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An Instrument of Change

The plaintive esraj,slowly comes into its own,because of two young crusaders

Written by Arunabha Deb | New Delhi | Published: June 28, 2012 3:57:00 am

The plaintive esraj,slowly comes into its own,because of two young crusaders

The sight and sound of the esraj are familiar in Bengal. It is the standard accompanying instrument with any Rabindrasangeet recital. A Rabindrasangeet singer may or may not prefer the keyboard or the guitar,but the esraj finds a place on the dais. This ubiquity,though,has come at a price. For most listeners,the instrument has slipped into the rather unjust classification,“accompanying instrument”. The esraj is as much a classical instrument as its bowed counterpart,the sarangi. Unfortunately,it has steadily been pushed towards accompaniment in Bengal,northern India and Pakistan,where it is played alongside ghazals.

To make a classical foray,an instrument needs a maestro as an ambassador who lures listeners to his music,and in turn,acquaints them with the instrument. (Pandit Ram Narayan — sarangi; Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma — santoor; Kadri Gopalnath — saxophone). The esraj could have had that maestro in Pandit Ashesh Bandyopadhyay of the Bishnupur Gharana. But Bandyopadhyay spent his life at Vishwa Bharati in Shantiniketan; he was reluctant to travel the three hours to Kolkata for recitals,let alone to other parts of the country. Bandyopadhyay’s brightest disciple,Pandit Ranadhir Roy was another great exponent,but Roy passed away in 1989 at 45,just as he was becoming synonymous with his instrument. After Roy,the esraj was virtually orphaned on the classical stage. Only recently,two young exponents,both in their 30s,have emerged as possible crusaders for the instrument. It is too early to call it a revival,but Shubhayu Sen Mazumdar and Arshad Khan are certainly conscious of their responsibility.

Khan’s grandfather,Ustad Ahmed Banne Khan,was a sarangi player and his father,Allauddin Khan,is an esraj player,both from the Delhi gharana. As a boy,Khan could choose either instrument; he chose the less popular esraj. His father had played a role in keeping the esraj alive in northern India and Arshad wanted to carry the legacy forward. Apart from the Bishnupur style practiced by classical esraj players in Bengal,Allauddin’s Delhi gharana style is the only other established classical style of playing the instrument. “My father had dedicated his life to popularising the instrument and I felt that I should continue in his path rather than choose the sarangi,just because it’s more popular,” says Khan. Mazumdar’s reasons were simpler. He is from Shantiniketan,where the esraj is a part of the general soundscape. His father was a friend of Pandit Ranadhir Roy and there was almost natural consensus that he would learn from Buddhadev Das,a disciple of Roy. He graduated in music from the Vishwa Bharati University,Shantiniketan,and did a Master’s in the esraj.

The link between the esraj and Shantiniketan dates to Rabindranath Tagore. Alpana Roy,a Rabindrasangeet singer and wife of Randahir Roy,says,“The instrument was one of Tagore’s favourites and in his time,it was mandatory for all students of Rabindrasangeet to also learn the esraj.” They were not required to learn it as a full-fledged classical instrument,but enough to play it alongside Tagore’s songs. Later,through the efforts of Pandit Ashesh Bandyopadhyay,esraj players began to explore the classical potential of the instrument. Eventually,it became a part of the graduation course and when graduating esraj players could not find a place to pursue a Master’s in the instrument,the university decided to structure a post-graduation course. Unfortunately,this rigorous classical training has not produced too many solo classical exponents. The plaintive tone of the esraj sits rather well with the melodic ethos of Rabindrasangeet —perhaps too well — and the coupling encouraged by Tagore has led to a host of esraj players who only play with Rabindrasangeet. “It’s obviously much less work to accompany. Most esraj students from Shantiniketan figure out quite easily that they can make enough money by playing with Rabindrasangeet. So there is no real drive to work hard as a classical soloist,” says Mazumdar,“That is why,in spite of at least two esraj players completing their Master’s every year,there are hardly any soloists.”

By the age of 25,Mazumdar had become the top accompanist; every Rabindrasangeet singer wanted him. “I was getting a lot of attention,a fair bit of money,but I wasn’t doing justice to my instrument. I wanted to break that image of the esraj,always seen next to a Rabindrasangeet singer,always following a song,” he says. He wanted listeners to perceive the esraj as an independent instrument. His greater worry was that listeners of his generation,specially outside Bengal,probably wouldn’t recognise an esraj if they saw or heard one. This is a concern shared by Khan and perhaps that is the reason why he is excited about the work he is doing in Mumbai. He has played for films like I Hate Luv Storys (in the song Bahara) and in My Name is Khan (in Noor-e-Khuda). In the upcoming Coke Studio he has played for composer Hitesh Soni. “I am happy that youngsters will now get to see the esraj. Maybe that will help them relate the sound with the instrument when they next hear it on an audio track,” he says.

Mazumdar,too,has his hands full with commercial recordings and now plays with all genres. He says,“More types of music means more listeners. And more listeners I introduce to the esraj,I feel I am doing something worthwhile for the instrument.”

But both are conscious of preserving their classical taalim. They are aware that the full potential of the instrument can be realised,and more importantly,best showcased in solo classical recitals. As classical artistes,their playing styles are not similar. Khan plays the traditional esraj while Mazumdar plays a modified version of the instrument that was designed by Pandit Ranadhir Roy. (Roy’s version is larger and has a deeper sound.) Both of them have worked hard on achieving a clean tone that immediately draws in the listener,but they improvise differently. Khan follows the gayaki of the Delhi gharana,replicating on the esraj what a vocalist of the Delhi gharana would present in a recital. He also seems to view the esraj in a comparative framework with the sarangi. This is not surprising: the sarangi has historically been regarded as the instrument that can best replicate Hindustani vocal. “Anything that can be achieved on the sarangi can also be achieved on the esraj,” he says. Mazumdar,though,feels that the esraj should be kept distinct. “It (esraj) is a fretted instrument unlike the sarangi,so there is a structural difference. I like to use the frets to play elements of the sarod and the sitar rather than just treat the esraj as a vehicle of replicating vocal music. It is an independent instrument,” he says.

Whatever their approach,their classical endeavours have been noticed. Both perform at regular classical concerts and prioritise these over their continuous studio commitments. Every year,Alpana Roy gives out an award in the memory of Ranadhir Roy to a classical musician under the age of 45. The award ceremony is held in Shantiniketan (on July 4 — Ranadhir’s birthday) and is followed by a recital by the recipient. Khan was awarded in 2010. This year,it is Mazumdar’s turn. He is only 31,the youngest recipient of the award. But Roy has her reasons for not waiting longer. “I am apprehensive that he may get carried away with popular and commercial music. I hope this award gives him a sense of his worth as a classical musician and encourages him to stay on that path.”

Arunabha Deb is a Calcutta-based music writer

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