Meet India’s first woman sarangi player

Malini Nair | Updated on August 15, 2019 Published on August 09, 2019

The power of one: Kalle Narayan has never played as an accompanist, choosing to follow the solo path

Aruna Kalle Narayan inherited her music from her father, but the decision to play the sarangi was her own

Eyebrows shot up in Lucknow’s elite music circles when Swiss academic Regula Qureshi said she wanted to learn how to play the sarangi way back in 1965. In her fascinating work on the cultural and social history of the sarangi, How Does Music Mean? Embodied Memories and the Politics of Affect in the Indian Sarangi, the ethnomusicologist and cello player writes about the horrified reactions:

“What made you choose this of all instruments?” “Why don’t you play a nice instrument like the sitar?” Then, more privately: “Decent people do not play the sarangi. It is a very disreputable instrument.” And, in a lowered voice: “This instrument belongs to the kotha.”

Our collective cultural memory of the sarangi is hugely skewed. In Hindi films, it only appeared at the tawaif’s salon, played usually by a caricature of a degenerate in a garish satin waistcoat. And anyone who remembers the years of Doordarshan monopoly will recall the sarangi as the official instrument of state mourning.

Caught in this identity crisis, it is no surprise then that it was not until 1973 that an Indian woman actually picked up the squat bowed instrument that produces incredibly beautiful sounds. Aruna Kalle Narayan, 64, is the daughter of sarangi maestro Ram Narayan, 92, who redefined the instrument’s position on the concert stage. And she is the first Indian woman to play the sarangi as a professional musician.

Now based in Toronto, Kalle Narayan is a low-profile, self-effacing musician, reluctant to be dragged into the role of a trailblazer. “In all its history, the sarangi never enjoyed social respectability. But I love the instrument and, like my father, believe that the sarangi has to be out there, in the mainstream, played solo. More women need to feel that they can pick it up and master it,” she says.

The sarangi evolved as an accompanying instrument for folk ballads, and was especially favoured by ascetics across faiths — Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. With its uncanny resemblance to the human voice, it found its way to the music soirées of courtesans, syncing with the singer’s voice.

Though the sarangi moved to the concert stage with time, it stayed in the shadows as an accompanying instrument. Ram Narayan was among the greats who gave it its rightful place as a solo concert instrument.

For as long as she can remember, the Narayans’ family home in Mumbai’s suburban Bandra rang with the sound of the sarangi. And every time her father played, to teach, do his riyaaz or perform, she recalls sitting right up front, listening keenly or playing the tanpura for him.

But it was not till she was 18 that the thought to learn the instrument even crossed her mind. When she finally mustered up the nerve to ask her father to teach her, he replied with a simple, “Kyon nahin (why not)?”.

Ram Narayan tells BLink he was actually thrilled to hear of his daughter’s interest in the sarangi. “Mujhe kabhi koi jhijhak nahin thi (I never hesitated to teach her),” he says. “He was a very forward-looking man for his generation, never forcing any of his four children to follow his path or bringing up question of gender when I asked him,” the daughter adds.

Her first instrument which she plays to date, she says, was spotted by her father — in the hands of an itinerant sadhu in Nashik.

Notwithstanding its low social status, the sarangi is one of the toughest instruments to master. Like the violin — and unlike the sitar or the sarod — it has no frets, the grooves that mark the notes, and has to be mastered by feel, sense and experience.

“My father was an incredible teacher and had made the sarangi more accessible to his students, modifying the instrument so that we didn’t have to deal with the struggles he had,” says Kalle Narayan, who gave her first performance at the NCPA within three years of her first lessons. She was also with her father when he, along with tabla maestro Ahmed Khan Thirakwa and surbahar player Annapurna Devi, held masterclasses at the NCPA.

She continued learning from her father after she married and moved to Pune, shuttling between the cities. She recalls one of her two scholarships coming to an abrupt stop after her marriage. “When I asked the foundation why they’d stopped paying me they said: ‘We thought since you got married you wouldn’t pursue the sarangi’. I was shocked — how do you make a presumption like that,” she asks.

The sarangi found a fan following in the West in the ’60s, when Ram Narayan took to touring there in search of new audiences. “Since they did not have any preconceived ideas about the sarangi and because they knew of string instruments such as the violin and cello, they took to it,” she says.

The sarangi has now been edged out of the stage as the most popular accompanying instrument and replaced by the harmonium. “It was very unfortunate this happened and my father always argued that the harmonium was at odds with the human voice,” she says.

But something good came of this: The sarangi was forced out of the shadows.

Kalle Narayan herself has never played as an accompanist, choosing to follow the solo path while collaborating with other genres. She has worked with Canada’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, replacing a violin solo with the sarangi in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. She has also composed music for The Kronos Quartet of San Francisco. But since the sarangi has a very small audience for solo performances, she has yet to find the place she deserves in Indian music circles.

Time has eroded the gender and cultural taboo on sarangi. Chennai-based Manonmani, a student of Ghulam Sabir Khan, is a skilled artiste. And among Ram Narayan’s students is another accomplished woman musician, Vasanti Shrikhande, 51. Twenty years ago, when a health problem forced her to discontinue vocal music, Shrikhande looked for an instrument with the full of range of emotions a human voice could express. To her surprise, Narayan took her as a shishya when she was 31.

“He is a sadhak so everyone is welcome to learn. But when I joined some people did ask, ‘Why not the sitar or the violin’,” she says. That sounds eerily like the question thrown at Qureshi half a century ago. Shrikhande answers with a question: “The sarangi represents the soul of the raga, the entire range of the human voice. What could be more fascinating?”


Malini Nair is a journalist based in Delhi;


Published on August 09, 2019
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