The sarangi, a traditional instrument that falls into oblivion in Pakistan

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published on Friday 08 April 2022 at 10:22

In the shadow of the red-brick mosques and palaces of Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan, Zohaib Hassan strikes the strings of a sarangi, filling the streets with a melodious and sad sound.

The sarangi, a traditional bowed string instrument known for its sound close to the human voice, is typical of the Indian subcontinent. But he tends to disappear from the music scene in Pakistan, where only a few virtuosos are still trying to preserve his legacy.

Difficult to master, expensive to maintain and offering few economic opportunities to those who play it, sarangi is experiencing a decline that seems inevitable, Hassan told AFP.

“We try to keep the instrument alive, without worrying about our miserable financial situation,” he says.

For seven generations, his family has played this instrument in the form of a violin. He himself is famous throughout Pakistan and is regularly invited on TV, radio and private parties.

“My family’s enthusiasm for this instrument forced me to become a sarangi player, without even finishing my studies,” he says.

“I live in precariousness, because most (artistic) directors organize musical programs with fashionable orchestras or pop groups,” he laments.

In Pakistan, a country where 60% of the population is under 30, traditional instruments compete with R&B or pop.

According to Sara Zaman, professor of classical music at the National Arts Council in Lahore, other traditional instruments such as the sitar, santour and tampura are also on the verge of extinction.

– A difficult instrument –

“The programs are dedicated to other disciplines, such as pop music, and forget about classical music,” he laments.

“As the sarangi is a very difficult instrument, it was not given the importance and attention it deserved, which led to its gradual disappearance in Pakistan,” he adds.

The decline began in the 1980s, after the deaths of several virtuosos of this instrument and classical singers, says Khwaja Najam-ul-Hassan, a television producer who created an archive of Pakistan’s leading musicians.

The sarangi was “dear to the hearts of internationally renowned male and female classical singers, but began to fade after their deaths,” he said.

Ustad Allah Rakka, one of the world’s most renowned Pakistani sarangi players, died in 2015, after a career that saw him play for orchestras around the world.

Now, sarangi stars say they struggle to live off their performance fees alone, which are often much lower than what guitarists, pianists or violinists earn.

The instrument costs around 120,000 rupees (590 euros) and most of its components, including the steel strings, are imported from neighboring India, where it remains an integral part of the musical heritage.

“The price has gone up because there is a ban on imports from India,” said Muhammad Tahir, owner of one of two Lahore shops specializing in the repair of this instrument.

Pakistan suspended bilateral trade with India after New Delhi revoked Indian Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status in August 2019.

– Steel ropes –

The body of the sarangi is hand-carved from native Pakistani cedar wood, its main strings are made from goat gut, and its 17 sympathetic strings, a common feature of traditional instruments from the subcontinent, are made from steel.

No one produces these steel ropes in Pakistan due to lack of demand, notes Mr. Tahir, who can take up to two months to restore a damaged sarangi.

“Sarangi players and the few people who repair this wonderful instrument are not admired,” laments Ustad Zia-ud-Din, owner of another repair shop that has been around, in one form or another, for almost 200 years.

However, efforts to adapt to the modern music scene hold promise for the future.

“We invented new ways of playing, including making the sarangi semi-electric so that it sounds louder when played on modern musical instruments,” Hassan said of the academy he runs in Lahore. .

He presented this modified instrument several times on stage and said that the initiative was well received.

Some young musicians, like 14-year-old Mohsin Muddasir, have abandoned more modern instruments like the guitar for the sarangi.

“I’m learning this instrument because it plays on my heartstrings,” the teenager says kindly.

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