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also: classical sarangi, sarang, saranga

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Contextual Associations

The sarangi is a bowed bowl-lute chordophone of northern India and Pakistan. There is a great variety of South Asian bowed lutes called sarangi, with the one pictured and described here more accurately called the “classical sarangi” because of its use in North Indian or Hindustani classical music (see Gaine sarangi for an example of another type of South Asian sarangi). For the most part, sarangi players were Muslim hereditary musicians belonging to family lineages of specialists called khandan. Their primary musical role was to accompany singers of classical and light-classical vocal genres (audio #1), the chief performers of which were, historically, courtesan singers. Since the middle of the 20th century when India became a nation (in 1947) the aura of disrepute that surrounded courtesan singers led to the demise of their profession, and by extension to that of their sarangi accompanists. Added to this, another instrument, the harmonium, had by this time become an alternative to the sarangi for accompanying non-courtesan vocal soloists, and the harmonium was not shackled with past dubious social associations. During the latter half of the 20th century, a few sarangi players turned themselves into instrumental soloists (audio #2), but the art of sarangi playing was no longer being transmitted through the khandan and the instrument was losing currency. Today, while there are still active classical sarangi players, the instrument “is widely considered an anachronism, a remnant of India’s past” (Bor, Sorrell, and Magriel 2014, p. 386).


The sarangi pictured here (gallery #1 and detail #1) is made from a single block of tun wood (Cedrela toona) hand carved into four sections: tailpiece, resonator, unfretted neck, and bi-sectional pegbox (Bor, Sorrell, and Magriel 2014, p. 384). The tailpiece (targahan, detail #2) is a long and narrow shelf-like extension located at the otherwise flat bottom-end of the resonator, its front and bottom faces laminated with bone, to which all of the instrument’s strings are anchored. The resonator is a slightly-tapering rectangular bowl, rounded on the backside (detail #1) and slightly waisted on its open top face to form and hourglass-shaped opening that is covered with goatskin soundboard glued to its rim (gallery #1). The neck section is also slightly tapering from bottom to top and is hollowed out from its back side, which is left open (detail #1). The wall that divides the resonator from the neck has a 1.6” diameter sound hole carved in it (detail #3).  The neck’s front face (detail #4) is decorated with strips of bone and has numerous small holes drilled in it that are lined with small beads of bone called sundari. These serve as the nuts for the numerous sympathetic strings the friction tuning pegs for which (numbering twenty-one on this instrument, see detail #1) pass horizontally through the sides of the neck; their pegheads are arranged in three rows on one side of the neck (detail #5, middle). The lower part of the bi-sectional pegbox is hollowed out from behind; its front face is mostly closed but has two decorative openings that are carved all the way through (detail #6). Four lateral friction tuning pegs with large pegheads, two on each side, pass through this section of the pegbox. The upper section of the pegbox is likewise hallowed out from behind, but not as deeply as is the lower section. Nine further sympathetic-string pegs are vertically mounted into this section from the front side of the pegbox (detail #6), the backside of this section of the pegbox is closed with a separate square-shaped piece of wood. This instrument supports thirty-four strings in all, thirty-one sympathetic strings (called tarab) made of metal wire (two tarab strings are currently missing) and three thick gut playing strings, all of which pass over or through a stylized elephant-shaped pressure bridge (ghoraj) made of bone which stands vertically on a leather strap (tasma) that passes horizontally over the resonator soundboard (detail #7). One end of the vibrating length of each string begins at the bridge, while the other end is articulated by contact with a nut. For the twenty-one sympathetic strings with tuning pegs on the side of the neck, the nuts are the circular sundari inlayed in the fingerboard (detail #4); for the three main playing strings, a 2.5-inch-long bone bridge (ar or addhi) that rests against the fingerboard near the top of the neck serves as their nut (detail #4); and for the nine tarab strings connected to the front-mounted tuning pegs at the top end of the peg box, these pass over one or the other of two rectangular wood bridges that rest against the front face of the lower half of the pegbox (detail #6). The design of these nuts adds a buzzing sound to their vibrating strings created by a subtle ridge added to their otherwise flat surface. This buzz (called javari) can be maximized by the placement of a thread between the flat surface of the nut and the strings that pass over it. A convex wood bow (gaz or khamani), about the same length as the sarangi itself, strung with horsehair is used to sound the three main playing strings (the bow pictured in gallery #1 belongs to another instrument but approximates the design and size of an actual sarangi bow). (Much of the information in this paragraph, especially the Hindi names of instrument parts, was found in Bor, Sorrell, and Magriel 2014, p. 384.)

