In the shadow of Lahore’s century-old Badshahi Mosque, Zohaib Hassan plays the strings of a sarangi, filling the streets with a distinctive melody.
Remarkable for its resemblance to a plaintive human voice, the classical instrument is fading from Pakistan’s music scene, save for a few musicians dedicated to preserving its place.
Difficult to master, expensive to repair and with little financial reward for professionals, the sarangi’s decline has been difficult to stop, Hassan told the AFP news agency.
“We are trying to keep the instrument alive, not even taking into account our miserable financial condition,” he said.
For seven generations, his family has mastered the short-necked, bowed instrument and Hassan is highly respected throughout Pakistan for his skills, appearing regularly on television, radio and private parties. He also teaches the instrument at an academy he set up in Lahore.
“My family’s craze for the instrument forced me to pursue a career as a sarangi player, leaving my education incomplete,” he said.
“I live from day to day, since most directors organize musical programs with the most modern pop bands and orchestras”.
Traditional instruments compete with a booming pop and R&B scene in a country where more than 60 percent of the population is under 30.
Sara Zaman, professor of classical music at the National Arts Council in Lahore, says it’s not just the sarangi, but other traditional instruments such as the sitar, santoor and tanpura are also disappearing.
“Platforms have been given to other disciplines such as pop music, but it has been lacking in the case of classical music,” he said.
“The sarangi, being a very difficult instrument, has not been given due importance and attention in Pakistan, which has led to its gradual disappearance.”
‘The strings of my heart’
The sarangi gained prominence in Indian classical music in the 17th century, during the reign of the Mughals in the subcontinent.
Its decline in Pakistan began in the 1980s after the death of several classical teachers and singers in the country, said Khwaja Najam-ul-Hassan, a television director who has created an archive of Pakistan’s leading musicians.
“The instrument was close to the hearts of internationally acclaimed top male and female classical singers, but began to fade after his death,” he said.
Ustad Allah Rakha, one of Pakistan’s most globally acclaimed sarangi players, died in 2015 after a career that saw him perform with orchestras around the world.
Now musicians say they struggle to survive on performance fees alone, often much smaller than those paid to modern guitarists, pianists or violinists.
Hand-carved from a single block of cedar native to parts of Pakistan, the sarangi’s main strings are made from goat gut, while the seventeen sympathetic strings, a common feature on popular instruments from the subcontinent, are made from steel.
The instrument costs approximately 120,000 rupees ($625) and most of its parts are imported from neighboring India, where it remains a main part of the canon.
“The price has gone up because there is a ban on imports from India,” said Muhammad Tahir, owner of one of only two repair shops in Lahore.
Tahir, who can spend about two months carefully restoring a single worn sarangi, said no one in Pakistan makes the special steel strings due to lack of demand.
“There is no admiration for the sarangi players and the few people who repair this wonderful instrument,” said Ustad Zia-ud-Din, owner of the other Lahore repair shop, which has been around for 200 years in some form.
Efforts to fit into the modern music scene have shown promising pockets.
“We have invented new ways of playing, including semi-electric manufacturing of the sarangi to improve the sound during performances on modern musical instruments,” Hassan said.
Now he has performed several times with the adapted instrument and says that the reception has been positive.
One of Hassan’s few students is 14-year-old musician Mohsin Muddasir, who has eschewed instruments like the guitar in favor of the sarangi.
“I’m learning this instrument because it tugs at my heartstrings,” he said.