Above a dozen clanking Gizri mechanic workshops, the hiss and spit of carburetor cleaners, two students are laboriously practicing Taat Bilawal under the watchful ear of Gul Muhammad, one of Pakistan’s last two active professional Sarangi players. His students sit cross-legged, upright with ramrod backs on the floor of Gul’s small room. Their Sarangis rest lightly against their left shoulders, their elbows move to and fro as they struggle to synchronize their bow strokes. “Clean! Clean!” Gul urges them. It should be a clean sound. When one student skips into another beat, Gul teases him, “Stop turning somersaults...”
There is an old joke in music circles that once upon a time two criminals were given the death sentence. When they come before the king, he tells them he will grant them one dying wish. One of the criminals slyly says, “I want to learn the Sarangi.” He knew just how many years it takes to even master the basics, thereby buying himself a long reprieve. The king turns to the other man. “And what is your dying wish,” he asks.
The second criminal points to the first one: “I want to learn from him,” he says.
Gul tells this joke, thoroughly amused with it but this humour does not do justice to conveying just how difficult it is to master this instrument, a feat he accomplished in his teens. Today he is just one of the two people in the entire country who play it professionally, a shocking testament to the death of this culture, for the Sarangi’s history in the Indian Subcontinent stretches so far back, that its origins are shrouded in myth.
The history of the Sarangi
The word ‘Sarangi’ is commonly understood to be a combination of ‘Sau’ (hundred) and ‘Rang’ (colour) or that which carries within itself a hundred colours. Its etymology is unclear. If you ask a Hindu musician, they may tell you that its predecessor was invented by Ravana, King of Lanka. Upon hearing the rustling of a bamboo twig against a gourd, Ravana was inspired to pull a nerve from his own body, stretch it across a stick and tie it to a gourd. He used this instrument to sing hymns in praise of Shiva.
A Muslim musician on the other hand, is likely to credit the Sarangi’s invention to a sage who began to hear soothing music from an unknown source as he rested beneath a tree after many days on foot. He looked high and low until his eyes came upon the dried guts of a monkey (in some versions a goat) stretched between two branches. The wind blowing through these ‘strings’ created the sounds he was hearing. The sage carefully removed the monkey’s guts and installed them onto a wooden plank which he worked on until he arrived at the present form of the Sarangi.
All of this mention of guts warrants an explanation. The three primary strings of the present day Sarangi are known as ‘gut strings’ as they are mostly made out of the first layer of the intestines of cattle. If you ever happen to solder one of them with a flame, the odor will quickly transport you to a Karachi street in Bakra Eid. Many others credit the invention of the Sarangi to Sadarang, the famous court musician of Muhammad Shah, the twelfth Mughal emperor who reigned in the 18th century. Ethnomusicologists, however, deem this attribution incorrect.
Fast-forward to a more recent past. The annexation of Oudh in 1856, Wajid Ali Shah’s deportation to Calcutta, the new Indian elite with their Victorian morality, and the rise of the Arya Samaj did not bode well for the mirasis (a traditional musician caste), the kothewalis (courtesans), and especially not for the Sarangi. A new instrument had arrived on the Indian music scene in the late 19th century: The harmonium (invented in 1842 in France by an Alexandre Debain). In fact, the harmonium’s entrance roused such protective feelings for the survival of the Sarangi that the All India Radio banned it in its broadcasts from 1940-1971 (when it held a seminar reconsidering the decision).
The Sarangi is associated with much more than just courtesans and kothas. In Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Sarangi-playing jogis devoted to the 11th Century Saint Gorakhnath wander the streets singing nirgun bhajans (hymns to a formless Absolute Being). Sindhi, Rajasthani, Pakhtun and Kashmiri bards use the Sarangi or instruments of its family to tell epics and tales of devotion. In Punjab, the Sarangi is most prominently heard in religious Sikh epics and has a long relationship with the Gurdwara and the Guru Granth Sahib.
What is a Sarangi?
It is a heavily ornate wooden instrument. Sarangis usually have a mihrab (prayer niche) and a minar (minaret) carved into them. The fingerboard has a fish engraving which was an emblem of the kingdom of Awadh. The bridge is in the shape of an elephant, a royal animal, and a leaf motif forms the frame for the fingerboard. The thirty-six tuning pegs are carved into either fish or leaf motifs.
The Sarangi’s technique
The Sarangi was the main instrument to accompany singers in Indian Classical music. Vocalists such as the revered Kishori Amonkar believed that it was the only one that could satisfy the demands of Indian Classical music because of its ‘sliding’ meend technique which creates a sound said to be closest to the human voice. The melodic ornamentation that the sliding technique creates is a dialogue between the Sarangiya and the vocalist.
