A Sarangi has delight, a sense of grief, joy and compassion. A Sarangi has all shades of life. The way a classical artist does alaap, Sarangi also has a similar style. It has meend, it has gamak. In simple language, whatever one sings, Sarangi adorns it. It is also often related to the Rajasthani folk instrument ‘Ravanhattha’. As I write this, the tunes of Pandit Ramnarayan’s Sarangi echoes in my mind. Raga Peelu Thumri. As if the magic of Sarangi is touching my body and soul. After the colors of Thumri, now Pandit ji has touched Raga Jogiya’s taan on Sarangi. As if Sarangi is explaining the substance of existence, the meaning of life. Raga Multani, Kirwani, Mishra Bhairavi and Raga Bairagi Bhairav!
He was born in Udaipur and then settled in Mumbai. He played music along with Ustad Amir Khan, Gangubai Hangal, Pandit Onkarnath Thakur, Kesar Bai, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Not only this, he has even shared stage and performed world over with international artists like Yehudi Menuhin, Pablo Casals and Rostropovich. To tell you the truth, Sarangi got its real classical identity from Pandit Ramnarayan only. If it wasn’t for him, Sarangi would have said goodbye to the world long back. His father, Nathuji, played Dilruba but Pandit Ramnarayan chose Sarangi.
In the year 1956, Pandit ji gave a solo Sarangi performance at a music concert in Mumbai. Soon his Sarangi started echoing around the world. His first LP (long play) record with Ustad Vilayat Khan soon released in the market. It was him who introduced the sound of Sarangi in films. Remember the song ‘Deewana hua baadal…’ from the film ‘Kashmir Ki Kali’. Notice the tones of Sarangi in the song. You will feel like humming it, just go on humming it… Pandit Ramnarayan has a unique melody to it. From middle octave to the higher octaves, the Sarangi moves freely with its notes and accentuations. He was a master in balancing the movements of both hands while moving the bow on the Sarangi. While performing, along with the audience, he himself would be lost in the bliss of his own music. His deep music would take us along with it like a wave! Pandit Ramnarayan ji’s Sarangi does not play in the minds, it lives with us.
Pandit ji has innumerable memories of working as a staff artist from Udaipur to Mumbai and then in the Lahore radio station; and then getting Sarangi out of the brothels and establishing it with the purity of classical music. Once the box of memories opened, it does not stop. He said, “When I chose Sarangi, the challenge was also that most artists who were Sarangi players had their talent enclosed in brothels. Sarangi at that time would hardly play anywhere outside. I am proud that I could get it out of brothels and return the purity of the instrument to it. Today a good Sarangi is not available. Sarangi developed in Europe. The tradition of Sarangi is still prevalent there.” It is true that it was Pandit Ramnarayan who gave the instrument a separate identity other than that of a musical instrument used by dancers. But the number of solo instrumental classical performances he had in foreign countries, he never had in his own land, India.
The journey of Sarangi playing started at the All India Radio. In a conversation he said, “I got a job as a radio artist in 1944. My salary at that time was a hundred and fifty rupees. It was not a small amount at that time. I could lead a comfortable life. But I noticed that as a radio artist, one would not get to do the whole show. Your show is shortened. I did not like it. I decided to dedicate myself completely to Sarangi, and I am glad I was right.”
You remember his music for the unique way he held the bow and balanced it. While talking to him about the Ragas he played, suddenly one feels he is playing them again! The lyrics also move forward slowly like the music of his Sarangi . ”Bow is like the tongue of a Sarangi. If not held or placed properly, the Sarangi cannot sing. If the tongue is not used properly, the wrong words will only come out! So this is the first thing I did. I learnt how to balance the bow while playing a Sarangi, set a few rules of how to move it. I paid attention to when and how a bow is used. Where I should go slow with the bow and where I should speed it up- all this I learnt at my level. People don’t have the basics. How will they have the time to explore the colors of Sarangi! And if discoveries will not keep happening, the instrument will die. Therefore research must always go on in music.” While saying all this, he gives many more details of how to hold a bow.
When one thinks of his Sarangi, one also feels that it does not play but actually sings! Giving the listener sensations of a thousand feelings and expressions. Once the conversation about Sarangi started, it just went on. Suddenly when questioned about his childhood days and the start of Sarangi playing, past could be seen flashing in his eyes. He said, “The beginning was in my fate. My father taught me a lot. I got my education and Sarangi training from him only. There was never any criticism. Not only in India, but his Sarangi is known internationally as well. Famous musician, Yehudi Menuhin said for Pandit ji’s Sarangi, “Sarangi is not only India’s but esteemed by Indians and is really an instrument worth the regard.” Pandit Ramnarayan really had that expression of Indian thoughts and feelings that could touch hearts. He is the only such Sarangi player alive in the country. He is a great Indian musician. Pandit ji does not find himself detached from music. That is why he says, “My very existence is with Sarangi. Whatever I have is this Sarangi. I wonder if Pandit ji wasn’t there, would the Sarangi still paint us so deeply in its different shades of music!