The Esraj, a bowed stringed instrument, is rarely played today
On a tour of Germany, we presented a concert for the UNESCO Chairs and for the festival of music there, where we witnessed a German lady performing on the Esraj, an Indian instrument. Her playing was so fascinating that we decided to write about the instrument.
The Esraj belongs to the category of the Chordophones and is a bowed stringed instrument, which is usually played in the East and central regions of India, particularly in Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Assam, Tripura and also Bangladesh.
In Bihar and Bengal, it is learnt, that the Esraj became popular about a hundred or two hundred years ago. This instrument, which had become almost extinct during the 1980s, was revived and used in Gurmat Sangeet. Known as the ‘Voice of the Sikhs’, it is learnt, that the Esraj was made and promoted by a sect of Sikhism - the Namdaris.
The Esraj is generally used as an accompanying instrument (as in Rabindra Sangeet). It is also mostly performed as a solo instrument in Hindustani music mainly in the Vishnupur tradition.
Having a strong semblance, with slight difference in structure, to the Dilruba, the Esraj was originally an instrument of Afghanistan and was said to have made its appearance in North India during the Pashtun rule. It is learnt, that both these instruments emerged, combining the features of Sarangi and Sitar, due to needs of the society during that period.
Apart from the Sarangi, there were no other bowed instruments on the classical music scene during the 19th century. Moreover, the Sarangi was a difficult instrument to play and to master, while the frets on Dilruba and Esraj made it a bit easier to play them. The Sarangi was also associated with artistes, who belonged to a lower social status and was used to accompany dancing girls/ coutesans/ tawaifs.
The Esraj is divided into two parts, the Dand or the fingerboard and the Pyala (sound box) that is round or oval-shaped. This is cut from the sides to facilitate bowing. The segment where the two parts are connected is called as the Gulu, which is an important joint that has to be fixed carefully. The fingerboard is long having around 17 - 20 frets made from metal resembling the Sitar. These frets are movable like that of the Sitar and can be shifted up and down as and when needed.
The wood that is used for making the structure is the Tun or Sagwan. The solid wooden body is covered with leather made from Goat’s skin that acts as a resonance cover. To the middle of this parched goats skin, known as the Chamara, is fixed a horn bridge known as the Ghurach, to which are fixed the playing strings that are four in number. The bridge is thin, similar to that of the Sarangi. There are grooves made on the bridge on which the main strings rest. These strings are attached to the main pegs at the top of the instrument. There are sympathetic strings (12-15 in number) that go through the holes drilled in the bridge. They are usually made of metal or partly steel and partly bronze.
To the side of the fingerboard is added an extra wooden strip for the tuning pegs of the sympathetic strings. In order to provide extra support to the leather that is under the bridge, there is an extra strap of leather that is fixed securely under the bridge and pinned on the corners of the sound box.
For stability and r tone enrichment there is a gourd that is sometimes fixed to the top of the instrument. The Esraj is played with a bow called Gaz.
Sound is produced with the help of the left hand fingertips similar to the sitar. The forefinger and middle fingers of the left hand are used to slide upon the strings and frets longitudinally. The strings are never pulled like sitar. Techniques similar to the Sitar and Sarangi could be used on this instrument.
The instrument is placed either on the lap or on the floor in front of the player while the fingerboard rests on the left shoulder of the performer. The instrument can also be rested between the knees of a kneeling performer. It is played upright like a cello with a bow. The bow has the stick portion made of wood, and resembles the bow of the violin.
Currently, the instrument, although not extinct, has become rare.