09 September, 2013

The almost forgotten instrument-Surbahar or the Bass Sitar

I have not been writing anything for almost 2years now and had forgotten the beauty of being able to express myself through my blogs. But something that has happened in the last few weeks has made me go back to writing and so here it is--

The last few weeks has been another journey of self-discovery for me and for this to happen, I owe it all to the rediscovery of one of the most beautiful instruments of our music, the Surbahar. I have been in possession of this beautiful instrument for almost 12yrs now but never dared to venture to practice it except now and then when I would just tune it, play for a few minutes and keep it back. This particular instrument is at least 70-80yrs old and was made by the original Kanai Lal brothers who were very famous instrument makers in the 1940's and 50's. In fact, my Guru Pt. Ravi Shankar ji used to perform on one of their original handcrafted Sitars in the 1940's before shifting to the Sitar made by another great instrument maker, Nodu Mallick. The fact that this particular Surbahar still used flat frets makes it a really old one. Bishan Das Sharma ji from Rikhiram musicals once told me that the rounded frets on Surbahar started sometime about 60-70yrs ago and hence, my Surbahar was older than 60yrs old. This was almost 10yrs ago which makes it at least 80-90yrs now.

There is a beautiful story how this Surbahar came into my hands. The famous and legendary Kannada movie icon, Dr. Raj Kumar was a great lover of music, especially the Sitar. When I was growing up in Bangalore, my family was very close to him since my cousin, Chi. Udayashankar was a legendary lyricist, screenplay and dialogue writer for Kannada films and was like a brother to Dr. Raj Kumar. I remember Dr. Raj Kumar coming to our house many times late in the night to listen to me playing (if he came during the day and people got to know about it, there would be a riot at our place--that was the kind of popularity he had). Dr. Raj Kumar found this Surbahar somewhere and gifted it to my father. This was sometime in the 1980's  and so was in my house for almost 15yrs before shifting residence to Delhi in 2000. I owe it to Saskia for bringing it to Delhi since she forced me to bring it the first ever time she was in Bangalore to meet my parents. So, there we were--traveling by train from Bangalore to Delhi for the next 48hrs and our luggage consisted of my sitar, her Cello and this big instrument, the Surbahar. Luckily there was a seat vacant in the compartment we were traveling and all these big instruments got their own berth to sleep!!

Anyways, coming back to how I took it up again a couple of weeks ago---Saskia and I have been busy composing music for the new production of Dr. Sonal Mansingh, an icon of Classical Dance of India. We were very honored to be asked to compose for her new production, Meeting of the Gods. We finished a wonderful piece in Jan 2013, could not do the 2nd piece since we were busy with concerts and touring. When we returned from Europe end June, she wanted us to finish the last piece, the story of the marriage of the Indian Gods Shiva and Parvati and their Greek counterpart, Uranus and Gaia.  Whatever music we composed had to have the dignity and grandeur of Shiva. Saskia had already composed a beautiful entry music for Uranus and also the wedding of Uranus and Gaia. So, the music for Shiva and the wedding of Shiva and Parvati had to be equally grand and do justice to their stature as Gods. After the initial discussions and meetings, I suddenly came up with this thought of perhaps using my Surbahar for the music for Shiva. So, one evening when Saskia and Ishaan were playing some games in the other room, I slowly took the courage to walk into our music room and got the Surbahar out. Apart from a little dust that it had gathered and the tuning that had gone bad, everything else sounded beautiful. Even now I can still feel the deep reverberation that went through my whole body, through my whole soul with the very first stroke. I could not keep this beauty to myself any longer and rushed to get Saskia and Ishaan to hear the magical sound. Ishaan was just stupefied and I could see the slow transformation in both of them. I was playing Raga Shankara since that was the Raga I had chosen for the composition for Shiva. The next couple of days--the whole house was reverberating with the sound of the Surbahar and my entire being was dancing with the joyous sound. Of course it is a very difficult instrument and I can understand why constantly-traveling musicians could not tour with it or play the Surbahar and the Sitar. But should we lose it completely just because of these difficulties? The beauty is too great to be lost so easily and I want to bring it back to the main concert platform. Of course, there are a few artists who are performing the Surbahar even now but they are so few and unfortunately, it is not getting as much attention as it richly deserves. Every single person who has heard it ever since I have restarted practicing it cannot just believe its beauty and its magical sound. I have never seen Ishaan as peaceful as he is when he hears the Surbahar. He was unwell for a few days and one morning during his illness, Saskia brought him to the music room where I was practicing and within 10mins, he was fast asleep at 9AM in complete peace and a smile on his face.

We have finished the recording of our composition and have used the Surbahar in 2 sections--the grand entry of Shiva and the Shiva-Parvati wedding. Someone of Sonal ji's stature said that there has never been music so beautiful that has been composed for dance previously. Coming from someone who has heard the best, seen the best and is herself a powerhouse of knowledge, it humbles me to hear this. All I can say is that I am thankful to her for giving us this opportunity to work with her and compose for her which led me to my rediscovery of my Surbahar. It will be my sincere endeavor from now on to bring this instrument into main-stream concert platform. I am sure everyone who hears it even for the first time will be transformed and taken into a new beauty that they never knew existed.

God bless music and the beauty it brings to whosoever decides to love it.