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Appendix S5: Before the Harmonium: The Sarangi


As we made our entry into the topic of ornamentation and intonation of Indian music, it is quite important to see the instrument which was used before the harmonium to accompany musicians. This instrument had the ability to do all ornamentations, do justice to all intonations, and change intonations to add flavor as well as bring out the unique characteristic of each raga. It was a sweet sounding instrument which made people laugh, smile, worship, meditate, as well as made people feel sorrow and cry. This instrument is the sarangi. The word sarangi comes the words “sau” and “rangi” which means “of one-hundred colors.” Figure S5.1 shows a sarangi.

Figure S5.1


It was understood that the sarangi was invented when a piece of dead monkey tail was tied up over a log. Once when a traveling musician was walking in the forest and heard such a beautiful sound. That sound was the wind blowing against this tail tied to a log. He took it upon himself to create a playable instrument.


This instrument has four main strings which are made of goat gut. The body of this whole instrument is made of wood with a goat skin belly. In addition, there is the magical component of the sarangi, which the thirty-seven sympathetic strings, also known as tarafs, that vibrate when a specific note is played. There are two sets of tarafs. One is tuned chromatically, while the other set is tuned to the notes of the raga to be performed. This creates a truly rich sound when played. The sarangi is used because it is instrument which sounds the closest to the human voice. The emotions of the human voice can be faithfully reproduced through the sarangi.


The sarangi, however, was the most difficult instrument. The instrument did not have a fingerboard or any type of frets or note markers. So understanding where the twelve notes are in various saptaks required one to really know one’s instrument. Sarangi is not like the harmonium, where you would be able to any harmonium. Each person’s sarangi will be different. There are so many strings to tune, as well as retune. The goat skin belly will change from temperature differences. As the skin might stronger or weaker, the strings will change accordingly. If you ignore the playing aspects, this instrument is physically demanding. You produce the note by inserting the string in between your fingernail and fingertip. From there, you slide up and down to create ornamentations of Indian music, as well as simply traveling from note to note. This was the accompanying instrument of Indian music.


Back in the 1500s, public dancers, courtesans, and harems took up to music. Their preferred instrument was the sarangi. Because it was difficult to play as well as difficult to endure causing unsightly calluses, it was slowly faded away. In more religious settings, brahmanas, or the priest class of India, wanted to use the sarangi for their religious music. However, their issue was the fact that the sarangi consisted of strings made from the gut of a dead goat. Since it was an offense to touch such an abominable thing, the sarangi faded out. The only place the sarangi remained at was at classical North Indian vocal music. When the British missionaries came over to India, the harmonium was introduced. Indian musicians took it up as an advantage, as it was a floor model, two hands were not needed to play melody, and it was easy to carry. There was no need to tune and it was much easier to learn than the sarangi. The sarangi only was survived through classical solo instrumentals.


Even though this might not have anything relevant to harmonium, it is important to see what was before the harmonium and appreciate the intensity of Indian music.

UPDATED: June 18, 2009