Nearly 80 years ago, an itinerant sadhu left behind a battered sarangi at the house of Nathuji Biawat, a landowner in Mewar, Rajasthan. For an act so lacking in import or intent, few could have perceived its melodic ramifications. Fewer still could have predicted the tortuous trail of events that would lead up to the Rashtrapati Bhavan some day. The day was last fortnight when a wizened old man reached out to accept the Padma Vibhushan for his contribution to music. For his enduring efforts to revive an instrument that, as a five-year-old, he had found battered in more ways than one.
"This award is for my struggle to promote the sarangi and for the battle I waged to make it a solo instrument," says Pandit Ram Narayan sitting in his two-room flat that resembles a museum. Brimming over with awards and plaques, Padma Shree and Padma Bhushan citations, it hints at his towering achievements. The success is all the more stark considering that he is the lone protagonist engaged in reviving the sarangi, intent on returning to it its lost glory. So even at 78 Narayan is as single-minded about his passion as when he discovered the instrument in the 1930s. At the time, the sarangi, despite its illustrious past, had been reduced to being an accompaniment and was vanishing from public performances. Related to the Pinaki veena and the ravanahasta that find mention in Indian mythology-Ravana played a simple sarangi made by tying a ghungroo (bell) to his bow-the sarangi was used by bards and minstrels in their travels. Later it drifted to courts where sarangi players made a living as accompanists to courtesans. But the courtesans went out of fashion after Independence and the harmonium replaced the sarangi as an accompaniment to vocalists.
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|STRIKING A CHORD: Narayan with the sarangi |
It was at this juncture that Narayan stepped in, promoting and popularising it as a solo instrument, so much so that it has come to be used as the chosen fiddle for accompanying khayal, dhrupad, thumri and other semi-classical forms. "Pandit Narayan is a purist and has combined powerful technical ability with traditional approach to create a sound very appealing to the heart," says vocalist Girija Devi.
Narayan's first guru was his father but later he trained under Pandit Udaylal and Madhav Prasad. At 14, his prodigious talent secured him his first job-a teacher at a school in Udaipur at Rs 50 per month. The money got him new clothes, a watch, freedom and respect. But aware of the boy's tremendous potential, Prasad advised him to train under Ustad Abdul Wahed Khan in Lahore. Narayan went to Lahore in 1942 but failed to trace Khan. With no money to return, he sought out music producer Pandit Jivanlal Matoo, who worked at the Lahore radio station. Impressed with his skills, Matoo immediately appointed him as a staff artist.
"It was a sweet struggle, but I believe in God. If one is true to one's art God opens many doors," says Narayan who went on to play with renowned vocalists on radio. After Partition, he left Lahore and became a staff artist at the All India Radio, Delhi, where he played with masters like Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, Pandit Krishnarao Pandit and Hirabai Barodekar, all of whom advised him to shift to Mumbai in order to make it big. While he continued to accompany vocalists in Mumbai, he was also drawn to the silver screen and went on to work in films with music legends like Raichand Boral, Roshan and R.D. Burman. But, "I was frustrated. The sarangi deserves better treatment", says Narayan. "I was also distressed by the treatment meted out to accompanists and the restrictions it imposed on my creative and artistic expressions and aspirations. I stopped playing for films and accompanying artists and decided to go solo," he adds.
It wasn't easy. Other musicians scoffed at his efforts, unable to reconcile to the fact that the instrument could be accorded solo status. It would have been easy to abandon sarangi for singing as other noted sarangi players-Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan-did. But Narayan stood firm, even travelling to Germany and France among other places to popularise it. The world was duly struck with his music, attracting admirers like Pablo Casals and Yehudi Menuhin. "The sarangi remains not only an original Indian bowed instrument, but the one which most poignantly and, in the hands of Ram Narayan, most revealingly expresses the very soul of Indian feelings and thought," said Menuhin. "I cannot separate the sarangi from Ram Narayan so thoroughly fused are they in my memory."
Narayan hopes the sarangi will never find its way to the museums. Which is why he has initiated his son Brij Narayan to the sarod and his daughter Aruna Kale and grandson Harsh Narayan to the sarangi. Narayan has also collaborated to write a book, Indian Music In Performance. The reason the sarangi disappeared, he says, is because of overzealous players who began competing with vocalists. The strains of the sarangi, closest to human voice, are meant to fill up the gaps during vocal renditions. "But sarangi players exceeded their role and irritated and distracted the vocalists," he adds.
As for modern trends, Narayan opines, "There is too much noise in the name of music. Don't blame the listeners who are looking for excitement. It is the fault of the musician who is trying to satisfy the fringe audiences." But he hopes for a silver lining. "I am a musician's musician and am passionate about my sarangi," he says. As he picks up his beloved instrument for yet another performance, he adds, "I shall continue my battle for the cause of the sarangi. I will be reborn to continue my sadhana until the battle is won." Narayan does, after all, hail from the land of Rana Pratap.