“I know when I’m capturing the raag and when I’m not,” declares Sangi Rangi website founder and sarangi archivist Nicolas Magriel, talking up the instrument considered the black sheep of India's musical heritage. By Clive Bell.
Nicolas Magriel grew up in New York, where at the age of 16 he took guitar lessons with blues legend The Reverend Gary Davies. An inclination towards drone and modal playing led him toward Indian music, and around the same time he heard an album of sarangi from the Nonesuch Explorer series: The Voice Of A Hundred Colours by Ram Narayan. In the early 1970s he arrived in Delhi in search of a sarangi teacher. He was aware that this bowed wooden box, awash with sympathetic strings, had a fearsome reputation as the most challenging of all Indian instruments, but this only added to its intrigue.
The Voice Of A Hundred Colours by Ram Narayan:
Decades of study and a PhD later, Magriel is based in London’s Swiss Cottage, where he teaches and continues to build up his extraordinary website: sarangi.net aka Sangi Rangi (‘sarangi-type stuff’). At the heart of this monster archive lie Magriel’s hundreds of films of sarangi players – musicians at home, teaching their students, practising, living a dedicated musical life. It’s a vast resource for sarangi students, though perhaps overwhelming for the rest of us. I ask Magriel for pointers. What’s here for the non-sarangi player? “One thing that’s really unique,” he begins, “is the amount of footage inside very traditional musicians’ homes. No one else has done this with anything in Indian music. I happen to be crazy enough to make 450 hours of video of sarangi players – I met most of them in the 1990s, in 18 cities across India. This is the real life of the musician – people practising and teaching at home, while the women are cooking vegetables, people are wheeling motorbikes in and out of the room, and the kids are going crazy. Even in India the concert-going public has no idea what this traditional life of musicians is; they know music as a packaged item that they see on the stage.”
Days before talking to Magriel, I watch him play a full concert of ragas in London Mayfair’s Nehru Centre, accompanied by Jhalib Millar, an American tabla player also London based. The compere, from Sama Arts Network, stresses to the audience what a rare pleasure it is these days to see a sarangi concert. Seated in the front row, nodding in appreciation of a particularly deft phrase, is sarangi player Suhail Yusuf Khan. British audiences have seen a fair bit of Khan’s playing in 2016, as he’s been touring in a fusion trio with Scottish folk singer James Yorkston and Lamb’s bassist Jon Thorne.
Yorkston/Thorne/Khan performing “Sufi Song”
I’m interested in Magriel’s perspective on where the sarangi fits in. “The sarangi is the black sheep of Indian music,” he tells me. “It’s the most difficult instrument and the lowest status. It was a rural folk instrument, and in the 18th century it came into the classical world because courtesans needed it to accompany singing and dance. It was by far the most popular and widespread instrument in 19th century India, because every brothel had sarangi players. But in the 20th century sarangi players were more and more marginalised; they were excluded from the mainstream of classical music, so they maintained their premodern way of life.” Magriel’s Sangi Rangi website has both male and female stars – the men are sarangi players and teachers, while the women are courtesans: skilled dancers and singers who employ sarangi players as accompanists and sometimes their agents. “In the words of my dear Ustad Abdul Latif Khan,” he says, “these women kept this music alive for the last 400 years.” The site has films of them at work, and pays tribute to their role, which Magriel feels has been written out of Indian musical history. “That was the core of classical music, and it’s something that’s been whitewashed, both in the West but specially in India. Everyone wants to think of it as a kind of spiritual music that was played in the temples. There was court music, but in many cases the male musicians who were idolised, actually they existed in order to teach the women how to sing. When India moved towards independence there was a feeling that there should be a classical music tradition, and so you needed first to connect it with ancient texts. Secondly they tried to create a pure Hindu art, whereas music had been the domain of muslims in India for 400 years. Ordnances were passed which in effect gradually repressed the courtesan tradition. Muslims were discriminated against, and sarangi players were discriminated against by association.”
Watch some of Magriel’s films of women singing and dancing.
These days Magriel denies that the sarangi is endangered – there are plenty of young players up on YouTube – but he worries that the music (and Indian art music in general) is becoming shallow: “It used to be that a sarangi player was hired for an entire concert, so he would play for four different singers, that’s three raags from each singer. So they had an immense knowledge. Then the economics switched, the singers employed their own accompanists, and they can employ harmonium players more cheaply. So sarangi players don’t have the background, the depth and the humility that comes from being in that second fiddle position for years. The younger players have plenty of stage presence and bravado. But what I consider to be the real spirituality of the music, that’s really being lost. That feeling of raags as being entities, as being something that’s not man-made, but distilled, channelled from somewhere or other. Musicians have this feeling. And I know when I’m capturing the raag and when I’m not. There’s something inviolable about that.”