Even though it was widely accepted that the harmonium could not create these nuanced micro-tonal melodies, it quickly grew in popularity and replaced the Sarangi as the main instrument for vocal accompaniment. Many reasons are given, such as how the harmonium was a ‘ready-to-play’ instrument compared to the Sarangi which demanded years of training as it is fretless. A player would have to learn complicated and often-changing fingering techniques.
The Sarangi requires arduous tuning, not only of the three main gut strings but also of its thirty-six steel resonant strings. There is a theory that a Sarangi accompaniment makes a greater demand of, and diverts attention from the vocalist, which is why some singers began to prefer lighter accompaniment through the harmonium instead. There was disapproval of the ‘tempered tonal scale’ that the harmonium was tuned in, as compared to ‘just intonation’ or the ‘harmonic scale’ that Indian Classical music uses.
The Sarangi in Pakistan
Pakistan has been home to several maestros of the dying art of the Sarangi such as Ustad Bundu Khan, Ustad Nathu Khan, and Ustad Allah Rakha. At present, it is unclear how many players exist in the rural areas but we know of only two professionally active ones in urban Pakistan. They are: Zohaib Hasan of the Amritsari gharanain Lahore, and Gul Muhammad of the Hoshiyarpuri gharanain Karachi.
Gul’s grandfather: Ustad Ghulam Muhammad
Gul’s great grandfather Ustad Ghulam Muhammad (1910-1974) was born in Hyderabad Deccan and spent a lot of time in India with Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who along with the legendary tabalchi Ustad Dawood Khan was employed in the court of the Nawab of Hyderabad Deccan, Bahadur Yar Jung. Ustad Ghulam Muhammad would go on to marry the Nawab’s sister-in-law.
There are not many accessible recordings of Ustad Ghulam Muhammad on the Sarangi but from this we can deduce that the Sarangi accompaniment in many, if not most of the recordings of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, is that of Ustad Ghulam Muhammad. He accompanied many legends, including Pandit Bhimsen Joshi.
Upon the passing of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan in 1968, Ustad Ghulam Muhammad migrated to Faisalabad, as his heart did not agree with living in India without the company of the maestro. Once he was in Pakistan, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan introduced him to producers at Radio Pakistan Lahore where he was then employed and would go on to perform with some of the most popular vocalists in the history of the country, such as Ustad Mehdi Hasan and Roshan Ara Begum. It is also said that Ustad Mehdi Hasan would make special requests for the accompaniment of Ustad Ghulam Muhammad.
Ustad Ghulam Muhammad trained his son Ustad Bashir Husain as a vocalist. Ustad Bashir Husain though, disheartened by the economic state of affairs of his father despite the respect he commanded as a classical musician, left music and spent the rest of his professional life as a lawyer.
Ustad Akhtar Husain
Ustad Ghulam Muhammad’s grandson Akhtar Husain aspired to become a Sarangi player just like him after attending concerts in India—but he was only fifteen years old when Ghulam Muhammad passed away. After spending some time in Punjab with vocalists such as Tufail Niazi and Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, Ustad Akhtar Husain moved to Sukkur to become a student of the great harmonium player Ustad Ashiq Husain in order to continue his musical education.
Ustad Akhtar Husain chose Ustad Ashiq Husain because he had been a student of his grandfather for a long time. Along with Ustad Ashiq Husain, Ustad Akhtar Husain also spent time under the tutelage of renowned Sarangi players of Sindh such as Ustad Majeed Khan, Ustad Nathu Khan, Ustad Nabi Bakhsh, and Ustad Umrao Bundu Khan. Ustad Akhtar Husain also worked for Radio Pakistan Khairpur for over twenty years.
Gul Muhammad in Sukkur
Gul Muhammad represents the fifth generation of Sarangi players in his family. Between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, he spent a lot of time with his maternal grandfather, Ustad Mushtaq Husain. Gul’s maternal side of the family also belongs to the Hoshiyarpuri gharana and plays the tabla. His grandfather, Ustad Mushtaq Husain, was a student of tabla legend Ustad Talib Husain Khan and the teacher of many tabla maestros, including Ustad Asif Ali, who still performs on PTV.
Ustad Mushtaq Husain had set up a small private music academy in Sukkur and Gul was given the responsibility of cleaning it and properly arranging all the instruments before opening and closing the ‘club’. Not only did he perform his duties with great devotion, but he also spent all his remaining time by his grandfather’s side while he taught or performed. It was here that Gul was taught the taal or tala—the musical metre.
