Author Archive for Steve Landsberg

Ragascape III – Surbahar, Sources.

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.

Bahadur Shah IIIt 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).

Ashiq Ali KhanJaggu 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.

Continue reading ‘Ragascape III – Surbahar, Sources.’


Ragascape I – The Tambura

It seems appropriate to write the first ragascape essay on the tambura, as the all-encompassing sound of this instrument is the source from which arise the melodic centers (notes) of Indian music.

Tambura IThe tambura is more than just a four-stringed instrument providing the sonorous drone and the basic environment in which the music enfolds. The tambura is the acoustic potential for the whole harmonic series; and, as such, represents the cosmic potential for all apparent phenomena. Although the tambura is tuned with three strings tuned to the tonic (in Indian music we call this tonic Sa or shadja) and one string to the fourth or fifth, we can find all twelve notes in the harmony that is created by the four strings vibrating simultaneously. This acoustical phenomena occurs because the harmonic series is activated through a process called jawari or cyclical wave formation in which the bridge upon which the strings are resting is filed into a particular curve.  When this process is completed properly, the notes are no longer just blunt tones but rather rich tonal landscapes with a precise sharp center and expanding periphery.

TamburaLike a mirror, the tambura has the capacity to reflect whatever is sung or played ‘over’ it. For example if you sing a note along with the tambura other than the notes that are part of the tambura, you can hear the tambura mirror that sound and ‘sing’ it back to you. The tonic in this instrument has the capacity to appear in the form of  whatever you place before it. It is as if you took a piece of clear glass and put it on top of a blue cloth. The glass does not become blue, but it appears blue. In this way the tambura is an acoustical symbol of total integration.

Tambura headWhen tuned properly, the tambura is a clear support for the vocalist or instrumentalist. He listens to the tonic note of the tambura, integrates with it, and adjusts his ‘sur’ so that each note finds a perfect resonance in the vibrational field of the tambura. Notwithstanding the great support the tambura provides to a musician, it is possible for Indian musicians to sing or play tunefully without the support of the tambura. By tuning into the anahata (unstruck) quality of the tonic, the musician becomes his own silent drone; and as he begins to vibrate with the tonic, his tuneful precision arises. This is obviously more difficult as there is no external support for the tuning.

Tambura bridgeThe tambura, as a plucked instrument, is the acoustical metaphor for all unstuck sound. It represents the empty side of clarity and the potential for all apparent phenomena.  It is the feminine space to be filled by the masculine skilfulness of melodic form.

When a musician plays or sings along with the balanced stroking of the tambura, it is not the case that he hears two different sounds—the droned tonic of the tambura and the sound of his voice or instrument. He plays and at the same moment releases the melodic configuration into the field of the tambura.

Shrimati Subbulakshmi with tambura

MS Subbulakshmi with tambura.

The artist blends with the space filled by the cyclical expansion and contraction of the tambura and allows the tonal centers of his melody to spread into that edgeless expanse. When he does this without conceptualizing either the sound of his creation or that of the tambura, there is a moment when the division between singer, song, and the act of singing dissolves.  The artist, fabricator of forms, suddenly jumps the hoop of time and space and enters the dimension where pure sound becomes a vehicle to supersensory cognition and awareness. Although conventionally we say that the singer is singing a song, in this case it is as if the song is singing the singer.

In the next Ragascape article we’ll be looking at “Swaras, Ragas, and Rasas – The Path of Indian Music.”

Tambura (Wikipedia article).
Tambura  (Article at Music of India).
Ragascape (original article in Ragascape by Steven Landsberg, 1999).
Mushtaq Ali Khan (recordings from the collection of Steven Landsberg).