Contemporising the sarangi

11 min read
30 Mar 2017
11 min read
1410 words
Through Project Sarangi, Kiran Nepali hopes to preserve the music of the sarangi, modernise its sounds and encourage more Nepalis to incorporate the instrument in their performances

For ages, the Gandharvas played an important role in Nepali society. They served as minstrels and messengers who would carry news from village to village by incorporating information into their songs. Sarangi in one hand and bow in the other, the Gandharvas would play tunes and sing stories—in exchange for food, money or shelter. However, with the advent of the telephone, radio, television, and the like, the Gandharva way of disseminating information became obsolete, and the minstrels got relegated to being mere entertainers working Kathmandu’s tourist districts—performing for tourists—or hopping on buses that ply long-distance routes, performing for passengers.

“Sarangi and the music associated with it is often perceived as old-fashioned by the younger generation”

Most Gandharvas today have also given up on singing altogether and have resorted to working other professions. Most of them work low-end jobs in brick kilns, tea estates, farms and hotels. Owing to this dismal turn of affairs, the Gandharva way of life is on the verge of flickering out, and with it, their instrument, the sarangi, too is in danger of becoming obsolete.

But one Gandharva, Kiran Nepali, decided to take it upon himself to preserve—if not the lifestyle—at least the art form, the stories and the instrument through which his ancestors earned their daily bread. That’s why in 2012, he and his brother, Shyam Nepali, created Project Sarangi, an initiative to help sarangi makers as well as performers across Nepal.

When Kiran was a child, Kiran’s grandfather would discourage him from playing the sarangi. His grandfather would tell him that traditional sarangi playing and storytelling—both once vibrant art forms—had long stopped being relevant in a changing Nepal. His grandfather never stopped reminding him that the life of a Gandharva was one filled with hardship, that sarangi players were regarded as low caste people, and that there was no point in continuing a tradition that only further reinforced hidebound notions about what a Gaine designation signified. But Kiran knew he could work with Gandharva music to have it mean so much more.

The first step taken by Project Sarangi was to establish a home-based, small-scale sarangi manufacturing factory in Kirtipur. Sarangi-making involves carving a short neck and a hollowed-out body from a block of wood—usually saaj, sisau and khiro, among others. The carved wood is then dried, after which four strings are strung across the instrument’s neck and body—between the pegs on one end and past the bridge and an anchoring point at the other. With this design, the instrument is able to produce notes that cover almost two octaves. The sarangi is always accompanied with a bow that is similar to that of a violin. Earlier, the bowstring would be made of horsehair; today, it is commonly made out of nylon. Since its setting up, the factory has provided employment opportunities to many sarangi makers—Gandharvas who might have otherwise switched professions, which in turn would have led to sarangi-making become a lost art that much faster.

But Project Sarangi isn’t just about a sarangi-manufacturing factory. It is a full-scale, long-term project that involves a team of musicians, performers, photographers and graphic designers. Together, the team has been working to provide a multi-purpose platform for sarangi players as well as sarangi makers. At the Project Sarangi office in Sanepa, around 15 non-Gandharva sarangi enthusiasts are taught the finer nuances of sarangi-playing by professionals like Kiran himself. Kiran is of the opinion that it is also important to make additions to the usual repertoire made use of in traditional sarangi music and that it needs to be modernised in order to have it speak to the younger generation. “Sarangi and the music associated with it is often perceived as old-fashioned by the younger generation,” says Kiran. “Many youngsters today learn the guitar, for example, because that instrument is so prominently featured in popular music. We want to someday be able to have the sarangi carry a similar connotation. However, if there are no advancements in the music itself, there won’t be many who will be interested in playing the instrument, and the chances of the sarangi’s survival will dip lower.”  

Kiran’s modern sarangis come with pickups—meaning his sarangis allow him to explore new ranges of sound

To save sarangi songs from obsolescence, Kiran and his crew have also tried to devise methods for modernising the sarangi’s music. The process begins with the instrument itself. Kiran’s modern sarangis come with pickups—meaning his sarangis, which can be plugged into speakers, allow him to explore new ranges of sound. Similarly, the sarangis can now also be connected to iPads and the sounds captured can even be looped mid-performance to allow performers more possibilities of mixing and matching their sound outputs.

The music style that is usually associated with the sarangi—that of the traditional accompaniment parts as played by the Gandharvas—is also being tweaked by Kiran. The musicians at Sarangi Project are encouraged to come up with variations that will fuse well with several other genres, such as blues, jazz, RnB, and even dubstep. They are also encouraged to widen their knowledge of other forms of music. “As long as the musician is familiar with the genres, it is possible to incorporate sarangi music into any genre,” says Kiran. “Quite a few textures and tones can be produced in our modernised sarangis, in contrast to the usually melancholic notes that the sarangi was known for in the past.” Today, some sarangi players have figured out ways to produce notes that blend perfectly with even electronic dance music.

The musicians at Sarangi Project are encouraged to come up with variations that will fuse well with several other genres, such as blues, jazz, RnB, and even dubstep

Kiran has also focused on changing one significant aspect of the sarangi and sarangi players—earlier, even if sarangi players were roped in to perform with other performers, they would mostly have to make do with playing accompaniment roles. Today, in several musical shows around Nepal and abroad, the sarangi player is the frontman of the music act. Project Sarangi has experimented with variants beyond the band format too. In October 2016, the project organised an event called ‘Jamarko’, in which sarangi players from different parts of the country gathered to perform together on a common platform. This event featured a sarangi orchestra and fusion and solo performances. At the event, two craftsmen demonstrated for the attendees techniques for carving a sarangi out of a block of wood and explained the manufacturing process.  

And just this March—which was declared ‘Sarangi Month’—Project Sarangi organised a set of events, in association with Base Camp, Jhamsikhel. Although only 10 shows had been planned initially, the performers ended up doing 45 shows, with up to six shows in a day, because of popular demand. Spurred on by receptions such as their most recent one at Base Camp, Project Sarangi has already begun planning new programmes—among others, they’ll be establishing a new training centre for sarangi players.

Kiran’s grandfather probably discouraged him from having anything to do with the sarangi because he knew that the life of a Gandharva—either as a wandering minstrel or of a performer at shows—didn’t promise much. The Gandharvas of generations before Kiran’s would play important roles in society, no doubt, but even as they sang songs that captured Nepal in all its colours, the players themselves were never accorded the dignity they deserved. Kiran, through Project Sarangi, hopes to not just preserve the sarangi’s sounds, but also have the instrument and its players finally garner the respect they deserve.