Why a Mughal-era instrument is disappearing from Pakistan’s music scene music news

In the shadow of Lahore’s centuries-old Badshahi Mosque, Zohaib Hassan plucks the strings of a sarangi and fills the streets with a distinctive melody.

Remarkable for its resemblance to a plaintive human voice, the classical instrument is disappearing from Pakistan’s music scene – with the exception of a few players who are working to preserve its place.

Difficult to control, expensive to repair and with little financial reward for professionals, the sarangi’s decline has been difficult to halt, Hassan told AFP.

“We’re trying to keep the instrument alive, not even considering our miserable financial situation,” he said.

His family has mastered the short-necked stringed instrument for seven generations and Hassan is highly respected throughout Pakistan for his skills, appearing regularly on television, radio and at private parties. He also teaches the instrument at an academy he founded in Lahore.

“My family’s enthusiasm for the instrument forced me to pursue a career as a sarangi player, leaving my education incomplete,” he said.

“I live hand to mouth as most directors arrange music programs with the latest orchestras and pop bands.”

Zohaib Hassan plays the sarangi at the historic Mughal-era Lahore Fort in Lahore [Aamir Qureshi/AFP]

Traditional instruments compete with a booming R&B and pop scene in a country where more than 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30.

Sara Zaman, a classical music teacher at the National Council of Arts in Lahore, says that not only the sarangi are dying out, but other traditional instruments like the sitar, santoor and tanpura are also dying out.

“Other disciplines, like popular music, have been given platforms, but in the case of classical music, they have been absent,” she said.

“The sarangi, which is a very difficult instrument, was not given the importance and attention it deserved in Pakistan, leading to its gradual demise.”

“The Strings of My Heart”

The sarangi rose to prominence in Indian classical music in the 17th century during the Mughal rule of the subcontinent.

Its decline in Pakistan began in the 1980s after the deaths of several master players and classical singers in the country, said Khwaja Najam-ul-Hassan, a television director who has compiled an archive of Pakistan’s leading musicians.

“The instrument was very dear to the internationally acclaimed classical music singers, but after their deaths it began to fade,” he said.

Sarangi musical instrument
Traditional sarangi are laid on the carpet at a music academy in Lahore [Aamir Qureshi/AFP]

Ustad Allah Rakha, one of Pakistan’s most recognized sarangi players worldwide, passed away in 2015 after a career of performing with orchestras around the world.

Now players say they struggle to survive on performance fees, which are often much lower than what modern guitarists, pianists or violinists are paid.

Carved by hand from a single block of cedar native to parts of Pakistan, the primary strings of the sarangi are made of goat gut, while the seventeen sympathetic strings – a common feature of folk instruments of the subcontinent – are made of steel.

The instrument costs around 120,000 rupees ($625) and most of its parts are imported from neighboring India, where it remains a staple of the canon.

“The price has gone up as there is an import ban from India,” said Muhammad Tahir, the owner of one of just two repair shops in Lahore.

Pakistan downgraded its diplomatic ties and halted bilateral trade with India over New Delhi’s decision in 2019 to strip Indian-administered Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status.

Tahir, who can spend about two months meticulously restoring a single worn-out sarangi, said nobody in Pakistan makes the special steel strings due to the lack of demand.

“There is no admiration for sarangi players and the few people who repair this wonderful instrument,” said Ustad Zia-ud-Din, the owner of the other Lahore repair shop, which has existed in some form for 200 years.

Efforts to adapt to the modern music scene have shown promise.

“We invented new ways of playing, including the semi-electric sarangi, to improve the sound in performances with modern musical instruments,” Hassan said.

He has now performed several times with the adapted instrument and says the response has been positive.

One of Hassan’s few students is 14-year-old musician Mohsin Muddasir, who eschewed instruments like the guitar to take on the sarangi.

“I’m learning this instrument because it plays the strings of my heart,” he said.


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