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

A sarangi performer sits cross-legged on the floor placing the bottom end of the resonator on a pad of bundled cloth in front of his legs, positioning the sarangi vertically (as in gallery #1) with the rounded back of the resonator against his left ankle, the back of the pegbox resting on his left shoulder, and the soundboard and fingerboard facing forward. The bow is held in the right hand with an underhand grip and is moved back and forth across the three gut playing strings just above the bridge. The player’s left hand slides up and down the left side of the neck (the side without the tuning peg heads) and the upper left side of the resonator, and from this position the player applies lateral pressure to the playing strings, free-stopping them with the fingernails of his middle three fingers. These strings are not stopped against the instrument’s fingerboard. This technique allows for the production of a melodic line that can be rich in inflections, much like the human voice. The instrument’s numerous sympathetic strings are not directly excited by the performer. Rather, the energy given off by the notes produced on the main playing strings sets these strings into vibration sympathetically, producing a subtle background resonance. The tuning of the sarangi is difficult to talk about due to a number of reasons: first, it can vary from performer to performer; second, sarangi vary in the number and distribution of their sympathetic strings; third, the tuning system of Indian classical music itself is neither fixed to specific frequencies for its pitches nor has the system been tweaked into equal temperament; and fourth, each modal structure (rag) to which a piece or improvisation is set has a specific intervallic makeup. Consequently, the tuning of the various sets of strings on the sarangi will be presented here in very general terms. The three main playing strings are tuned in intervals of fourths and fifths with the first string (in gallery #1, along the right edge of the instrument) tuned to the tonal center or “sa” of the rag (mode) being performed (the frequency of “sa” is not standardized). The main playing string to its left would be tuned to either a fourth or fifth below it, and the third playing string to the “sa” an octave below the first string. One set of sympathetic strings, located in a vertical column on the left side of the neck (see gallery #1) are tuned to the five, six or seven notes of the rag being performed at the moment. The other thirteen sympathetic strings emerging from the fingerboard are tuned to all the pitch possibilities (twelve) found in one octave of the Hindustani tonal system. The tuning of the sympathetic strings controlled by the frontal tuning pegs at the top of the instrument vary the most from player to player, but one strategy is to tune them to the most important pitches of the rag being performed. If nothing else, one can imagine that the tuning of a sarangi for a performance is a complex and time consuming task, especially if the player regularly accompanies different vocalists each of which has a preferred frequency for their “sa”. When used as a solo instrument, the sarangi player is accompanied by the tabla and a drone-producing instrument such as the tambura (this combination is heard in audio #2).


Deciphering the history and evolution of the classical sarangi is challenging due to the use of the word “sarangi” to name a wide variety of Indian folk and court chordophones (not all of them bowed) and the scarcity of its mention in literary and theoretical works. Its first clear application to a bowed lute is from the late 16th century, and the earliest depiction of a precursor of the instrument dates from 1640CE during the Mughal period (Bor, Sorrell, and Magriel 2014, p. 384). However, it seems that the coming together of a critical mass of crucial design features allowing us to recognize an instrument as the immediate precursor of the modern classical sarangi occurred in Delhi in the 1860s (ibid., p. 385). A century before this the instrument had already made the transition from a folk to a classical music instrument and was closely associated both with vocal genres such as khayal, ghazal, and thumri and with the courtesan singers of these genres (ibid.).

Bibliographic Citations

Bor, Joep, Neil Sorrell, and Nicolas Magriel. 2014. “Sarangi (1-5).” GDMI v.4: 383-386.

Inde du nord: Pandit Ram Narayan, Sarangi. n.d. 33-1/3 rpm record with notes by Trân Van Khê. OCORA OCR 69.

Sorrell, Neil. 1980. The North Indian Sarangi: Its Technique and Role. Ph.D. Dissertation, Wesleyan University. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International.