Ustad Akhtar Husain was reluctant to pass the art onto his children because of the poverty he had experienced. At most, he was booked twice a month and paid Rs1,500. He tried to supplement this income by playing at shrines but could only earn Rs200 to Rs300 for an entire night of playing.
Working for Radio Pakistan Khairpur did not offer a fixed monthly salary. Ustad Akhtar Husain then turned to tailoring and ironing coats to put food on the table. Ironing one coat with a coal-run iron in Sukkur’s heat earned him two rupees and he spent all day doing this along with his wife. This didn’t leave him much time to practice. Going months without then became the norm.
But when Ustad Akhtar Husain did practice, Gul would listen. As it was in bad taste to have his son idly listen to him practice, Ustad Akhtar began to teach Gul music theory. He began with vocal training and after a few sessions, tested Gul. Much to his surprise, he saw that the young man was actually grasping everything. This went on for two years.
“I was taught music by being given a hamd-o-naat to practice in the correct Raag,”says Gul.“There was no difference between my musical and my religious training. This is exactly how my great grandfather, Ustad Ghulam Muhammad taught my father.”
Gul would wake up to say his prayers and then practice the devotional Raag Bhairav. “Everything is sound. Our heartbeat is sound. When a doctor checks your pulse, he’s actually checking if you’re in rhythm.” Wo check karraha hai ke iska tempo out to nahi hai? “If you’re an arrogant person, you can’t follow a rhythm. You need to be well-tempered in order to be in rhythm.” Practicing the twelve notes is “meditation.” There’s breath control just like yoga.
“A naatkhwan who hits the right notes can restore faith, I say he can even bring us into the presence of the spirit of the one who is being praised! Whoever learns the twelve surs or notes achieves inner peace and is able to judge anyone by the sound of their voice.”
Gul’s comment about the doctor checking for the pulse is a reminder of the place music held in medieval Islamic philosophy. Al-Kindi and Ibn Sina are known to have authored detailed treatises connecting music to physiology (not to mention their own experiments with it as a therapeutic device). Ibn Arabi charts a soteriology of sound and listening in his Futuhat Al-Makkiyyah. For those interested, a good place to start is Fadlou Shehadi’s book, ‘Music in Medieval Islamic Philosophy’.
Gul Muhammad in Karachi
When the National Academy of Performing Arts was formed in 2005, there was nobody in Karachi who could teach the Sarangi. But fortunately, Ustad Akhtar Husain came highly recommended.
It was at this time that Gul had started to apprentice with his mamu, a tailor, back in Sukkur. But it became clear that he was not cut out for this kind of work and reduced himself to just sewing on buttons. In the middle of this mind-numbing drudgery, Gul received the most thrilling phone call of his life. His father wanted him to visit Karachi.
“I had only been to Faisalabad, Lahore, and Sukkur—I had never seen a city like Karachi.” It was during one of his visits to NAPA that a Ghazal singer and faculty member Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, ghazal singer, persuaded Ustad Akhtar Husain to teach Gul the Sarangi.
“That day, abbu had a serious talk with me. He told me I could become a tailor if I wanted to,” says Gul. But if that was not the case, he had to decide. As the young man was failing at school, and tailoring, it became clear. At his government school, the teacher did little more than scrawl something on the board and disappear.
“Abbu gave me two options: he said I could enjoy my time in Karachi and return to Sukkur and continue my training as a tailor, or that if I were to join the music industry I should do so only by taking up the Sarangi as this is our family’s heritage.”
Gul did not have to think twice.
In Karachi, it was not an easy life. Initially, when he taught at NAPA, Ustad Akhtar Husain used to sleep in the courtyard of the Bara Imam Imambargah in Kharadar. It turned out that its custodian also belonged to a family of classical musicians. Master Shafi offered Ustad Akhtar Husain a small room with no roof and was used to store fodder. Ustad Akhtar Husain had to install the roof himself.
“It’s Karachi’s oldest Imam Bargah – many musicians including Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan have done their riyaz there,” says Gul. “I feel lucky and blessed to have also done my riyaz there. They would also help train nohakhwans and marsiyakhwans, abbu has even composed salams and marsiyas on the Sarangi.”
Gul and his father could not afford the bus fare of Rs4 from Kharadar to NAPA. So they walked instead. Gul lived there for six years between 2005 and 2011 and his father continues to live there to this day.
