back with the next presentation in its popular Sangit Chintan series. The idea behind the series is simple: to put a maestro and his listeners in a cozy space and encourage conversation about the maestro’s craft. The series owes a lot of its success to NCPA’s careful consideration of the musicians it presents.
Not all performers are eloquent speakers, but it is evident that NCPA works hard to get the few who are. This Thursday, listeners will get a chance to interact with Dhruba Ghosh. There is little doubt that Ghosh is one of the foremost solo sarangi players of our time, but it might not be as well known that he is unnervingly articulate, particularly when he talks about his beloved sarangi.
The wonder years
That Ghosh would be a musician was probably a foregone conclusion, but his choice of instrument was not obvious. He is the son of the late Pandit Nikhil Ghosh, who was an icon of the tabla, but who was also trained to be vocalist. Ghosh started his training under his father in both vocal and tabla, but eventually opted for singing.
“Then, when my voice was changing, I thought of playing the sarangi, and my father encouraged me in that direction,” he said. He continued to be guided by his father; for training in the techniques of playing the sarangi, he learnt from Dattaram Parwatkar. In 1971, the great sarangi maestro Ustad Sagiruddin Khan came to Mumbai (then Bombay) and Ghosh got a two-hour training session with him. “Though it was just two hours, in that time, he taught me certain core principles of playing the sarangi that have remained with me for life,” he said.
Later, Ghosh has learnt from vocalist Pandit Dinkar Kaikini and from Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. His musical sensibility finds its roots in having learnt from so many great teachers, but it does seem that Ustad Ali Akbar Khan had an especially deep impact on him. “He (Khan) had the ability to go to the heart of a raga with a few simple phrases. And yet they were intense phrases. I was a student of English Literature and when I first read TS Eliot, I thought, ‘This is Ali Akbar!’ With just a few phrases, he went straight to the heart of the matter,” said Ghosh.
His ability to refer to other art forms (and talk about them authoritatively) makes him an engaging speaker and allows him to convey complex musical thoughts to uninitiated listeners. His liberalism has also significantly shaped his music. He chose an instrument that is still largely used as an accompanying instrument and yet, more than three decades back, he had the confidence to embark upon a career as a solo sarangi player. “I had started out with a very clear vision of what the sarangi should sound like,” he said. His efforts were finally on display in 1989 at Bhopal, at a Sarangi festival where all the important sarangi players of the country were present. “It was more like reading a newspaper for me, than a recital. All my new theorems were being put to test for the first time. It was like I was introducing a new module for solo sarangi playing,” he said.
As expected (and to Ghosh’s delight), the recital generated enough controversy. Sarangi maestros present at the festival found it difficult to accept that he had introduced a new bowing pattern that allowed him to play staccato notes a la plucked instruments like the sarod and the sitar (as opposed to only playing in the gayaki style, resembling the voice).
Break new ground
But Ghosh was confident of his new sound and of his new style. He despises the notion of portraying the sarangi only as a romantic and mournful instrument. “The plaintive sound that people love to associate with the sarangi — that would go with a film portraying, say, a durbar. But would you think of the sarangi when you think of a film like Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey? You wouldn’t. Because you are so used to thinking of the sarangi in that one plaintive mode. But I am saying that it’s possible to use the sarangi in a film like 2001,” he said, adding that the instrument has the dimensions to be realised in different aesthetic contexts.
His explorations led him to collaborate with the Paul Winter Consort, which won him a Grammy in 2010 for their album Miho — Journey to the Mountains. Ghosh’s mission, though, is far greater. “There is no standard that is used to judge the sound of the sarangi. Say, when it comes to the sitar, Ustad Vilayat Khan is now the standard. But he wasn’t so before the late fifties. The sound and the standard sound of the sitar, so to say, changed. Maybe, the sarangi can also go through a similar process. I am not for once saying that I want to set the new standard, but at least I want to throw open the discussion where the possibilities of the instrument are explored,” he said. He does seem to be in the mood to stir things up. Catching him at the upcoming interactive session would be a stellar idea.
Dhruba Ghosh will conduct a workshop on the sarangi at the Godrej Dance Theatre, NCPA on April 12, from 6.30 pm onwards. Admission on first-come-first-served basis. NCPA members will get preferential seating.
String theory Facts about the sarangi
The sarangi is believed to have originated from Rajasthani folk instruments. The word Sarangi is believed to have been derived from the Hindi words: Sau (meaning hundred) and rang (meaning colour). Hence, Sarangi means an instrument of a 100 colours or an instrument that can play a wide repertoire of music. A good sarangi is carved out of a single piece of Tun hardwood. Of all Indian instruments, the sarangi is said to resemble the sound of the human voice the most. The sarangi is also a traditional stringed musical instrument of Nepal, but it is slightly different from the Indian instrument.
40 The total number of strings found on a sarangi, of which thirty seven are sympathetic.