The smooth scratch of the sarangi, unique in its rich resonance, is among Indian classical’s most melodious sounds. Even the word ‘sarangi‘ has a syllabic roll to it – the term translates as ‘hundred-coloured instrument’, reflecting its vast emotional range. Carved from a hardwood block, it has three vibration chambers, each of which symbolises a different part of the human body: chhati (chest), pet (stomach), and magaj (brain). The vertically-set strings can number up to 40, although only a few of them are actively bowed to produce the main sound.
The instrument has a rich, complex history. In the words of sarangi player and SOAS lecturer Nicolas Magriel, “The sarangi is the black sheep of Indian music…It’s the most difficult instrument, and the lowest status. It was a rural folk instrument, and in the 18th century it came into the classical world – because courtesans needed it to accompany singing and dance. It was by far the most popular and widespread instrument in 19th-century India, because every brothel had sarangi players. But in the 20th century sarangi players were more and more marginalised; they were excluded from the mainstream of classical music…so they maintained their pre-modern way of life.”
Ustad Sultan Khan, a pioneering 20th-century master, pushed back against this trend. His scintillating raga performances gained new levels of respect for the instrument among North India’s classical rasikas (connoisseurs), with tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain echoing the feelings of many in saying that “his sarangi literally sang…he was able to coax out of the instrument all the nuances of…Indian [vocal] music”.
Rather than isolating himself, Khan readily brought his many strings to much less traditional settings too, recording and touring with artists as diverse as Madonna, Ornette Coleman, Duran Duran, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. In 1999 he co-founded Tabla Beat Science with Zakir Hussain, bassist Bill Laswell, and producer-percussionists Karsh Kale and Talvin Singh, playing Asian electronica at high volume. Later in life he embarked on an unexpected side career as a pop vocalist, even landing a prominent MTV Video Award in 2001 (for Piya Basanti).
Female artists, including those of the stigmatised devadasi courtesan tradition, have been historically instrumental in preserving the sarangi’s repertoire. Nicolas Magriel explains in an interview for The Wire:
“In the words of my dear Ustad Abdul Latif Khan…these women kept this music alive for the last 400 years…that was the core of classical music, and it’s something that’s been whitewashed, both in the West but especially in India. Everyone wants to think of it as a kind of spiritual music that was played in the temples. There was court music, but in many cases the male musicians who were idolised, actually they existed in order to teach the women how to sing.” (See more on Nicolas’ incredible Sangi Rangi site).
● Read next: The santoor: North India’s magical, many-stringed box – hypnotic rhythmic-melodic textures from a recent addition to Hindustani music