Voyaging on the ‘Good Ship’ Sarod

'My sarod and I' by Chinmaya Osho on Music Profiles > People

Chimaya Dunster’s sailing log (1979-2016)

In Travelling in India B.S. (Before Sarod) Chinmaya describes his travels through India until the day of the concert he describes here.

I remember the classical outdoor concert I attended in Delhi, on 1st April 1979: I only went because a friend, who knew I was playing the guitar, thought I shouldn’t miss it. Beyond a cursory look at a sitar in a shop in town and, a few years previously, a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall by Ravi Shankar – which had gone right over my head – I had no real interest in Indian classical music.

My first sarod, 1985
Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and Zakir Hussain
Gurdev Singh and Latif Ahmed Khan
close up
a sarod
Playing at Paul McCartney's wedding
With Green Ragas performing at the Commonwealth Games and the British Council, New Delhi


I sat myself down near the front in a massive marquee set up in a park, crowded with folks eating, gossipping, taking care of noisy children and, in between times, paying attention to the music. We were sitting on carpets on the ground and the artists came and went for hours, and still none of it meant much to me. But at some point in the middle of the night a handsome man in his mid-thirties, dressed immaculately in a white kurta, unveiled this shiny silver beast of a stringed instrument. The stage lights reflected multicoloured from its metallic fretboard and strings; its sound clean and penetrating, the notes like silver arrows that seemed to go straight into me. Dazed, I studied the programme notes, which referred to lots of people whose names seemed to be Ali Khan, to find his name: Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. I made an effort to retain the name ‘Amjad’ and the word ‘sarod’. Somehow inside me a decision was being made, as if a destiny had been suddenly announced: this is the instrument I am going to learn to play.

When I got back to the UK I began to play along on my guitar with sarod LPs that I found in London libraries. Only four years later, in 1983, I found an instrument in London’s Southall, at Britain’s sole Indian instrument store, and could find out what it was like to hold one in my hands. There I also found out that a sarod player would be visiting for the summer.

I started lessons with Gurdev Singh (who by chance was Amjad Ali Khan’s leading disciple) whenever he came to visit the UK and continued my studies with him for the next four years, i.e. until I left for Pune. There I studied further under Pundit Shekhar Borkar from 1989 to the mid-nineties and was lucky enough to be invited to play for the White Robe Brotherhood in front of Osho.

Looking back now over the thirty plus years since, I see my sarod as a wondrous vessel that has carried me over the deep ocean of Hindustani classical music, and repeatedly set me ashore on far-flung islands of adventure. Before I set forth to try to convey a little of those depths, or portray some of those islands, let me first describe the good ship sarod.

Like any Arab dhow, or British man o’ war plying the Indian Ocean trade in the days of sail, her hull is Indian teak, from the forests above the Malabar coast that supplied durable shipbuilding timber to Arabs, Portuguese and all other comers. Aged twenty years in the maker’s warehouse before being adzed into shape, I’m told – but that may be just one of the innumerable stories with which she is freighted. Her sails are goatskin, stretched tight to catch the faintest hint ruffled up by the ocean of sound below. She is rigged with high tension steel piano wires from her nineteen pegs and decked with chrome plating to receive the pressure of fingernails onto strings. All in all a wonder of East-West technology, combining traditional Bengali craftmanship with German industrial ingenuity that supplies the steel for her wires.

So then, as an instrument she must be a relatively modern invention? As stories begin to spill from her hold, who can say for sure? Her parentage is fabled to be in Afghanistan, where the gut-stringed rabab once spearheaded Pashtun armies as they marched into battle, and from where a khan, ancestor of today’s Ustad Amjad Ali Khan (whose concert so entranced me in Delhi that night) brought his rabab down to the plains of India a hundred and fifty years or so ago, to be refashioned into today’s sarod. Or not, if the treasurehouse of ancient fretless instruments in the Calcutta museum is to be taken account of, as many of them, much older, could have supplied a template for her.

Her eight playing strings are struck by a plectrum made of coconut shell, and here is my Ustad’s first job: to show me how to make one. (Gurdev Singh, my teacher, is a Punjabi Sikh, and Ustad is his honorary title as master and teacher.) I fetched a nut from one of the many Asian grocers that line the main street in Southall, West London’s ‘Little India’, and brought it to the house nearby where he was visiting for the summer. We squatted on the floor (there was no furniture in the rental house save a couple of beds) as he demonstrated, his sparse English smattered with Punjabi and liberally dashed with charming smiles. During my lessons with him there were comings and goings – the front door rarely locked – other students (I was the only non-Indian), fellow musicians, supplicants, listeners, hangers on, bringers of food (home cooked in sympathetic local families’ homes) – mostly male, all (except me) speaking Punjabi or slang-laden Hindi.

There are strict etiquettes to follow and abundant tales of musicians, historical and contemporary, to imbibe with the teaching: a sarod must never be disrespected by being touched with a foot, I learned (once I merely stepped over the instrument in passing, albeit without touching it, to general horror). The mention of famous, or well-regarded fellow musicians, should be accompanied by a respectful touch of the earlobe. I watched how Gurdev receives applause after a concert, holding the sarod up in front of his face to allow the instrument to take the limelight. Lessons were frequently chaotic, interrupted, or took the form of simply listening to a fellow student or Gurdev himself play, or driving him, his friends, or visiting musicians around town for hours on shopping and social visits. But when he did give me his undivided attention I followed him as he dived into the ocean of the music below.

