Surbahar, sources: in this third article the musicians who contributed to the development of the surbahar & its music are described & placed in a historical context.
It was in 1858 that Bahadur Shah II surrendered to the British at his royal palace in Delhi. Not long thereafter he was exiled to Rangoon where he passed away in 1862. Although the cap was definitely sealed on the Mughal Empire with the dethronement of Bahadur Shah II, the British did not hesitate to behead his sons, presumably to ensure that no one could ever lay claim to the small estate that remained a part of the Mogul dynasty to the very end.
At this very same time Ashiq Ali Khan was born into a family of musicians in Varanasi, the holy city 350 miles southeast of Delhi. His ancestors had come to Varanasi some fifty years earlier in the company of Jahandar Shah, the eldest son of Bahadur Shah II. Jahandar had been gifted a piece of land in Varanasi; and along with his family, friends, and court musicians he left the Red Fort in Delhi and proceeded to Shivalaya, a small enclave within Varanasi not far from the banks of the Ganges. Amongst these court musicians were two brothers Jaggu and Makku Khan. They were dhrupad singers and grandsons of Nayak Dhundu, the renowned court musician of Shah Jahan (ruled 1628-1658).
Jaggu Khan had four sons, one of whom was Sadiq Ali Khan. He was trained as a dhrupad singer but died prematurely when his own son Ashiq Ali Khan was still a child. It then became the responsibility of his uncle Waras Ali Khan to continue Ashiq Ali’s training. Little is known about Waras Ali Khan’s blood lineage, but we do know that he was adopted by Makku Khan and Bade Mohammed Khan, a famous veena player. We also know that, as an adopted son, he learned veena well.
Due to the early demise of Ashiq Ali’s father, it became the responsibility of Ashiq Ali Khan’s uncle, Waras Ali, to provide his musical training. He could not give him the vina transmission, as it was a strictly held belief that to teach veena to anyone but one’s own son could lead to misfortune and unknown disease. As a result, Waras Ali decided to teach him the surbahar, an instrument related both to sitar and veena.
Although the surbahar looks like an oversized sitar, it has a deeper, more powerful and sustaining sound. The gourd of the surbahar is much larger and flatter than that of the sitar. It is shaped like a tortoise shell and was referred to in ancient texts as a kachipa (tortoise shell) veena. Although the left hand technique is similar to the sitar, the right hand technique is the same as the veena. This technique on the surbahar requires the use of three mizrabs (plectrums) whereas the veena only requires two plectums. There is no other school of surbahar in India to this day that knows this technique based upon the stroking patterns of the veena. All other schools play with one plectrum in a way similar to sitar.