India’s musical heritage forms its very soul and can be traced back to the roots of civilization as we know it. Center of classical music and home to a large number of renowned musicians, India has long lured the more soulful and musical souls from across the world. But despite our musical roots running deep and strong, with time they seem to have been cut off at the branches, fighting for their moment in the sun for a whiff of new life.
A large number of ancient Indian musical instruments, close to 150-200, have more or less disappeared into oblivion. And with time, the curtain seems to falling over musical instruments like Sitar, Tanpura and Sarangi.
Hear them now, experience their surrealism and divinity now to get a glimpse of how truly incredible India’s cultural treasures are, before they become echoes of our rich past.
Three such Indian musical instruments found in Varanasi, Kutch and the Himalayan region that are worth making a beeline for are:
Rudra Veena – the crowning glory of Akbar’s royal courts
Having serenaded the likes of emperor Akbar, Rudra Veena is as ancient as it can be. Made either of bamboo or wood, Rudra Veena is a string instrument, traditionally associated with Dhrupad, another classic of Indian music and the oldest surviving vocal genre of Hindustani classical music.
If you go by the records and legends, Dhrupad and Rudra Veena’s musical origins can be traced back to the Vedic period. Having reigned the Hindustani classical music stage for well until the 18th century, Rudra Veena was, still is, considered the ‘mother of all stringed Indian instruments’.
But as time went by, other genres, more amiable to improvisation and fluency, took over the Indian classical music scene and with them came the need for instruments swifter in tempo and higher in register. What followed was a rather unfortunate decline in the popularity and use of Rudra Veena, with both Dhrupad and Rudra Veena losing to Khayal and Sitar.
While nowhere close to the glorious days it saw in Akbar and Man Singh Tomar’s era, Dhrupad recently managed to make a comeback in a slightly evolved form. But the new avataar had no place for the rich overtones of Rudra Veena.
Today, there are only a handful of people, 5 to be specific, who have kept the musical tradition of Rudra Veena alive. Another reason for Rudra Veena’s virtual decline into oblivion is the fact that it is built in very precise ways, and the knowledge of its fashioning has typically been passed down over generations. Only a handful of such families are left today.
While Rudra Veena performances are rare in India now, you might just catch some during classical music festivals like the Dhrupad Mela in Varanasi. Keep a lookout for such performances and fests. Or, very soon, the only way of listening to the sublimity of Rudra Veena will be on recordings.
Surando – echoes from the Rann of Kutch
Even as the air turns salty and dry and the ground cracks beneath, you may hear the hauntingly sublime echoes of the Surando from the vast expanse of parched earth sprawling around you in the Rann of Kutch. An ancient folk musical instrument, indigenous to the Kutch region of Gujarat and played by the Fakirani Jat community, Surando is the folk cousin of Sarangi and Violin.
Made traditionally of lahirro wood, each of the six strings in a Surando has a specific name, with 5 made of steel and one of copper. A bow (or gaz as it is called in local dialect), comprising of a flexible wooden stick and strings made of a horse’s hair or gut, is placed over the surando’s six strings at right angles and then moved back and forth to produce the mellow yet intense melodies, characteristic of a surando.
Even as you are held spellbound by the Surando’s tunes, you cannot help but be fascinated by the exquisite carving on its surface. Usually carved into the shape of a peacock, the Surando is usually decked up in colourful fabric and painted in what seems to be a rainbow of colours.
Now, with the passing years, its sounds seem to be disappearing in the barren expanse of Kutch, fading with time. Today, Osman Jat is the only known Surando master.
Tibetan Guitar – tracing Himalaya’s musical trail
Exploring the Himalayan trail and puzzled by the strangely enchanting symphony coming out of an even stranger looking instrument? Seemingly like a mix of Guitar and Sarangi, Dramymen, a traditional Himalayan lute, is famously known as Tibetan Guitar.
Unlike most of the other musical instruments, Dramyen is carved out of a single piece of wood. It usually doesn’t exceed 120 cms in length and can be called as the lighter twin of acoustic guitar. Its sound hole is shaped like a rosette and while it appears to have just 3 strings, there are actually 7 strings placed in 2 double courses and 1 triple course.
varPeer closely at it and you will notice a number of motifs and religious symbols carved on its surface. Fascinatingly, its pegbox is usually carved into the shape of Chu-srin.
Lending its cadence generally to Dramyin Cham performances, Dramyen’s roots can be traced back to Bhutan, which gradually spread over to Tibet, Sikkim and West Bengal (the Himalayan region). While it is far from going extinct in its home town and Tibet, it is a different story when it comes to the Indian Himalayas.
As a new era unfolds its pages in the Himalayan region, the Dramyen finds itself shadowed by other more contemporary musical instruments.
These are tunes that have been strummed over thousands of years. Their divinity goes beyond the melodies that flow from them, it represents a way of life, an era that is coming to a close. Watch it now, hear it now and experience its divinity now – before it all becomes a fleeting echo from the past.
About the author – A travel enthusiast, Kritika loves exploring offbeat places on her own.