The sarangi (सारंगी) is the most important bowed instrument of South Asian art music. Its name is widely believed to mean "a hundred colours" indicating its adaptability to a wide range of musical styles, its flexible pitch, and its ability to produce a large palette of tonal colour and rich emotional nuance.

The sarangi is revered for its uncanny capacity to imitate the timbre and inflections of the human voice as well as for the intensity of emotional expression to which it lends itself. In the words of Sir Yehudi Menuhin: "The sarangi remains not only the authentic and original Indian bowed stringed instrument but the one which... expresses the very soul of Indian feeling and thought."



The classical sarangi is carved out of a single piece of hardwood, usually tun (sometimes called Indian cedar) and is between 64 and 67 centimetres in length. It has three melody strings which are usually made of gut and around thirty-five metal sympathetic strings which provide a bright echo. The strings pass over and through an elephant-shaped bridge usually made of bone or ivory. This rests on a leather strap which protects the instrument's goatskin face. The bow, held with an underhand grip, is usually made of rosewood or ebony and is considerably heavier than Western violin or cello bows, contributing to the solidity and vocal quality of the sarangi's sound. Most players play instruments between fifty and a hundred years old, often inherited from their elders. The instrument's tone and playability are largely determined by its setting up: the placement of and contouring of the bridges, the fitting of the skin, the thickness and height of the strings, and the fitting of the pegs. These complex skills require a lot of experience. Traditionally they have been passed, like the music, from father, grandfather or uncle to the children of sarangi families. But due to both the quickening pace of life and inertia and demoralisation on the part of sarangi players, these skills are gradually being lost.



The sarangi's three melody strings are stopped not with the pads of the fingers but with the cuticles or the upper nails or the skin above the nails of the left hand. The Cretan lyra and Bulgarian gadulka are also played with the sides of the finger nails, but to my knowledge there is no other instrument on which the strings are stopped with so high a portion of the back of the finger. Practice often leads to prodigious callousing as well as to tell-tale grooves in the fingernails. The difficulty of sarangi technique is legendary. Have a look at Ustad Abdul Latif Khan's hand:


History and Social Factors

The nineteenth century sarangi was a smaller and less standardised instrument, and it is possible that the unwieldly complexity of the modern instrument has contributed to its decline as an accompaniment instrument, and to solo sarangi's relatively low profile on the modern concert stage. But the sarangi's decline has been largely precipitated by social forces. Although sarangi players and tabla players were equally important in the ensembles of singing and dancing girls, the tabla have to a great extent outgrown the stigma of association with prostitution partially because of its enhanced role and more glamorous status in the accompaniment of sitar and sarod. In the popular imagination the sarangi remains linked to the world of courtesans. And that world has nearly ceased to exist. It first came under attack with the British export of Victorian moral attitudes which were enthusiastically embraced by the swelling middle classes. The erosion of the funds of the nobility, the courtesans' patrons, was begun under British rule and completed by the democratisation of Indian society at the time of Independence in 1947. Government legislation has consolidated the demise of the songstress tradition, a tradition which was central to the evolution and preservation of art music. Tawaifs still exist in the cities of North India, but usually they perform film songs for clients of meagre refinement. With the end of what was once a lucrative market for sarangi playing, the prospects for sarangi players became bleak except for those who were talented or lucky enough to become employed by All India Radio. And as the pace of life quickened, sarangi players had less and less reason to devote their lives to practice the way that their forefathers had and as appears to be necessary for anyone who wants to attain and maintain control over a sarangi.


Sarangi in dire straights

The innocuous harmonium, a European import,  has largely replaced the sarangi as the preferred accompaniment to vocal music. Although its tempered tones are categorically out of tune for Indian music, they are, sadly, more in tune than the notes of a less than expert or out-of-practice sarangi player. Generally vocalists shy away from the possible competition of sarangi players. And indeed, sarangi players do sometimes overplay or steal the limelight, often, sometimes justifiably, considering themselves to be of more substantial musical pedigree than the singers they accompany. Their low social status is often at the root of unjustifiably low musical status, more so nowadays as a large percentage of performing vocalists, especially in Maharashtra, come from the educated middle classes and no longer from families of hereditary musicians.

Musical aesthetics have changed during the twentieth century. The use of microphones and the proliferation of recorded music has increased the accessibility and public appreciation of sweet, quiet singing. Along with technical improvements in the sitar and sarod, this has contributed to the standardisation of intonation and to a high premium being placed on slick, clean music which, to quote D.C. Vedi, "does not disturb". The sarangi fits poorly into this context. It is a survivor from a time when music spoke more directly to people and music's emotion and formal brilliance were valued more highly than its slickness and technical perfection. The modern concert-going public is largely motivated by questions of status: music reminds them of the good old days or, for the nouveau riche, it confirms their newfound position as consumers of culture. This is an exercise which should be accomplished pleasantly and comfortably. There is no longer a high premium placed on being profoundly moved by music; bursting into tears would be quite out of place in the comfortable armchairs of a Delhi auditorium. And sarangi is the quintessentially emotional Indian instrument, a favourite with film-makers for tragic scenes: a baby bitten by a scorpion; Gandhi-ji's assassination; unrequited love.

