The popularity of classical instruments, especially the sarangi, is declining in Pakistan and as a result, talented musicians and craftsmen who make the instruments are feeling abandoned.
Zohaib Hassan, who has been professionally playing the instrument for the past 10 years, is one of the very few sarangi players left in the country. Hailing from the traditional family of classical musicians — which includes the likes of Ustad Hussain Buksh Amritsari, Ustad Natthu Khan and Ustad Peeru Khan — Hassan feels that the lack of exposure and awareness is killing the instrument for good.
“One of my biggest fears is that I will drop the instrument and I would not know how to replace it; there’s a dearth of skilled craftsmen who can produce a good sarangi,” says Hassan as he plucks at his sarangi, which is over a century old.
Associating himself with the Amritisari Gharana, Hassan says that becoming a sarangi player meant keeping a family legacy alive. “I used to complain to my grandparents telling them over and over again that it was a dying art and that I would never be able to make a living out of it. But in reply to that, they would always tell me that this is the one sacrifice I should make for my country.”
Hence, Hassan decided to take up the family tradition, playing professionally since the age of 15.
Lack of demand
Over the years, Hassan was able to find fame through sheer talent and hard work. However, despite that, Hassan feels that there are not enough platforms to promote classical music, adding that platforms for sarangi playing have been limited to the Lahore Music Forum and All Pakistan Music Conference. Other than that, people don’t have the time and patience for a proper solo sarangi performance which lasts up to 30-40 minutes. “I have only done five to seven solos in my career,” says Hassan, while adding that the Radio Pakistan killed an important platform for classical musicians due to lack of funds. “Our country doesn’t appreciate and promote good classical music; even if there is a performance by a classical singer, it’s given a time slot of just three minutes.”
Fusion with mainstream artists
While furthering his point regarding the decline in demand for sarangi players, Hassan is of the opinion that mainstream musicians simply do not understand how to fit the sarangi into their songs. “There is little understanding and expertise of how the instrument could be relevant to modern day music,” says Hassan.
However, although finding consistent work has been a hard task in Pakistan, his talent has managed to tap into the international market. As soon as he uploaded his sarangi performances on YouTube, students from all over the world started contacting the musician, requesting him to give them lessons. Currently, he teaches six foreign students (a Canadian, two British, three American) via Skype. So what’s unique about his playing, Hassan replies, “Some people may call it Pakistani or Punjabi passion, but there is an extra bit of speed in my playing style. Additionally, over here we use four fingers compared to three, which increases the variety in sound.”
Keeping the legacy alive
Meanwhile, acknowledging that it’s necessary to support the growth of the instrument, Hassan proposes that the first goal should be to develop an interest for sarangi through more live solo performances. “I recently performed at a private function in Pakistan where they allowed me to perform a solo. I think that’s a great way of generating interest amongst the audience,” says Hassan.
Additionally, the player adds that the government should also take active steps to ensure the survival of the centuries-old tradition.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 2nd, 2012.