An Instrument of Change

Shubhayu Sen Mazumdar

The plaintive esraj, slowly comes into its own, because of two young crusaders

The sight and sound of the esraj are familiar in Bengal. It is the standard accompanying instrument with any Rabindrasangeet recital. A Rabindrasangeet singer may or may not prefer the keyboard or the guitar, but the esraj finds a place on the dais. This ubiquity, though, has come at a price. For most listeners, the instrument has slipped into the rather unjust classification, "accompanying instrument". The esraj is as much a classical instrument as its bowed counterpart, the sarangi. Unfortunately, it has steadily been pushed towards accompaniment in Bengal, northern India and Pakistan, where it is played alongside ghazals.

To make a classical foray, an instrument needs a maestro as an ambassador who lures listeners to his music, and in turn, acquaints them with the instrument. (Pandit Ram Narayan — sarangi; Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma — santoor; Kadri Gopalnath — saxophone). The esraj could have had that maestro in Pandit Ashesh Bandyopadhyay of the Bishnupur Gharana. But Bandyopadhyay spent his life at Vishwa Bharati in Shantiniketan; he was reluctant to travel the three hours to Kolkata for recitals, let alone to other parts of the country. Bandyopadhyay's brightest disciple, Pandit Ranadhir Roy was another great exponent, but Roy passed away in 1989 at 45, just as he was becoming synonymous with his instrument. After Roy, the esraj was virtually orphaned on the classical stage. Only recently, two young exponents, both in their 30s, have emerged as possible crusaders for the instrument. It is too early to call it a revival, but Shubhayu Sen Mazumdar and Arshad Khan are certainly conscious of their responsibility.

Khan's grandfather, Ustad Ahmed Banne Khan, was a sarangi player and his father, Allauddin Khan, is an esraj player, both from the Delhi gharana. As a boy, Khan could choose either instrument; he chose the less popular esraj. His father had played a role in keeping the esraj alive in northern India and Arshad wanted to carry the legacy forward. Apart from the Bishnupur style practiced by classical esraj players in Bengal, Allauddin's Delhi gharana style is the only other established classical style of playing the instrument. "My father had dedicated his life to popularising the instrument and I felt that I should continue in his path rather than choose the sarangi, just because it's more popular," says Khan. Mazumdar's reasons were simpler. He is from Shantiniketan, where the esraj is a part of the general soundscape. His father was a friend of Pandit Ranadhir Roy and there was almost natural consensus that he would learn from Buddhadev Das, a disciple of Roy. He graduated in music from the Vishwa Bharati University, Shantiniketan, and did a Master's in the esraj.

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