The sarod: divine cousin of the banjo

If there’s something almost-familiar about the sound of a sarod, the answer may lie halfway across the world. Though it is unclear whether the large Indian lute actually shares a direct ancestor with the American banjo, the textures of the two instruments definitely have a lot of other odd similarities.

Both have taut metal strings which produce a strong, weighty tone when plucked, which is in turn amplified by a strangely skin drum-like body. Young sarod star Debasmita Bhattacharya, featured in the video below, even learned banjo in her youth.

But unlike the banjo, the sarod has no frets. The essence of its music lies in how the artist uses this characteristic freedom, sliding around the huge mirror-like neck to elaborate the raga in fine detail. The tone is slightly lower than that of a sitar or santoor, and there isn’t as much flash or sparkle either – classical sarod music is often lively, but tends to retain a certain inward calm even in moments of frantic exuberance.

Thought to have been brought to India by Islamic horsemen, it quickly gained a place in Hindustani history. The tradition’s most famous guru, Ustad Alauddin Khan, used it to teach and perform, and his son Ustad Ali Akbar Khan became its first global ambassador, captivating audiences in America as far back as 1955.

He was famously dedicated to his art, saying “If you practice for 10 years, you may begin to please yourself. After 20 years you may become a performer and please the audience, and after 30 years you may please even your guru. But you must practice for many more years before you finally become a true artist – then you may please even God”.

This philosophy has set the standard for all sarodias after him. So expect any classical sarod concert to feature breathtaking feats of musicianship, seamlessly blending together different fragments of melody into an overall story (the word ‘sarod‘ translates from Persian as ‘pleasing melody’). The sarod’s lack of ‘jangle’ emphasises the space in the music, allowing for wide contrasts and sudden bursts of sound. Though many outside listeners first find themselves drawn to Indian music by the sitar, they often settle on the sarod next.

● Read nextWhy do Indian classical musicians love board games so much? – featuring the chess-like musical metaphors of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan

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