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Bringing the sursingar back to life

Presenting rare ragas and reviving ancient Hindustani classical instruments like the “sursingar”,  are what drive multi-instrumentalist and sarod’s rising star, Joydeep Mukherjee. A student of the Senia Shahjehanpur Gharana that produced sarod legends  like Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra, Mukherjee  is a regular artist at All India Radio and Doordarshan, and an empanelled artist of the India Council for Cultural Relations. He began playing the sarod at the early age of four, under the tutelage of Sangeetacharya Pranab Kumar Naha. A prolific composer, he performs at numerous conferences across the world.

In this exclusive interview, he talks to us about the history of the near-extinct sursingar, and his efforts to revive it. The interview has been edited for clarity.

IC: The sursingar is an older instrument than the sarod and one of the earliest dhrupad instruments ever known. Tell our readers about its history.

JM: A traditional legend of Benaras is that of the sursingar and its evolution. Going by the history of its evolution, it is an older instrument than the sarod. It is one of the earliest Dhrupad instruments ever known, evolved from the senia rabab. Jaffar Khan was a senia rababiya whose motivation was to improve the resonance and tonal quality of the senia rabab. Once Jaffar Khan and Nirmal Shah had to perform the senia rabab and the rudra veena before the Maharaja of Kashi. Nirmal Shah was a descendent of Tansen from his daughter’s lineage, and Jaffer Khan from the son’s. The timing of the performance in the Maharaja’s court was around the end of June, which is the monsoon time in north India.

A photo of the stringed instrument, the surshringar, based on the rabab. (Photo courtesy: Joydeep Mukherjee)
The surshringar (Photo courtesy: Joydeep Mukherjee)

Conventionally, the sound box of the senia rabab was covered with hide, and strings were mostly made from catguts. Due to the humid weather, the tension of the goat-skinned drum and catguts would reduce, leaving a very dull sound. Jaffar Khan felt extremely disadvantaged in front of the Maharaja due to the limitations of his rabab. He sought few months’ time from the Maharaja, promising that he will give a performance with a much better instrument. During this time, he evolved a new instrument based on the rabab, which came to be known as “sursingar”. 

Jaffer Khan added a metal plate to the surface, making it a fingerboard. He replaced the gut strings with metal strings, the small wooden resonator with a large gourd resonator, and goatskin with wood. The changes gave clarity and stability to the sursingar, allowing long meends and phrases. This newly developed instrument won the critical appreciation of the Maharaja of Kashi, and thereafter of various music connoisseurs across India. It soon became a very popular instrument for performances and training across the country. 

Unfortunately, today, the sursingar has ceased to exist. An instrument once developed in the royal court and widely played across darbars and mehfils has become almost extinct. A glory of the past, now hiding in museums!

IC: You are the only public performer of the current generation who has revived this instrument and is taking it forward. Tell us more about your efforts. 

JM: I worked to revive the instrument, not to recreate it. Traditionally, the sursingar was a very tough instrument to play and handle. It was of humongous size and difficult to perform and travel with. Also, that sound or playing style might not interest present day audiences. I focused on three things. First, making it performer friendly. Second, improving the sound and tonal quality to make it at par with modern instruments and attract contemporary audiences. Lastly, I did not want to move away totally from tradition while bringing about these two changes. It was an effort to just modernize the instrument.

In this process, I need to think about the type of wood required for revival. These heritage instruments were generally made of mahogany or teak with bridges of deer horn. Their shapes were distinguishing, like the fingerboard length, “tabli” (sound drum) size, and distance of sound pegs from the bridge.

I need to work closely with the makers. We used various trial and error methods. Good quality of mahogany or Burma teak nowadays is a challenge. You need to look for substitute wood if not available. Then comes resizing of the sound drum or “tabli”. We had to rethink the length and depth of the drum for optimum sound production. To enhance better sound, I too experimented with ivory bridge, substituting deer horn. Once the instrument is made, I need to work with different gauges of string combinations and mikes. I also need to work with different scales of music for better resonance, sound sustenance, and tonal quality. It took around two years.

My aim is to popularize the sursingar and let it become a mainstream instrument once again after a century.

Joydeep Mukherjee

IC: Recently, you entered the Asia Book of Records for uploading maximum videos showcasing the sursingar.

JM: My aim is to popularize the sursingar and let it become a mainstream instrument once again after a century. The best way is to make people aware about it through social media. So I started making videos of the sursingar and uploading them on YouTube. I have chosen a theme—rare ragas in rare instruments. I had uploaded 52 rare ragas in 52 weeks. Luckily, I got the support of the Asia Book of Records who informed me that this was indeed a record feat. I am looking for support from organizers who will promote this rare heritage instrument of India.

IC: What are your plans for the future, with respect to the sursingar?

JM: Sursingar is a wonder instrument. It sounds majestic. It’s lower in tone than the rudra veena with huge sustenance. It’s truly a royal instrument of medieval India. I want to take it to every corner of the world and wish for the world to listen to this unique instrument. I have performed on several reputed platforms, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Habitat World, and the International Dhrupad Festival.

I wish the government, consulates, and several organizers come forward and give space to this heritage of India. Forums like the All India Radio, Doordarshan, and ICCR should showcase it for a larger audience. I have also started teaching the instrument to students. I hope enthusiasts come forward to learn it too. Only then will this instrument keep its legacy alive. I hope that performers of the sursingar come forward and perform it in the interest of our country’s forgotten heritage.

IC: You have also revived the mohan veena. Tell us about that.

JM: My dadaguru, late Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra, used to play the sursingar, and I belong to his parampara. In 1948, he created a bridge instrument between the sursingar and the sarod. The All India Radio called it “mohan veena”. He did several recordings of it. After his demise, the instrument also went into a state of oblivion. I revived the mohan veena in 2020, and played it at many of my shows. 

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She has worked for over a decade in print, television, and online media. Her diverse interests in the culture beat include books, music, travel, films,...