Gul Muhammad at NAPA
An anonymous donor made a donation to NAPA out of which Gul was to be given a monthly wazifa of Rs2,000. A stipend, enrollment at NAPA, and faculty such as Ustad Azra Salamat Ali Khan (the ghazal singer), Ustad Bashir Khan (Pakistan’s tablastar), and Ustad Nafees Ahmed, a sitargenius and the Head of Department for Music – Gul was elated being in Karachi.
With Ustad Nafees Ahmed, Gul performed the ‘ganda bandhna’ ceremony, which formally initiates a learner into an Ustad-Shagird (Master-Disciple) relationship. The teacher takes an oath with God as witness, swearing that he will not hide anything from his student. The ceremony involves Quranic recitations upon a thread which is tied to the student’s wrist, four witnesses, and three offerings for the Ustad: a mithaii ka dibba, a kapray ka jora, and a nazrana. Following this ceremony, Gul spent whatever free time he had between classes doing riyaz in Ustad Nafees Ahmed’s office, under his supervision.
“I believe every music gharana is simply a different style of music, I’m not shy of learning from as many of them as I can. It doesn’t hurt my pride. Some musicians turn this into a huge issue – but I’m okay with it. I’ve also learnt to play the Sarangi for kathak performances from the Samraat kathak gharana based in Hyderabad. I got to work with Raju Samraat sahib and Hayat Ali Khan. You see, a Sarangi player has the responsibility to learn multiple genres because of the versatility of his instrument.”
Gul says that NAPA’s Performance Wednesdays for all students gave him stage confidence. Eventually, four students, Gul (sarangi), Ahsan Bari (vocals), Alan Simon (tabla), Zeeshan Pervez (bass guitar), and Josh Fernandes (drums), formed a band called Taal Charisma.
NAPA gave them space to practice and they would arrive four hours before classes to jam and compose. They did around a hundred shows and once at T2F, Rohail Hayatt was in the audience. “After our performance, someone from Coke Studio contacted me through my father since I didn’t have a mobile,” recalls Gul. He ended up playing for Shafqat Amanat Ali’s Aankhon ke Sagar. “I felt really proud and motivated after participating in Coke Studio. People started to recognize me, I started getting more work, I made some money.”
This opened doors to a project with Suhaee Abro and the support of Ahsan Bari. Gul is also a founding member of another band, Sounds of Kolachi, a Karachi-based ensemble that ‘blurs Raga and Western harmony’. The first song Suna tha Allah hi dega of their first album Ilham was awarded Best Traditional Song of the Year 2019 by the Shaan-e-Pakistan Music Awards.
Along the way, he was commissioned to conduct workshops at places such as Aga Khan University, Habib University, Iqra University, Greenwich University, University of Oxford, the University of North Carolina, the Istituto Volta and the Alessandro Volta High School, Italy.
A future in music
“Doing music full-time is the most difficult thing in the world, but this is an art that requires you to commit to it full-time, you can’t do it with another part-time job,” says Gul. “Becoming a classical musician requires at least six to eight years of rigorous training. So if I let go of everything and commit myself to my practice, I need a source of income so as not to become a burden on my family.”
Gul now teaches in his father’s place at NAPA and at the PECHS Girls School which has a tradition of employing senior classical musicians. Two other Sarangi maestros: Ustad Hamid Ali Khan and Ustad Umrao Bundu Khan worked there. This means that Gul has an intense schedule in which he teaches 8 classes of 30 children from 8am to 1:30pm with only a fifteen-minute break halfway through.
He knows far too many classical musicians who have left their craft because it cannot put food on the table. The music Gul produces amounts to only about 15% of his monthly income. The bulk comes from teaching but then he can only squeeze in a maximum of four hours of practice a day.
“I have had many days on which I practiced on any empty stomach,” he says. “You can’t fight your family and your hunger just to learn an instrument.”
Bor, J. (1987). The voice of the sarangi: An illustrated history of bowing in India. Bombay: National Centre for the Performing Arts.
G, Goutam. (1989). Sang-e-Meel Se Mulaqat (Meeting a Milestone). Presented by the National Film Development Corporation, Sangeet Natak Academy, and the Indian Council for Cultural Research.
Shehadi, F. (1995). Philosophies of Music in Medieval Islam. Brill. doi:https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004247215
Qureshi, R. (2000). How Does Music Mean? Embodied Memories and the Politics of Affect in the Indian "sarangi". American Ethnologist,27(4), 805-838. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/647396
Jamil, S. (2008). "I feel like a knight when I play the sarangi," Ustad Akhtar Hussain. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://jang.com.pk/thenews/mar2008-weekly/nos-23-03-2008/kol.htm
Audio feature produced by Asad Shakeel.