Friday, February 15, 2013

In Pursuit of Music: Qissa Awwal

 in the hopes that someday i will learn music, i pick up instruments that excite me and play them for a few weeks before giving up. to make something of this whole exercise, i decided to write about them in a series. this is the first part.

As you walk into the shady by lanes of Paharganj, amidst the row of shops with people sporting thick, put-on accents, selling paraphernalia they think might appeal to tourists on pot, you notice how the city transforms here. There is constant hustle and bustle of people carrying rucksacks; backpacking like you always thought you would one day. There are stalls selling artifacts you would like to buy except you're horribly unsure of the quality and the bargaining it would entail; and then there is that occasional shady hotel. The likes you see being rented out on an hourly basis in Hindi movies, tactfully guised as a Hotel Decent. All in all a lovely place I'd like to restrict my visits to, to twice in a lifetime. The second time probably just to get cheap thrills looking at the movie posters outside the once grand, Imperial Theater. This time there was a ridiculously busty Indian woman with bleached hair posing as, ‘Mere Pati ki Girlfriend’.
Magical place, really.

What probably goes unnoticed in this trippy setting is a foot wide passage opposite Sam’s Café; a staircase fit to be any claustrophobic's nightmare, leads up to this happy little hovel called the Indian Music House.

In here, a hundred instruments are crammed into a ten foot space. They hang from the walls; they're lined against the boundaries; an occasional banjo or a flute looms over your head as you climb the staircase. You find some in boxes, others are out of sight but ask the man in charge for it and he’ll pull it right out.

There is something about this place that invites you to dedicate your life to the beautiful art of music. Every sitar beckons you to flirt with the strings; the tablas want your hands tapping them. You pick up a banjo and think to yourself, 'This won’t be too tough to learn, will it?' I'm not joking when I say this place inspires hope. It stimulates beautiful visuals of you playing a lovely tune, sitting at the edge of a river dangling your legs over it.
Coming back to reality, this is also probably the only place in Delhi you will find a Rabab within a sane budget. This beautiful Afghani string instrument finds it origins in Central Asia. The National Instrument of Afghanistan, the Rabab I was looking for is popularly known as the Kabuli rabab; a three singed lute carved out of a single piece of wood. Unlike its Iranian counterpart, you pluck the Kabuli rabab for it to make that deep, stirring sound that is vaguely reminiscent of childhood for me. The Rabab has three strings, usually made of nylon and around 12 sympathetic strings. These are attached to the long slender curved body, even the tuning pegs of which are so beautiful you'd buy it just to decorate your room; an excuse I often give for not knowing how to play it.

Although it has been around a long time, the Rabab is virually extinct in India. Still an important folk instrument in Afghanistan and Kashmir, it slowly ran out of popular culture making way for instruments that emerged through its influence. It is widely believed to be the predecessor for the Sarod and Sarangi.

The story Rabab is fascinating. A product of cultural intermingling showcasing the strong influence of Central Asian traditions in Kashmiri culture, the Rabab finds its way into Sikhism as well. Bhai Mardana, Guru Nanak’s companion is depicted in artworks as a Rabab player. Legend has it that the Seni Rabab (found in India, named after Tansen) originally had five strings. Bhai Mardana and Guru Nanak, together added the sixth.

In Kashmiri music, the instrument plays a very significant role being widely used in wedding music as well as an accompaniment to Sufiana Kalaam.  The rich, thick sound of the Rabab, has been adopted into popular folk music by really talented trio Yasir and Jawad who bring a delightful pushto influence to their music. They started with a cover and now have two more beautiful folk songs to their credit.

While on the hunt for a rabab, I started playing around with some other instruments. Even childish things like the egg shakers look so exciting in this place. It's a new world in there. And the man who owns the music store certainly knows his stuff. Ask him to demonstrate and he’ll play you tunes on a Jews harp with as much ease as blowing into a didjeridoo, a five foot long Australian wooden trumpet. Impressive, really. I might add this to my list of prospective careers.


You must check out:
For Kashmir Music with Rabab as an accompaniment:

Scroll down this link to see mindblowing pictures of a Rabab being carved out:


1 comment:

  1. Rubab is not just limited to Afghanistan and Kashmir. You mentioned Afghanistan where 28 million people listen to the rubab and love it but did not mention Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of KPK along with Gilgit Baltistan where over 30 million people love the instrument. Overall, great blog!