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The Sarangi: A Case Study In Colonialist Texts

Updated: Dec 5, 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 among other hot-button issues which may be uncomfortable or new to some audiences. Given the time constraints, I perhaps should have continued with my talk by discussing more details of the musical repertoire, instead of merely introducing the complexities of "Nautch" dance and British Imperialism without being able to fully present the issues thereof.[4] To be honest, when I prepared for my talk, I hadn’t considered that mentioning the colonial period would have elicited such a response.

Nautch girl with musicians on tabla and sarangi [5]

Much new research on the sarangi has taken place in the last decade which answers some of the questions I have raised (see my suggested readings at the end of this post). The Grove article on the sarangi was last updated in 2001, and the bibliography includes articles and books dating from between 1966-1987, and thus, does not include the newer research which deconstructs many of the early sources. Furthermore, in the Grove text, the author states that the instrument went out of fashion due to its difficulty to play. That to me seemed like a leap. Many instruments in India’s vast musical traditions are difficult to play. Why would that be a reason this specific instrument would be given up?

Three Reasons for the Sarangi’s Decline (not eradication!):

1. Attending Nautch dance was deemed immoral due to the sensual nature of the dance by incoming Christian Missionaries in the mid-late 19th century. According to journalist Ally Adnan, in the mid-late 19th century, a large number of Christian missionaries arrived in India (after the Suez Canal opened). “The missionaries frequently opposed the performance of nautch, among many other things, by terming it anti-Christian, immoral and repugnant. Officers of the British Raj, who had heretofore been patrons of nautch girls, were asked to not attend nautch performances.”[6]

2. Class/caste issues for musicians

Ethnomusicologist Max Katz hypothesizes that within Hindustani musical traditions, a hierarchy or caste system emerged between soloist and accompanying roles. Since the sarangi player typically played an accompanying role, he (yes he) was potentially stigmatized. Katz

states that “despite the artistic renown of a given musician, membership in a community of accompanists negated one’s eligibility to claim membership in a “tradition.”[7]

3. Introduction of the harmonium

Ethnomusicologist Matt Rahaim sythesizes research from Qureshi and Bor, by stating that “harmoniums began to replace the sarangi as the principal melodic accompaniment for khyal and thumri vocalists. The sarangi faced many obstacles to wide acceptance in new urban concert settings, such as its association with the musical world of courtesans, the amount of time required to tune it for each raga, and the technical difficulty of mastering it. [He posits that] "the harmonium, in contrast, was free of associations with courtesanry, could be tuned months ahead of time, and was easy to learn. Because the intonation of a harmonium depends far less on the skill of its player than that of a sarangi, [and] even amateurs could become passable harmonium accompanists."[8]

A Sarangi Revival?

The sarangi experienced a revival in the 20th century. Ethnomusicologist Dard Neuman states: The degraded classes of musicians [including sarangi players] eventually “took the musical world by storm, defining dominant trends in the 20th century…[and] the present-day scene for Hindustani music has resulted from the rise of superstar musicians from the ranks of the accompaniment class”[9]

In Master Musicians of India: Hereditary Sarangi Players Speak, Regula Qureshi, a sarangi player herself, presents an oral history of the major musicians and living traditions from the 20 and 21st centuries. She is careful to point out, however, that many of the master players in the hereditary traditions are of advanced age, and issues of colonialism and nationalism still exist.[10] But the instrument is more visible, due to its presence on Youtube, the website