The situation of sarangi players is a vicious circle. Lack of recognition has eroded their self respect, bringing about a decline in the dedication with which the tradition is sustained through practice and teaching, and inevitably a decline in musical excellence. I have met many excellent players who, being depressed about their poor economic prospects, have become unmotivated with regard to the tuning and maintenance of their instruments. This compounds the dimness of their prospects of employment as well as inviting criticism from vocalists and from the musical public, which further erodes self-respect.


Passing on the tradition

When I first met sarangi players in 1970, a large proportion of hereditary sarangi players were no longer teaching their sons. Disillusioned by the economic prospects offered by sarangi playing, many were sending their sons to school and on to commercial colleges. In the last ten years this trend has been somewhat reversed. The sarangi has received more interest. Of particular importance was the Sarangi Mela held in Bhopal in 1989 where sarangi players were reminded of the importance of their tradition. A resurgence of interest is attested by the phenomenon of great sarangi players such as Ustad Abdul Latif Khan and Ustad Ghulam Sabir Qadri who did not teach their sons - now teaching their grandsons. It is heartening to see that a large number of players are now teaching their sons. Musical enculturation - how children grow into music in sarangi families - is an important aspect of my current research. Note: well, that was written in 1997, and at that time there were several very hot teenage players who are now well-known musicians. But when I was doing my fieldwork for Growing into Music (, between 2009 and 2012, I was not able to find any young sarangi players of such a high caliber as I had witnessed in the 90s, and there was very little serious teaching of the instrument going on in sarangi families.

As an accompaniment instrument, the sarangi has now almost entirely been replaced by the harmonium, a European instrument that, to my ears, injects the ethos of fairground brashness to what was once a peaceful, subtle and glorious musical system.


Vocal music on the sarangi

Sarangi music is vocal music. It is quite impossible to find a sarangi player who does not know the words of many classical songs. The words are usually mentally present during performance, and performance almost always adheres to the conventions of vocal performance including the organisational structure, the types of elaboration, the tempo, the relationship between sound and silence, and the presentation of khyal and thumri compositions. The vocal quality of sarangi is in a quite separate category from, for instance, the so-called gayaki-ang of sitar which attempts to imitate the nuances of khyal while overall conforming to the structures and usually keeping to the gat compositions of instrumental music. Most sarangi players learn to sing before they begin to play.

Sarangi players sing with their fingers. Rather than as an appendage to or as a shadow of vocal music, sarangi must be viewed as a semi-independent tradition of vocal music, still respected at the end of the nineteenth century, which has fallen drastically in prestige largely as a result of social factors.The sarangi tradition is integral to the vocal tradition, and has sustained and nourished it. Prejudices against sarangi players are usually defended on grounds of the shortcomings in their grasp of and capacity to reproduce vocal music; to my mind, this is a convenient way of side-stepping the social basis of prejudice. If sarangi players were all poorly grounded in vocal music, it would not be possible, as is the case, that a large number of the most famous male singers of the twentieth century have come from sarangi families or been sarangi players themselves. These have included: Abdul Wahid Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Amir Khan, Niaz Ahmed and Fayaz Ahmed Khan and Rajan and Sajan Mishra. The Kirana and Patiala Gharanas, important vocal traditions, owe their heritage largely to sarangi playing. Before the latter half of this century, most of the great female singers came from the courtesan tradition, and many of them were taught by sarangi players. Nowadays many respected sarangi players owe some or all of their livelihoods to the teaching of vocal music.


The sarangi as a solo instrument

Contrary to common belief, the sarangi is and has historically been a solo, as well as an accompaniment, instrument - that is to say that sarangi players have always played solo in their homes and in musicians' gatherings. The fact that solo sarangi has had limited success on the modern concert stage does not demonstrate that sarangi players have not been ready to play, or that solo sarangi music does not exist. There are many surviving recordings of solo sarangi from the first decades of this century including those of Badal Khan, Master Sohan, and the patron saint of sarangi, the genius Bundu Khan. Recordings from the sixties immortalize the brilliance of players such as Gopal Mishra and Shakoor Khan as well as the virtuoso Ram Narayan who went on to engineer a successful career for himself as a soloist. All sarangi players who are employed as staff artists of All India Radio give solo broadcasts from time to time. It is fascinating to observe the ways in which vocal music has been adapted to solo sarangi and the details of how the voice of the sarangi differs from that of a singer and generates its own stylistic specialities. These subjects were central to my doctoral research (Sarangi Style in North Indian Music, University of London, 2001), soon to be published and available from this site.