Krsna Kirtana Songs est. 2001 www.kksongs.org
History of the Esraj
The esraj had somewhat obscure roots, as many people do not know the exact time and date the esraj was created. However, it can be estimated to date around 200 to 300 years of age.
BEFORE THE ESRAJ: SARANGI
Before the esraj, the main instrument used to accompany vocal was the sarangi. The sarangi is a bowed instrument containing four strings made of goat gut, with thirty-seven sympathetic strings. Back in the 1500s, courts had public dancers and harems who took up to music. In their music, sarangi was a vital instrument which needed to be mastered. However, sarangi is very difficult instrument in technique and in tolerance. The sarangi's strings float in the air without a fingerboard of frets. In addition, there are so many strings to tune. To add to the torture of learning this instrument, sound production is not done with the finger tips, but with the finger-nail. You insert the string between your fingertip and fingernail and slide up and down to create the ornamentations of Hindustani music. People come complain about pulling leather with their palms, let along sliding it through your fingernails! Those who have the tolerance will have disfigured fingers in the end.
In more religious settings, since the strings were made of gut, brahmanas, or the priest caste, were not willing to play this instrument. To alleviate these problems, musical instrument makers decided to create such an instrument which has the same sarangi, fluidity, technique, and style, yet much easier on the hands and technique. The first creation was the esraj. The esraj had a sitar's neck which allowed players to identify which note they are hitting. The strings were made of metal which were much easier on the hands.
Other inventions which came about to imitate the sarangi was the dilruba (esraj with a bigger resonating body with more sympathetic strings), tar shehnai (esraj with a metal horn to imitate shehnai sounds), taus or mayuri vina (a Punjabi dilruba), and bela bahar (a violin with a goat-skin belly with sympathetic strings to imitate the sarangi's outlook). None will actually capture the full sarangi feel. Yet, these inventions by incredible intelligent inventors are humble attempts to not dishonor the instrument, but rather honor the instrument which is next to the human voice.
UPDATED: June 20, 2009