The sarangi in the hands of Ram Narayan most revealingly expresses the very soul of Indian feelings and thought. I cannot separate the sarangi from Ram Narayan; so thoroughly fused are they, not only in my memory, but in the fact of the sublime dedication of a great musician to an instrument, which is no longer archaic because of the matchless way in which he has made it speak.”
Yehudi Menuhin, Violinist
It is not often that a legendary violinist of the stature of Menuhin exalts another musician to such levels. The only other musician to have earned similar appreciation from the master of violin was Pt. Ravi Shankar. But when Menuhin, who had spent his life playing a bowed instrument, came across Pt. Ram Narayan, he was ecstatic at the ability of a simple instrument carved out of a single block of red cedar wood, to imitate the human voice in a way even the violin could not. When the Global Indian Music Awards for Lifetime Achievement (Classical) went to Narayan in January, it seemed like a time for a much-needed replay — for a face that has been forgotten over the years.
It wasn’t a media-savvy face, the musician was shy, even reclusive. But when Narayan lay his hands on the gut strings of a sarangi’s chhati (chest) and moved the bow on its pet (stomach), the sympathetic strings would yield melancholic tunes. “Awards come and go but the fact that I was chosen to play this, is what gives me great satisfaction,” says Narayan over phone from Mumbai.
For many years, it was a sarangi’s mournful cry that announced funerals in India — of politicians, presidents and other important people. We would turn the knobs on our boxy radio sets while the sarangiya played a prelude for the newscaster’s announcement of “death news”. This grim image hides the fact that the sarangi was also the instrument of royal darbars and courtesans’ chambers, where women twirled in ecstasy and eventually penury.
Narayan, growing up in Udaipur, “ wanted to play music, not be the sarangiya in the background”. “It was a difficult instrument to play, requiring technique and precision. After my basic training from a number of gurus in Rajasthan, I decided to go to Lahore and learn from the legendary Abdul Wahid Khan,” says Narayan.
Narayan began working at All India Radio, Lahore, at a salary of ` 140 but came back after Partition to India and began accompanying musicians such as Omkarnath Thakur, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Hirabai Badodekar. Soon, he became a go-to sarangiya for Bollywood composers such as Naushad, O.P. Nayyar, Shankar Jaikishan and Madan Mohan. “Their respect changed many things but the sarangi remained in the shadows. Nobody looked at it as anything other than an accompanying instrument,” says Narayan, whose Europe tour in the early ’60s with brother Pt Chaturlal (the tabla maestro featured on all of Shankar’s LPs before Allah Rakha began playing with him) changed things.
“Foreign audiences accepted the sarangi as a more sensitive version of the violin and saw it as a solo instrument. I stopped accompanying even the legends, a price to resurrect the instrument to the level it has attained today,” says Narayan. He gave thousands of solo concerts in the country. “Sarangi adds colour to a concert. I hope it survives the ravages of time. You will soon see that it is a happy instrument, too,” says Narayan.