We began, as tradition dictates, with raga Yaman Kalyan, considered by some the doyen of ragas, capable of expressing many of the moods that other ragas only touch individually. It is also one with the most demanding stretches for the left hand, as its rules determine that the intervals between the notes are maximal. As a long-time guitar player I could soon figure out that this was a Western major scale, but with a raised (sharp) fourth. The fifth, as well as any note higher, can only be played following that fourth. The tonic Sa (Western do) is only approached by way of the seventh below followed by the second above (in Western notation the move must be ti-re-do). Naturally taking all this in was not a job of a single lesson and I would have to come again and again merely to learn how to hold, tune and restring the instrument (including the eleven unstruck ‘sympathetic’ resonating strings), let alone play an accurate note on her. One of Gurdev’s visitors cheered me on by telling me how lucky I was that we are not living in the olden days when students spent the first year or more solely learning how to intone Sa correctly.

I heard many stories from the good ship’s hold. Ali Akbar Khan’s father, the legendary Allauddin Khan (earnest touch of earlobes all round) taught his son by tying his hair on the branch of a tree, so that when he was made to practice all night he couldn’t nod off. Then the story of Haridas who was the guru to Mian Tansen, one of the jewels of Emperor Akbar’s renaissance Mughal court in Delhi and creator of many famous ragas. Haridas renounced playing in public and had to be begged by the Emperor on his knees to perform at court (his conditions in agreeing was that the audience must sit without moving a muscle or making a sound – read Osho telling the anecdote in Now the Real Music Can Begin). Then about the Persian poet and Sufi mystic Amir Khusrau who is said to have invented the tabla and brought the four-stringed setar (forerunner of the sitar) from his ancestral land to the early medieval Delhi Sultanate. He was a key figure in the creation of the extraordinary fusion of Persian, Arabic and Turkish elements with native Indian music that became what we now call Hindustani classical.

As a complete newcomer to this musical culture I found plenty of room for blunders (just think of the difficulty of producing a note in tune on a fretless instrument and keeping the nails on the two first fingers from being ground away by the pressure on steel string and chrome plate!). For example, Gurdev helped me write down much of the music using Roman notation for the Indian names of the twelve notes of the scale (perhaps a nod to my being non-Indian, as Hindustani classical is traditionally learned by ear). So when I first graduated from simple exercises and was presented with a gat, or fixed melody, and a set of tans, or variations, I wrote them all down carefully. But when after earnestly practising these at home exactly as written I played them back to him, he just laughed. The sample tans he had given me were in fact improvisations, meant to be performed alternatively with repetitions of the gat. On the other hand I received a supreme compliment one day from a senior musician; he put his head around the door to a back room at Gurdev’s house, where I was furiously rehearsing, and commented to the effect that he couldn’t believe it wasn’t an Indian playing!

Blunders and wonders: the stories became part of the teaching. Osho also talked about Annapurna Devi, daughter of Allauddin Khan, who as a Muslim girl wasn’t permitted to present herself to the public. While her brother, Ali Akbar Khan, and Allauddin’s other notable disciple, Ravi Shankar, went off and became world famous, she stayed at home and was initiated into her father’s deepest musical secrets. She started performing in public only at the beginning of her ill-starred marriage to Ravi Shankar, which her father had arranged, while also changing her religion in the process. At some point her husband extracted a vow from her that she would give up playing music and hence no audience has heard her play these past fifty plus years. But her reputation endures and her select disciples, it is said – including flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia – still take the stairs up to her flat in Bombay to sit at her feet and learn.

In those early days I took my sarod everywhere, practising in the back of my car, in forgotten corners of foyers of convention centers to which my work took me, in little-frequented spots in airports. On reflection, it was actually the sarod beginning to fulfill her dharma and taking me to places I would never otherwise have gone; islands – some bejeweled, some haunted – that I would never otherwise imagined visiting. I will mention some of the places, but the details must be a story for another day. It brought me to Calcutta where a new sarod was made for me in 1986 by the hands of old Hemen Chandra Sen in his sawdust-filled shoe-box of a shop on Rashbehari Avenue. With his scrubby white hair and worn-out shirt and dhoti he would often be mistaken as a helper rather than the world-famous master craftsman that he was.

The sarod brought me to play in front of Osho in Buddha Hall after Milarepa, then co-ordinator of the Music Department, had heard me practise in a corner of the garden; to Ireland in 2002, where after performing for Paul McCartney at his wedding, he told me how one of my CDs had been on continuous play at his home for weeks; to Delhi in 2010 for high-profile performances at the Commonwealth Games and the British Council as part of a band I had formed together with some of the city’s best professional fusion musicians.

Today my sarod and I cruise calmer waters: the islands of New Zealand are relatively un-bejewelled (the music scene here permits me to be a big fish in a very tiny pond in a very unpretentious way) and un-haunted – I’m a family man now, happily past the hormone-driven excesses of ambition. Yet, she is still conducting me ever deeper into the ocean, although I no longer feel any need to prove myself or strive to impress the opposite sex with dazzling displays of virtuosity. So the new project I am working on with her (like my previous ‘Ragas Relax’) is based on alaaps (gentle explorations without rhythm) of six rare and intricate ragas. It takes everything we have learned together over these three decades both from teachers and stories to (paraphrasing Miles Davis) keep ourselves from playing too many unnecessary notes, so that we can just play the beautiful ones.

Chinmaya DunsterChinmaya is one of our regular contributors

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