The Story of the Sarod

Ever since man was first fascinated by the twang of an arrow leaving an archer’s bow, stringed instruments have played a key role in the musical development of many of the major civilizations. The discovery that a plucked string’s sound could then be emphasized by positioning the string next to an air chamber, for example a hollow log or cavity, led to the development of early stringed instruments.

The Sarod is a fretless stringed instrument with an extended air chamber under the fingerboard. This differs from other Indian stringed instruments such as the Sitar or the Tanpura, which have an air chamber only at one end. Combined with the skin covering on the drum end of the instrument, the extended air chamber gives the Sarod a unique and clearly identifiable depth of sound.

It is commonly believed that the Sarod has its origins in the Afghan Rabab, a smaller stringed, lute-style instrument played while marching or riding into battle. Three Afghan horsemen from the Bangash tribe are said to have migrated to India around 200 years ago bringing the Rabab with them. Over the years these three settled in northern India, first taking up jobs as soldiers under different kings of the time. In addition to their fine horsemanship, their musical skills were noticed and the Afghans soon found their way into royal courts where their talents were utilized.

The families of these three continued the tradition of Rabab playing, however, over time, Indian music and instruments, especially those of the Veen(a) family, influenced the Afghan Rabab playing style as well as the instrument itself. An advantage of native instruments over the Afghan Rabab was the ability for the strings to sustain an echo, which allowed for slides on the string, already typical to Indian music. Gradually, instruments began to influence one another giving rise to new creations, such as the Sur-Shringar, which replaced the Tanseni Rabab’s skin drum with one of wood, its alabaster fingerboard with metal, and the silk strings with those of metal, thus better allowing the typical Indian musical characteristics to be applied. Later sympathetic strings were added which further embellished the sound quality of the instrument. These three changes, namely the metallic fingerboard and strings, and the addition of the sympathetic strings were a major influence on the development of the early Sarod.

A contradictory claim is that the Sarod and Rabab had their origins in northern India. Traces of similar Rabab style instruments can also be found in southern India, especially in the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, where it is known as the Swarbat. The folk Rabab, an instrument popular in north India, had a wooden fingerboard, its strings were made of silk, cotton or gut, and it was played with a wooden pick. In history, reference is also made to a Sharadiya Veena from which the name Sarod may have been derived.

Regardless of the origin, the metamorphosis and experimentation of the instrument continued. Ustad Allauddin Khan of the Maihar Gharana created a Sarod with a round drum that more closely resembles that of the Veen and thereby adds to its tonal quality, while members of the Shahjahanpur and Gwalior Gharanas preferred the original, elliptical form. Both forms are seen today although the round drum has gained in popularity. Harmonic strings were also added and similarly some instruments today will have either six or eight main tuning strings. In addition, sympathetic strings will number between thirteen and fifteen.

The Sarod is played with a pick made of coconut shell, which is referred to as the Jaba. The pick is held firmly between the thumb and the rest of the fingers with a relaxed wrist to allow for a combination of the fast strumming and dramatic slides that are now identified with the Sarod.

The basic vocabulary of the Sarod is made up of two notes; the downward stroke on the string or ‘Da’ and the upward pluck or the ‘Ra’. However, by combining the Da and Ra strokes, Sarodias have an expanded vocabulary that is unique to the instrument. Often the Sarod is found to emulate the rhythmical patterns or bols from accompanying percussion instruments such as the Tabla or Pakhawaj.

Pandit Buddhadev Dasgupta demonstrates a Sarod’s core vocabulary in this video clip.