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More about the Surbahar

by Deepak Raja

The Surbahar is to the sitar, what the cello is to the violin. In appearance, it looks merely like an enlarged version. In acoustic features, it is a bass version. But, its technique and idiom are quite different from its smaller predecessor.

The Surbahar is a large-size bass sitar, with a flat rather than rounded gourd at the base, and an optional rounded sitar-type, gourd-resonator at the top. In its contemporary form, the Surbahar has a string-count identical to the present-day sitar, the difference being in the thickness of the strings, the pitch at which the instrument is tuned, and the tuning system covering four octaves.

Its construction gives the Surbahar a deep, sonorous, long-lasting sound. The extra width of its stem enables the execution of meends of upto a full octave. These features facilitate the parsimony of strokes as well as left-hand movement between frets, which are required to deliver a higher degree of melodic continuity.

The invention of the Surbahar, around 1825, is attributed, variously, to Ustad Sahebdad Khan, the father of the legendary Ustad Imdad Khan, and a lesser- known Lucknow-based early 19th century sitarist, Ustad Ghulam Mohammed. The latest research favors the latter attribution.(Miner.1993).

The purpose of developing the instrument was to enable sitar-players to present the elaborate dhrupad-style alap traditionally performed on the rudra veena. The logic for a special instrument for performing the alap rested on the sitar being, at that stage, technically inadequate for the purpose. With the help of the alap presentations on the Surbahar, sitar players virtually eclipsed the rudra veena.

The idiom of the Surbahar achieved great sophistication, as is indicated by the evidence that, initially, it was plucked, like the rudra veena, with bare fingers, but has been played, at different stages and by different musicians, with one plectrum, two plectrums, and even three plectrums.(Miner.1993)

Until well into the 20th century, leading sitarists habitually presented the dhrupad style alap on the Surbahar, followed by post-dhrupad styles of compositions on the sitar. As the sitar itself evolved technically and stylistically, it took over, and added further sophistication to the dhrupad style alap. As a result, over the last six or seven decades, the Surbahar has suffered a steady depletion in the number of competent performers, although not in the size of audiences.

In the Dhrupad tradition, the most distinguished performer on the Surbahar, in recent years, has been Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan of the Seniya Gharana. As a rule, he performed only alaps on the Surbahar, and the percussion- accompanied repertoire on the sitar. But, his idiom on the Surbahar was a most faithful reproduction of the Rudra Veena.

In the sitarist tradition of the Surbahar, Ustad Imdad Khan (1848-1920), the grandfather of the contemporary sitar maestro, Ustad Vilayat Khan, was a landmark figure. This tradition is being perpetuated currently by his grandson, Ustad Imrat Khan. In the sitarist tradition of the Surbahar, the instrument is still used only for performing the alaps, while the percussion- accompanied repertoire is presented on the sitar.

The performing traditions of the Surbahar are in search of a meaningful role for the instrument, and hence, of a distinctive repertoire which can help it to survive. Surbahar performance has evolved around two distinct traditions: the Dhrupad tradition, which still regards the Surbahar as the closest approximation to the Rudra Veena and the post-Dhrupad, sitarist tradition which treats the Surbahar as a specialist instrument for the sitar- type alap form.

Historically, comprehensive raga-presentation, including the percussion- accompanied repertoire, is an insignificant phenomenon in Surbahar music. The crucial distinctions between the two traditions are, therefore, of style and technique. The Dhrupad-inspired Surbahar idiom follows the traditional music of the Rudra Veena, while the post-Dhrupad, sitarist, tradition is allowing Surbahar music to drift towards post-Dhrupad forms of melodic expression in order to remain esthetically compatible with the trends in sitar music.

In the sitarist tradition, musicians are increasingly reluctant to accept the challenge of mastering two substantially different instruments. There is meager incentive for doing so considering the enhanced acoustic sophistication, versatility and melodic potential of the contemporary sitar. The problem is similar in the Dhrupad-Surbahar tradition, though compounded by the decline in the popularity of the Dhrupad genre itself.

However, in the wake of a Dhrupad revival which commenced in the 1980's, Surbahar players are attempting to enlarge repertoire of the instrument to include percussion accompanied music, and to give the instrument a decent chance of survival.

Despite being rare, the Surbahar remains an important part of the instrumental tradition of gharanas of dhrupad and Dhrupad-inspired music such as the Seniyas and the Dagars, and the Imdad Khan/Etawa gharana of the sitar. Amongst the lute family instruments, it remains unmatched for its acoustic richness and melodic potential.

The Surbahar performing tradition presents a paradox of growing demand for musicianship, and the shrinking supply of talent. The most important factor militating against the popularity of the Surbahar is its cumbersome size, which makes it difficult and expensive to transport. This is a major handicap considering the national, and even, international spread of audiences for Hindustani classical music.

The other hindrance to its growth is that, ergonomically, it is an exceptionally demanding instrument, and requires a performer of above-average physical health and dimensions. These hindrances to the growth of Surbahar music are integral to the design and acoustic character of the instrument, and could remain insurmountable.

Ironically, the Surbahar, originally developed by sitarists to help them compete effectively against the Rudra Veena, now finds itself eclipsed by the re-engineered contemporary sitar. But, the dialectics of the cultural process being what they are, the Surbahar might yet get a fresh a lease of life from the Dhrupad-inspired traditions which treat it as a Rudra Veena substitute.

(c) Deepak Raja September 25,1999

Deepak Raja
Bombay, MH India