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Today, dhrupad is almost entirely a vocal tradition. There was a time, however, when a stringed instrument called the rudra veena (or been) was an essential element of dhrupad. The long-sustained notes of dhrupad can only be produced by strings if they are long, thick, and loose. This meant that the rudra veena had to be tuned to play in very low registers. Dhrupad performers in the Seni Gharana were forbidden from teaching rudra veena to anyone but their direct descendants. The surbahar was invented as a way of changing the spirit of this rule while keeping the letter. It is essentially a bass sitar, with a wider neck, a flat gourd, and a range of four octaves. I found one source that says it was the forerunner of the sitar, but the general consensus seems to be that it was invented to enable sitar players to simulate the rudra veena. Both instruments have extremely long sustain, which makes it possible to bend a string as far as an octave. The main difference in tone is that the surbahar has a sitar-like javari (a bridge that buzzes against the strings and gives it a bright sparkle and more powerful tone.)
The surbahar eventually eclipsed the rudra veena in dhrupad, partly because more people were permitted to play it. However, as dhrupad became less popular than the more elaborately ornamented khayal style, the surbahar itself was overshadowed by the lighter and more flexible sitar. Today there are only two prominent dhrupad rudra veena players—Baha’ud’in Mohiuddin Dagar and Asad Ali Khan. There are also only a few surbahar players who play in a pure dhrupad style, such as Shuda Sankaran and Mushtaq Ali Khan. Nevertheless, the instrument has had a profound effect on the two most prominent modern sitar gharanas.
Annapurna Devi, the daughter of the great Allaudin Khan, became a great surbahar player, but she retired early from performing, and made no commercially available recordings. This may have been what prompted her ex-husband, Ravi Shankar, to turn his instrument into a hybrid between the traditional sitar and the surbahar. He added extra strings that went down into the surbahar range, but only played them during slow alap passages. For the faster passages accompanied by tabla, he used a special muting hook to stop these bass strings from muddying up the sound of the fast chikare (strummed chords). This ingenious solution enabled him to play most of the surbahar range, and still keep the speed and flexibility needed for the contemporary sitar style.
In the Etawa Gharana, whose best known members are Imrat Khan and Vilayat Khan, everyone played both instruments for three generations. The surbahar was played only during the opening alap, jor, and jhala sections. When the tablas came in, the musician switched to the sitar. Vilayat Khan performed this way when he was younger, recording two early albums with surbahar. But Vilayat’s and Imrat’s mother, who was a gifted vocalist, and who raised them when their father died, eventually decreed that only Imrat would play the surbahar. He would thus perform a raga on both surbahar and sitar in the manner described above, or perform in jugalbandi with his brother playing sitar. This arrangement was thus somewhat similar to Ravi Shankar’s. Sitar and surbahar did remain separate instruments, but they were still always played together, either successively or simultaneously, and the surbahar was rarely played for a full concert.
In a live concert it would be not be uncommon for a Hindustani musician to play 50 minutes or more for the alap-jor-jhala. But because this would fill a CD all by itself, most albums compress this opening movement to about half that length. Kavi Alexander of Waterlily Acoustics Records wanted to record the more extended surbahar performances that would be heard in Imrat Khan’s live concerts. The result is the album Lalita, which shows what can be accomplished on this challenging instrument after a lifetime of rigorous devotion.
The heavy strings require considerable strength to pluck and bend. I have often seen Imrat Khan carefully massaging his hands between putting down the surbahar and picking up the sitar. Furthermore, the raga Lalita would be difficult on any instrument. It contains no pa (fifth), komal re (flat second) and both shuddha and tivra ma (natural and sharp fourth). This creates juxtapositions of chromatic clusters and wide leaps. One of these chromatic clusters is around the tonic, the other around the fourth, which are the two notes in the drone. This means that there is a very ambiguous sense of exactly where it should resolve. Khan explores this ambiguity slowly and carefully. He spends almost a minute playing the sympathetic strings before he hits the first sa that officially opens the alap. The sa is ornamented by each note from every side, with slow deliberate bends, fast quivering murki, and rich vibratos several notes wide. From there he reaches up to the shuddha ga (major third) and then down to the low ma, which becomes almost a second tonal center as he ornaments it from both above and below. All of this takes about 15 minutes before he finally plays in the upper register to fully explore all four octaves of the surbahar’s range.
For the jor and the jhala, he of course returns to the central sa and expands outward again. As he picks up the tempo, we see how Khan has tamed the lower strings, which were once thought to be only good for slow music. The wide gamak vibrato flawlessly duplicates the vocal technique used in dhrupad. During the jhala, the strings sometimes rattle and buzz, but these sounds are carefully controlled to create percussive excitement. As the sound washes over us, then settles into a long slow resolution, we are grateful he has mastered this formidable leviathan of an instrument.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.