LAHORE: In the shadow of Lahore’s centuries-old Badshahi Mosque, Zohaib Hassan plucks the strings of a sarangi, filling the streets with a melodious hum and scream.
Remarkable for its resemblance to the human voice, the classical instrument is disappearing from the Pakistani music scene, except for a few musicians anxious to preserve its place. Difficult to control, expensive to repair and poorly remunerative for professionals, the decline of the sarangi has been hard to stem, Hassan told AFP.
“We are trying to keep the instrument alive, not even considering our miserable financial situation,” he said. For seven generations, his family have mastered the bowed, short-necked instrument and Hassan is highly respected throughout Pakistan for his abilities, appearing regularly on television, radio and at private parties. “My family’s infatuation with the instrument forced me to pursue a career as a sarangi player, leaving my education incomplete,” he said.
“I live day to day because the majority of directors organize musical programs with the latest orchestras and pop groups.” Traditional instruments compete with a booming R&B and pop scene in a country where more than 60% of the population is under 30.
Sara Zaman, a classical music teacher at the National Arts Council, Lahore, said that besides sarangi, other traditional instruments such as sitar, santoor and tanpura are also dying out. “Platforms have been given to other disciplines like pop music, but that has been lacking in the case of classical music,” she said.
“The sarangi, being a very difficult instrument, has not been given due prominence and attention in Pakistan, which has led to its gradual disappearance.” The sarangi rose to prominence in Indian classical music in the 17th century, during the rule of the Mughals in the subcontinent.
Its decline began in the 1980s after several of the country’s master classical performers and singers died, said Khwaja Najam-ul-Hassan, a television producer who created an archive of Pakistan’s leading musicians.
“The instrument was close to the hearts of the world’s top male and female classical singers, but it began to fade after their deaths,” he said.
Ustad Allah Rakha, one of Pakistan’s most acclaimed sarangi players, died in 2015 after a career that saw him perform with orchestras around the world. Players today say they struggle to survive on performance fees alone, often far lower than those paid to modern guitarists, pianists, or violinists.
Hand-carved from a single block of cedar native to parts of Pakistan, the sarangi’s main strings are made of goat’s gut while the seventeen sympathetic strings – a common feature of folk instruments from the subcontinent – are steel.
The instrument costs around 120,000 rupees ($625) and most of its parts are imported from neighboring India, where a main part of the barrel remains.
“The price has gone up because there is a ban on imports from India,” said Muhammad Tahir, owner of one of only two repair shops in Lahore.
Pakistan downgraded diplomatic ties and halted bilateral trade with India following New Delhi’s 2019 decision to strip the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status.
Tahir, who spends about two months painstakingly restoring a single worn sarangi, said no one in Pakistan makes the special steel strings due to lack of demand.
“There is no admiration for the sarangi players and the few people who repair this wonderful instrument,” said Ustad Zia-ud-Din, the owner of the other repair shop in Lahore, which exists in a form or another for 200 years.
Efforts to adapt to the modern music scene showed pockets of promise. “We invented new ways of playing, including making the sarangi semi-electric to improve the sound when performing with modern musical instruments,” said Hassan of the academy he leads in Lahore.
He has now played the adapted instrument several times and says the reception has been positive. One of the few students is 14-year-old musician Mohsin Muddasir, who eschewed instruments such as guitar to tackle sarangi. “I’m learning this instrument because it plays with the strings of my heart,” he said.