Print Edition - 2014-06-14  |  On Saturday

The spirit of the chaturangi

  • Roshan Sharma has become the go-to guy for musicians who want to incorporate the sound of the chaturangi—an instrument he’s been playing for more than a decade—in their works
- Nhooja Tuladhar
The spirit of the chaturangi

Jun 13, 2014-

Roshan Sharma found love in 2000 through a video of Debashish Bhattarcharya playing the chaturangi, a lap slide guitar primarily used in Hindustani classical music. Sharma, who was already well-versed in the Western playing techniques of the guitar then and was a student of Hindustani classical music in Dharan under teacher Anushree Banarjee, made up his mind to learn to play this fascinating new instrument. And eventually, he did, making him one among the few who know the instrument here in Nepal and probably the only one playing it professionally.

The chaturangi is a 24-string instrument devised by classical maestro Bhattarcharya, who is credited with creating the ‘Trinity of Guitars’. The trinity includes the chaturangi, the 14-string gandharvi and the four-string anandi, which is a lap steel ukulele. Indian classical music started making use of slide guitars since the 30s, right after Tau Moe, a Hawaiian musician, introduced it to local artistes during his stay in India. Since then, the instrument has come a long way and has gone through several modifications in the hands of Indian musicians who have now come up with popular modern instruments like the mohan veena and the chaturangi. Despite being adopted by many musicians in India, the slide guitar is largely unknown to Nepali musicians. Sharma, when he wanted to learn the instrument, had to travel all the way to India without being sure whether he’d get the opportunity to actually learn it.  

Sharma had grown up with the sound of the guitar. He remembers his elder brother Srijan playing it at home but it was in 1991—when still in school—that he’d actually started learning the instrument. The Dharan-native later started taking Hindustani music lessons and while attempting to learn the raags, he decided to try playing them on his guitar. “The raags would never sound right on the guitar because the instrument failed to create the nuances that I wanted it to produce,” says Sharma.

Hindustani classical music pays much heed to what are called gamaks. The term, literally meaning ‘ornamented notes’, are expressions added to notes. These gamaks are regarded as essential qualities of a piece rather than mere decorative elements. Musicians oscillate between notes and create vibratos and pitch-bends in order to attain these gamaks, which differ with different raags. “I was looking for an instrument that could do what a vocal cord could do. That’s when my teacher told me about this instrument,” says Sharma.

Sharma travelled to India in search of a teacher and started out by taking a couple of classes with Grammy-winner Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, one of the most popular mohan veena players alive. Eventually, he found Bhattacharya’s contact details on the Internet and travelled to meet him. The inventor agreed to be Sharma’s guru and started teaching him to play the chaturangi.

The chaturangi Sharma plays is 22-stringed. Six of them are primary, very similar to standard guitars; there are two drones, two jhala strings that encompass the high and the low octaves and 12 sympathetic strings that are of lighter gauge compared to the other strings and are strung through the vibration of the instrument, creating a resonant sound. This set up makes the chaturangi a very versatile instrument, capable of covering genres from blues and swing—owing to its Hawaiian heritage—to atmospheric and immersive Hindustani classical raags that have a piece of monophonic melody, altogether surrounded by the atmosphere the jhala and the drone strings create. “Chaturangi is like playing two instruments,” says Sharma.

I got the opportunity to witness the chaturangi’s sound first hand at Osho, Tapoban, where Sharma has been meditating since last week. The loud creaking sound of the cicadas managed to seep into the meditation hall although all the windows were shut. But the monotony of the insects’ sounds was disrupted when the musician sat down with the guitar on his lap and started to strum the strings with metal plectrums clipped onto his fingers whilst sliding the strings with a steel rod in his left hand. We are so used to listening to Hindustani raags on sitar mostly, which was why I detected an unmistakable similarity. But as my ears got accustomed to the chaturangi’s sound, I could make out that it was very different from a sitar. Sitar, being a fretted instrument, relies on string bends while the same is achieved by the chaturangi through slides that are smoother, and the sustain, owing to this, is undisrupted, giving the instrument a charm of its own. The timbre is mellower, probably because of its Hawaiian roots and the slide techniques in playing, in comparison to the sitar’s.

When Sharma in not meditating, he is busy doing recording sessions on his guitar or chaturangi at different studios around Kathmandu. While he also plays in a few collaborative projects like Urjazz, a regular act at Jazzmandu, and bands like Kripa and Heart Chakra, most of his time is spent doing studio sessions.

“On a busy day, I do takes for about 12-15 different songs,” says Sharma. He also reveals that it is comparatively easier for him to get chaturangi sessions because there aren’t any other musicians who make use of the instrument, so arrangers who are looking for the slide guitar sound have to reach out to him. It’s a bit odd that a musician of such calibre and ability to play a unique instrument (at least here in Nepal) is limited to doing studio sessions and occasional gigs. This shows a major lack of initiative on the part of scouts and promoters in the industry. Such a milieu, where mundane routine can become the norm, does eventually get to a creative person. “When you are doing studio sessions every other day, its starts getting frustrating. Music, for me, is a medium through which I can get closer to the soul. So I like to come here to Tapoban from time to time, meditate and enjoy this beautiful art in its most unadulterated form.”

Published: 14-06-2014 08:59

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