Sarangi: A dying tradition

Published: April 1, 2012
Zohaib Hassan, who hails from the Amritisari Gharana, hopes to restore respect for professional sarangi players in Pakistan. PHOTO: FARHAN LASHARI/EXPRESS

Zohaib Hassan, who hails from the Amritisari Gharana, hopes to restore respect for professional sarangi players in Pakistan. PHOTO: FARHAN LASHARI/EXPRESS


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.

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Reader Comments (13)

  • Parvez
    Apr 2, 2012 - 12:09AM

    Enjoyed reading this. Nurturing the arts is so important, especially in the regressive atmosphere that exists here and it should be within the reach of the common man and not exclusive to the elite. Private TV channels can do a lot to further this cause as it helps in building a more tolerant, enlightened society. Every effort counts and God alone knows how badly this is needed.


  • anum
    Apr 2, 2012 - 12:23AM

    Awesome! Good work Etribune!


  • Deb
    Apr 2, 2012 - 2:00AM

    One of the most difficult instrument to master.The art is dying in India too, but at a slower pace which is no consolation.


  • Dr Omar
    Apr 2, 2012 - 11:55AM

    Agreed with Parvez, nurturing is the key, private TV channels, private radio stations, social networks and events/concerts (Classic as well as fusion with pop music) are some strong viable options to look into. Its a fact that no art would flourish if its practician is not finding financial comfort (means of making a living out of it).

    Surely we can find some airtime for quality music, its not like there is a lot of intellectually stimulating/refreshing content on each and every channel! In the West there is a high demand for popular music, but their western classic (Bach, Beethoven and Mozart etc) music is heard on their electronic media and appreciated by quite a few!Recommend

  • wajab
    Apr 2, 2012 - 4:53PM

    There are certainly more pressing issues than sarangi.


  • Dr Omar
    Apr 2, 2012 - 5:37PM

    @ Wajab, Agreed there are a lot of issues requiring immediate attention and times are indeed hard, aggravated by economic crunch.

    But our arts and culture (musics, literature, languages and philosophy) make up who we are as as a society and nation, they are a part of our heritage and are not only important for our identity but also essential for our ‘social and emotional survival’.

    We need to create a balance, solve our economic and governance issues etc and along with it save our art and culture simultaneously; for these are chronic problems, we cannot concentrate on one set of issues and ignore the rest.

    A prime example can be found in other Asian and Far Eastern nations (Japan, China, Singapore and Malaysia, etc) where there is an economic boom and their own art, music, history and literature is just as actively preserved.


  • Vigilant
    Apr 2, 2012 - 7:54PM

    i love sarangi….&…’s beautiful sound……said to know that it’s dying….


  • Lola Kali
    Apr 3, 2012 - 9:10AM

    There are many new young students of Sarangi in India and many students of sarangi from Europe. Also Canada and U.S. has students.


  • Blaise
    Apr 3, 2012 - 1:35PM

    I am very proud to call Zohaib Hassan my teacher and friend.


  • Scratching head
    Apr 3, 2012 - 7:57PM

    A worthwhile read on this section after a long time


  • David
    Apr 11, 2012 - 12:14AM

    Wonderful to finally see such an amazing artist featured. I hope more young people get inspired by his love for the instrument and mastery of sarangi technique. Zohaib Hassan is a shining light in the sarangi world!.


  • NGO type
    Apr 20, 2012 - 1:22PM

    Zohaib is one of the youngest most talented musicians in Pakistan. I have seen him perform several times. He leaves every one in his audience spellbound no matter which platform. I urge and encourage the youth of Pakistan to support him. He is opening to performing anywhere and is eager to take any opportunity that might come his way. Lets keep the art of Sarangi alive!


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