The sarangi’s changing face
- Kiran Nepali has made modifications to his sarangi that allow him to coax tunes not usually associated with the instrument and which also allow him to indulge in more dynamic performances on stage
Aug 22, 2014-
Sarangi is a much-cherished Nepali instrument. Originally played by Gandarvas who traveled the country singing folk tunes, the instrument, in recent days has starting taking up a new identity altogether. The four-stringed instrument, traditionally accompanying vocals, is now being adapted as an instrument in bands, ensembles and solo performances, and sarangi players like Kiran Nepali are contributing to the gradual evolution of the instrument, modifying them to suit their needs for the right tone and playability.
The instrument originated in the Indian sub-continent but is quite different from the Indian classical sarangi that consists of several sympathetic strings that resonate to the vibration of the primary strings and the body. Another cousin of the instrument is the sarinda, which is a popular instrument in areas of Pakistan and Afganistan. There are other similar instruments in various parts of the world.
The Nepali sarangi, traditionally, is made out of Khirro or Bagena--woods that are light-weight and soft. Generally a foot long, this apparatus of the Gandarvas is carved out of a single block of wood and has a head with four tuners, a fretless neck and a double-chambered hollow body. The base of the instrument, where the bridge that holds the strings are placed, has a patch of goat skin stuck to it. While four catgut strings were customary in earlier days, owing to the painstaking process of preparing them, sarangi players, these days, generally opt for nylon strings.
But Kiran Nepali’s sarangi--crafted out of the harder and heavier Saaj wood and having a lizard-skin parchment at the base--has strings of steel.
“Sarangi, conventionally, is just an instrument that Gandarvas played to accompany their singing. Hence they used catgut or nylon, which produce lower sounds,” says Nepali. “I make us of the sarangi as a versatile primary instrument and steel strings give me the tone that I am looking for.”
The Kutumba band-member’s sarangi does sound different. It has a brighter tone with fuller mids. The signature raspy timbre of a traditional sarangi is slightly compromised, but that is probably because of his choice of bows as well. He alternates between using sarangi bows to ones made for the violin, depending on the tone and the playing speed a song requires.
Nepali’s work as a professional sarangi player demands a lot from his sarangi. He splits time between the adrenaline-pumping folk-act that Kutumba is, and tutoring sarangi at NMC and Mitrata Nepal (an orphanage that provides children with musical education) to playing for international projects like Playing for Change. So, a basic, traditional set up does not always work for him.
“A sarangi covers one-and-a-half octaves but the one I use covers two,” says Nepali.
While traditionally a sarangi player would play one or a set of riffs to accompany the singing, Nepali’s playing incorporates riffing, soloing and plucking as well. He does this to play an assorted set of genres of music that range from the Eastern classical to the Western. The primary technique he makes use of is the nail tremolo, where trills are created through the movement of the fingers against the strings. A Nepali sarangi is generally played this way or by employing the tip of the fingers.
While skin contact mutes the sound somewhat, using the nail packs more punch to the tone.
The front porch of a home or the chautari are conventional stages for sarangi players to perform in, and these spaces don’t allow for much amplification of the sounds. But on stage, in front of several hundred audiences, it is altogether a different story.
“The sarangi is not a very loud instrument. Musicians try to work with microphones on stage, but there is a lot of feedback to deal with,” says Nepali.
Nepali’s sarangi has two transducer pickups (which convert sound into electrical signals): one located right below the bridge and the other one at the joint of the skin-parchment and the wood.
“The bridge transducer picks up higher sounds, while the other one covers the mids and the lows. So the setup covers all frequencies,” he says.
Nepali also uses guitar effects pedals to bring variation to the sound output. These stomp boxes alter the sound of the instrument in ways that would be impossible without the gadgets.
This has, in a way, breathed new life into an instrument otherwise regarded to be melancholic for the sound it produces. “Gandarvas roamed around singing mostly sad songs,” he says.
Because of that reputation, the sarangi’s versatility has always been under-appreciated. The showmanship by the traditional instrumentalists are not too loud visually either: a Gandarva is almost always seen sitting, crouching down onto his instrument and singing a repetitive, monotonous tune.
“Even in videos, I’ve never seen a sarangi player presented in a happy mood,” says Nepali. “I think sitting imparts less energy to the viewers.”
Nepali has also been a guitar player for a number of bands in the past and he felt something was missing when he used to sit down to play the sarangi.
So he went on to custom design a stand that he uses during gigs.
A large part of being a performing musician is to find comfort in the tools an artiste uses to express himself. And it seems that, Nepali, all this time, through his modifications and customisations, is setting up to create this comfort-zone. Once technicality is not an issue, an artiste can focus all of her/his energy on creation.
In this journey of his, the sarangi player has in many ways, been a catalyst for the evolution of the ethnic instrument. And it’s definitely more than just wanting to play a unique instrument. It’s about developing what you love.
Published: 23-08-2014 09:14