The dhrupad which has sunk into oblivion today, was the predominant form of classical vocal music in medieval India. It was sung to the accompaniment of pakhawaj and not the tabla. The pakhawaj was a cylindrical drum like instrument which was played with the palms. The style of singing the dhrupad was characterized by an elaborate alap, and intricate rhythmic patterns. The application of fast tans (musical phrases) was strictly forbidden in it. Consequently, the stringed instruments in the field of classical music during that period were played strictly in accordance with the conventions of the dhrupad. Special emphasis was laid on the alap and the purity of ragas maintained.
The stringed instruments that dominated the field of classical music in the medieval India were:
These instruments had thick brass strings unlike those of the sarode or the sitar and were tuned at a rather low pitch. The pakhawaj was the only percussion instrument that provided accompaniment to the players of these instruments.
The been or the North Indian veena is one of the oldest instruments in our country. The name of this instrument is mentioned in the musical treatises written in Sanskrit language by our ancient sages and hermits such as Bharat, Matanga and Sarangdev who were illustrious musicologists. In Mahabharata, the venerable sage Narada has been described as a proficient been player. Subsequently, in the middle ages, the legendary virtuosi Swami Haridas, Baiju Bawra and Mian Tansen who flourished during the regime of emperor Akbar, greatly improved and beautified the style of playing the been, and popularized the instrument throughout North India. During the early decades of the twentieth century, Ustad Wazir Khan of Rampur (who was a direct descendant of Mian Tansen’s son-in-law, the eminent been player, Michri Singh or Nabat Khan) and Ustad Sadique Ali Khan of Jaipur were well known been players and became salubrious figures in the field of Hindustani Music. This instrument is seldom seen at classical concerts today. It consists of a bamboo pole and two hollow gourds. The hollow gourds are fixed at the either end of the bamboo pole. Numerous metal frets and a bridge made of animal-bone are fixed on the bamboo pole with the help of wax and four thick brass strings parallel to one another are attached to the fret board.
This instrument, closely resembles the sitar in shape and structure, the only difference being that it has a broader fingerboard and a slightly larger resonator than the sitar. The instrument was invented because the sitar was tuned at a rather high pitch and its tone was not suitable for alap. The sitar players of yester years generally took up the surbahar for rendering alap and played gat compositions on the sitar. If any surbahar player wished to play gat compositions on this instrument, he always preferred a pakhawaj player to a tabla player as an accompanist and preferably played dhrupad compositions.
There is a controversy among musicologists as to who actually invented surbahar. But certain documentary evidences testify to the fact that Ustad Sahabad Hussain Khan (the great grandfather of Ustad Vilayat Khan) invented the surbahar when he noticed that the tone of the sitar was not suitable for alap. Subsequently, Ustad Sajjad Mohanmmad, Ustad Imdad Khan and his worthy son, Ustad Enayet Khan, made a great reputation as surbahar players and became prominent figures in the contemporary music world. These days, Ustad Imrat Khan (the younger son of Ustad Enayet Khan) and his younger son, Irshad Khan, play this instrument with great expertise.
The sursringar is actually a metamorphosis of the Indian rabab which was played by the legendary maestro Tansen who was the court musician of Emperor Akbar. This instrument (The Indian rabab) was much larger in size than the Afghan rabab and had no sympathetic strings. It had a wooden fingerboard, a large resonator covered with a thin sheet of leather and five or six main strings made of catguts. Unlike the Afghan rabab which was held horizontally when played, the Indian rabab was held diagonally against the left shoulder during a recital. But the wooden fingerboard and catgut strings of the Indian rabab could not produce a delectable note. Meends (glides) or gamaks (note vibrations) could not be executed accurately while playing the alap. Hence Ustad Zafar Khan (a descendent of Tansen) decided to modify the instrument so that it was well suited to the alap. He replaced the wooden fingerboard with a metal plate and the leather covered resonator with a hollow gourd like that of sitar or the surbahar. Thereafter, he removed the sharp bridge and catgut strings and attached thick brass strings and a flat sitar-like bridge to the instrument. This newly designed instrument came to be known as the sursringar. It had a much more attractive tone than that of the Indian rabab and was ideally suited to the alap. When Ustad Zafar Khan played this instrument at the royal court, his recital was greatly appreciated by the emperor and his courtiers. Later on, his descendants like Ustad Kasim Ali and Ustad Saukat Ali, Baba Allaudin Khan, the illustrious Bengali virtuoso who settled in Maihar (Madhya Pradesh) and Kumar Bahadur Birendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury of Gauripur (now in Bangladesh) achieved remarkable command over this instrument and immortalized themselves in the musical history of Northern India. Few people are aware of the fact that my father’s (Pt. Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s) music-guru, Pt. Radhika Mohan Moitra was also a masterly sursringar player, who never acquired the publicity or recognition he deserved.
These instruments have practically disappeared from our musical arena today. Ustad Sadique Ali’s worthy son, Ustad Asad Ali was an excellent been player who suddenly passed away a few years back. Ustad Baharuddin Dagar (a nephew of the eminent dhrupad singer, Ustad Nasir Aminuddin Dagar) is the only renowned been player that we have in North India today. Anindo Banerjee of Kolkata is another proficient musician who plays sursringar with laudable skill.