The Sarangi: A Case Study In Colonialist Texts

Updated: Dec 6, 2018

Fiddle (sarangi) and bow, 19th century Fiddle (sindhi sarangi), mid 19th century

India Possibly Kotah, Rajastan, India

Museum of Fine Arts 2005.205 Museum of Fine Arts 1985.725

By Jayme Kurland

In 2016, I was asked to give three short gallery talks as part of the Museum of Fine Arts annual Diwali celebration (a Hindu holiday). I decided to focus on the sarangi, a Hindustani fiddle used as an accompanying instrument in traditional Northern Indian music. I used, as my examples, two 19th-century instruments from the collection (above). These talks are introductory presentations fifteen minutes in length and therefore it is difficult to go into too much depth about a topic. After discussing the construction of the sarangi, playing a short video, and discussing its general context of performance, I gave a brief overview of the known history and chronology of the instrument. Grove Dictionary and many other sources mention that before and during the British Imperial Period (1858-1947):

The sarangi “had become associated with dancing girls [nautch girls], and this social stigma has been given as a main reason, along with the sheer difficulty in playing it, for the instrument’s decline in the 20th century.”[1]

I mentioned this brief detail at the end of my talk, while also stating that the instrument’s popularity has been increasing over time in the late 20th and 21st centuries. And that basically covered my 15 minute time allotment.

After my talk, a woman approached me and was offended and livid that I mentioned the British Imperial Period and the instrument’s association with courtesans. She asked me:

  1. In such a short talk, why was it necessary for me to bring up such a painful period in India’s history on a night meant to celebrate Indian traditions?

  2. Where did I get the information about the instrument being associated with courtesans? She argued that the instrument remained popular throughout this time and remains popular today, especially in her and her family’s experience.

I was taken aback, and I felt embarrassed for perhaps perpetuating colonialism in my discussion. I admitted to her that while I was not an expert in this subject, and actually showed her some of the source material and photographs I had consulted. This became an opening for a real discussion about the issues surrounding colonial-era histories.

Ethnomusicologist Regula Qureshi, states that while the sarangi has a long history of use in various traditions, dating back to the 11th century, “the story that dominates the sarangi happens at the side of the courtesan singer and dancer (the “nautch girl”), in the hands of her teacher- accompanist-manager whose sarangi music supports her amorous song melody as well as her dazzling footwork. Hence the sarangi is inexorably linked to the licentious and immoral social space where a women offers her art, and by implication, herself.”[2]

Dance historian Priya Srinivasan asserts that ‘nautch’ was a broad term the British used to cover dances from all over India.[3] So what we see here is that even the genre associated with the sarangi is a broad colonial era term. As historians, we have a responsibility to prevent erasure and share many facets of history, which means sharing the complexities of colonialism