Why the Mughal-era musical instrument is disappearing from Pakistan’s music scene

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Why the Mughal-era musical instrument is disappearing from Pakistan's music scene

In the shadow of Lahore’s centuries-old Badshahi Mosque, Zohaib Hasan breaks the strings of a violin, filling the streets with a distinctive melody.

Notable for its resemblance to a wisting human voice, the classical instrument is disappearing from Pakistan’s music scene – except for a few players who are dedicated to preserving their place.

Hassan told AFP news agency that it is difficult to master, expensive to repair, and with little financial reward for professionals, it is difficult to halt the decline of the violin.

“We are trying to keep the instrument alive even considering our dire financial situation,” he said.

Over seven generations, his family has mastered the bowed, short-necked instrument and Hasan is revered throughout Pakistan for his abilities, regularly appearing on television, radio and at private parties. He also teaches musical instruments at an academy established in Lahore.

“My family’s passion for this instrument forced me to pursue a career as a sarangi player, leaving my education incomplete,” he said.

“I stay face-to-face because most directors arrange concerts with the latest orchestras and pop bands.”

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Zohaib Hasan plays the violin at the historic Mughal-era Lahore Fort in Lahore [Aamir Qureshi/AFP]

Traditional instruments are competing with a booming R&B and pop scene in a country where more than 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30.

Sara Zaman, a classical music teacher at the National Council of Arts in Lahore, says it’s not just the sarangi, other traditional instruments like the sitar, santoor and tanpura are dying too.

“Other disciplines like pop music have been given the stage, but this is missing in the case of classical music,” she said.

“The sarangi, being a very difficult instrument, has not been given due importance and attention in Pakistan, leading to its gradual demise.”

‘strings of my heart’

The sarangi gained prominence in Indian classical music in the 17th century during the reign of the Mughals in the subcontinent.

Television director Khwaja Najam-ul-Hasan, who composed a collection of Pakistan’s leading musicians, said its decline in Pakistan began in the 1980s after the deaths of many master players and classical singers in the country.

“The instrument was close to the hearts of internationally acclaimed male and female classical singers, but it began to fade after his death,” he said.

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The traditional sarangi is placed on the carpet at a music academy in Lahore [Aamir Qureshi/AFP]

One of Pakistan’s most acclaimed sarangi players, Ustad Allah Rakha passed away in 2015 after a career that saw him perform with orchestras around the world.

Players now say they struggle to survive on performance fees alone, which are often much less than what modern guitarists, pianists or violinists are paid.

Hand-carved from a block of cedar native to parts of Pakistan, the primary strings of the sarangi are made from goat belly, while the seventeen sympathetic strings – a common feature on the subcontinent’s folk instruments – are steel.

The device costs around 120,000 rupees ($625) and most of its parts are imported from neighboring India, where it remains a major part of Canon.

“The price has gone up because there is a ban on imports from India,” said Muhammad Tahir, owner of one of only two repair shops in Lahore.

Pakistan downgraded diplomatic ties and halted bilateral trade with India over New Delhi’s decision to strip Indian-administered Kashmir from its semi-autonomous status in 2019.

Tahir, who may spend some two months meticulously restoring even a worn out sarangi, said that no one in Pakistan manufactures special steel strings due to lack of demand.

Ustad Zia-ud-Din, owner of another repair shop in Lahore, said, “There is no praise for the sarangi players and the few men who repaired this wonderful instrument.”

Efforts to adapt to the modern music landscape have shown promise.

“We have invented new ways of playing, including making the violin semi-electric to amplify the sound during the performance of modern musical instruments,” Hassan said.

He has now performed several times with customized equipment and says the reception has been positive.

One of Hassan’s few students is 14-year-old musician Mohsin Mudasir, who has given up instruments such as the guitar to compete with the sarangi.

“I’m learning this instrument because it plays with the strings of my heart,” he said.