In a mud hut with a thatched roof, protecting us from the sharp glare of the desert sun, Bhanvru Langa offered us our first glimpse of the surinda, a rare musical instrument. “There are only about 15 pieces in India. My father brought it from Pakistan many years ago and only he and I play it in our Samaj,” Bhanvru told us. We were immediately intrigued.
On the surinda trail
My partner and I had accompanied our friend and talented musician Nawab Khan, to explore the unique village of Badnawa, 100 kms from Jodhpur, Rajasthan, which is home to more than 500 Langa musicians, who are generational, professional musicians who traditionally performed for wealthy patrons to earn their livelihood.
Today, their music is acknowledged globally. Some of the musicians we met had thick passports and stories from their performances in Europe, America, Canada, Asia and the Middle East. While many of them had accompanied classical musicians like Hariprasad Chaurasia and Zakir Hussain at international concerts, some have found recognition in popular mainstream Bollywood music and television shows like Coke Studio. Some of the younger musicians now put out their work on digital platforms. Sikandar Langa, one of the musicians we met at the village, showed us a YouTube video of him singing Choti Si Umar, a traditional Rajasthani folk song, which has more than five lakh views.
Most Langa musicians play the Sindhi Sarangi, but we were surprised to notice another stringed instrument which looked quite different. This was the surinda, Bhanvru told us, a unique bowed chordophone made of wood. When we shut our eyes and listened to Bhanvru play the surinda, the music had a calming effect on us, transporting us instantly to a moonlit night in a desert.
The strings are traditionally constructed from steel and goat intestines. This instrument can have a varying number of strings, with more simple versions having five-seven strings and the most complex having 11-13 strings. Apart from Rajasthan, the surinda is played in Kutch, Iran, Baluchistan, Pakistan and parts of east India.
How the surinda reached Rajasthan
About 40 years ago, renowned musicologist and founder of Rupayan Sansthan, Komal Kothari had taken my father, Mehruddin Langa and a few leading musicians to a musical fair being held in Pakistan. That’s where Komal Da spotted the surinda being played by one of the performing artists. He loved the sound and wanted to bring it to India,” Bhanvru told us. Sipping his hot chai he continued, “Komal Da told my father that if he learnt to play the surinda well, then he would find multiple avenues to perform with it, and that’s how the instrument came to our house”.
Kothari kept his promise and took Mehruddin to perform at various concerts with the surinda, including the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. “It’s taken me five years and I am still learning. These days I even look up videos from Pakistan on YouTube. With Komal Da’s passing, the instrument’s charm seems to have died too,” explained Bhanvru, looking visibly sad. In recent times, with folk artists being short on money, old instruments are sold to antique dealers, who then make a killing with these unique items internationally.
Continuing the tradition
The Langas are keen on passing this talent on, but the challenges of preserving a craft are many. When we asked him about teaching younger musicians, he said, “I can teach them but they need to have their own instrument. In my opinion, the surinda is actually easier to learn than the Sindhi Sarangi since the Sindhi Sarangi has more strings and can take a lot of getting used to. It’s a more complex instrument than the surinda. The difference though is that Langa children hear the Sindhi Sarangi being played in their house from a very young age, and hence they begin to take a keen interest in it. That doesn’t happen with surinda.”
Bhanvru’s father Mehruddin Langa believes that it’s a situation between demand and supply. “Traditionally, most folk musicians from the western part of Rajasthan would buy their instruments from a shop called Nathu Ki Dukan in Sindh, Pakistan. The surinda is still made and played by both men and women in Balochistan, but in India it is hardly made. I’m sure our local carpenters can replicate it even today. The quality may not be as good as our old instruments but it’s still possible to make,” he explains.
The real problem, he says, is that there is no demand for it amongst patrons. “When we are invited to perform at weddings and other events, people want to hear popular tunes. The surinda isn’t the ideal accompaniment for these songs. We still manage to take the Sindhi Sarangi to a few concerts and recordings because so many people in our community play it,” he tells us.
And then there is the problem of building an audience. “When Komal Da was alive he ensured we got concerts for which we were asked to play the surinda. He also insisted that we play our traditional instruments and wouldn’t allow us to touch the harmonium and other instruments that were not part of our repertoire. With no one wanting to hear these string instruments anymore we’ll lose part of our heritage,” adds Mehruddin.
The new age patrons
Thankfully, there are others who are taking up the cause. In 2016, luxury hotelier and co-organizer of the popular EDM festival, Magnetic Fields in Rajasthan, Abhimanyu Alsisar began documenting indigenous instruments and the dying art forms of the state, including the surinda. “While organising the Magnetic Fields festival, I met and interacted with many music producers and composers who are always looking for fresh sound. Documenting these lesser-known instruments is probably the best way for them to also know that these artists and sounds from my state exist,” he tells us, over the phone.
Rajasthani folk music has always been of interest to Abhimanyu. Even Magnetic Fields, his EDM festival, begins every year with the ‘Puqaar Stage’ which starts at 4 pm and features a folk performance. His first documentary about lesser-known instruments of Rajasthan, Puqaar Music Diaries 2016, has been released while the second one is still in the making.
Abhimanyu can broadly be classified as a jajmaan (patron) that most of the artists we met kept talking about. “Earlier, not only the royals but all Rajputs would patronise local folk music and invite musicians to perform at any special occasions in their house. This would range from birthdays, weddings to smaller occasions and gatherings as well. That doesn’t happen as much now. When I did a pure folk festival in Ranthambore with 114 artists, it hardly had any takers. We stopped holding the festival a couple of years later,” says Abhimanyu.
Kuldeep Kothari, the current head of the Rupayan Sansthan, and Komal Kothari’s son, offers a different perspective about the unique instrument. “The sarangi can play and replicate almost what you sing. The surinda can’t do that, it only accompanies. It has a limited repertoire and supports particular songs in the Sindhi language. I genuinely believe that gifts deep rooted in our culture don’t disappear but since everything has a transactional view now, the social importance of the surinda seems to fade,” he said.
While the clear, soulful sound of the surinda is still fresh in our hearts and memories, we are hoping there’s a way to get more people to hear it, in the times to come.