From Afghan to Bengal – Journey of the sarod in Indian Classical music

Sarod has a special place in Hindusthani classical music. Musician, writer and actor ANINDYA BANERJEE, searches deep into the origins of this enchanting musical instrument.

Anindya Banerjee


The roots of sarod in Indian classical music go back to an age when Afghan soldiers and businessmen possessed an indigenous stringed instrument called Rabab, that essentially accompanied folk music. The Afghans were horse traders which gave them easy access to the royal courts of India. They gradually started taking interest in Indian classical music and in the early 19th century, many of them settled in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in places like Shahjahanpur, Bulandsahar, Bareilly, Moradabad, Najibabad and gradually became an integral part of the Indian musical scenario. The Rabab was introduced in Indian classical music and later came to be known as Rudraveena. Tansen, the iconic musician of the Mughal court, played this instrument for which it came to be known as Dhrupadi or Tanseni Rabab. But the appearance and style of playing this instrument was different. Later, in the third decade of the 19th century, Tansen’s descendant Jafar Khan invented the Sursringar. The wooden plate of the Dhrupadi Rabab was replaced by a metal plate in the Sursringar, the leather dome was replaced by a wooden one and in place of cotton strings came iron, brass or copper strings. The new features made the sound deeper and louder.

When Nawab Wahjid Ali Shah was defeated by the British and exiled to Calcutta, he

Niyamatullah and Asadullah Khan

brought with him several courtesans, singers, musicians, kathak dancers and so on. Among Wahjid Ali’s musicians was the notable Niyamatullah Khan, who soon became the connoisseurs’ favourite in Calcutta. It is believed that Niyamatullah Khan is the first legendary classical instrumentalist in Hindusthani classical music. His two sons were Keramatullah Khan and Asadullah Khan Kaukav, better known as Kukav Khan, in the Bengali elite society. Bengal Traders Association had sent these musicians to London to play at the anniversary ceremony of Queen Victoria’s coronation. These well-dressed musicians playing fast-paced ‘gat-tora’, instantly won hearts of the British people. Later, they cut records which, at that time, were heard being played in Bengali households.

Dhiren Bose

The fast pace of this gharana was quite appealing to audiences. They recomposed several renditions of the Tansen family, making them more appropriate to the times. Their students in Calcutta, who later popularised sarod through their future generations were Kali Pal, Dhiren Basu, Shyam Gangopadhyay and others. Another descendent of this family was Omar Khan who was a permanent resident of Calcutta and his son, Irfan Khan had a magnificent collection of compositions.

A young Aamir Khan

Lalitamohan Maitreya, the zamindar of Rajshahi, was the student of Bhagwandas Pakhwazi. In order to practice playing the pakhawaj, the zamindar employed sarod player Aamir Khan and Mohammad Abdullah Khan who was the adopted son of Murad Ali, at Rajshahi on a fixed salary. His grandson, Radhikamohan was so mesmerised by their music that he started taking lessons from Aamir Khan. Hafiz Ali Khan’s paternal uncle, Murad Ali Khan was Abdullah and Aamir’s guru. He was a treasure of of ‘gats’ of this particular gharana. For some reason he left his home and started teaching students outside his family, a rare practice in those times. Later, when Aamir Khan became a permanent resident of Calcutta, he taught these ‘gat’ to his students like Radhikamohan Maitreya, Banikantha Mukhopadhyay, Timir Baran Bhattacharya and to this day these styles are still heard in the music of this gharana.

Radhika Mohan Maitra

Radhikamohan, who later learnt from Seni Binkar Mohammad Dabir Khan, taught those ‘gat’ to his students. These are still heard in the music of his students like Buddhadev Dasgupta, Samarendra Sikdar and others.

Hafiz Ali Khan destroyed the roots of Niyamatullah Khan’s gharana and established his own empire of the ‘Singing Sarod’.  Although he lived in Gwalior, he often visited Calcutta to play. His enchanting music won him huge support from the rich and famous of the city like Jalubabu, Bechachandra of Lohapatty, Gouripur House of Beadon Street, Raichand Boral and Durlabhchandra Bhattacharya of Howrah. Later his son, Amjad Ali Khan’s music has widely influenced the Bengali sarodists. The clear similarity between the notes of his sarod and the sitar had attracted Bengali sarodists.

Alauddin Khan

Baba Alauddin Khan learnt  music from Nula Gopal and Habu Dutta. He learnt Dhrupad Kheyal music from one and took western violin lessons from the other. Beside he learnt the mridangam from Nandababu, shehnai from Hazari Ustad, violin from Mr Lobo and sarod from Ahmad Ali before going to Rampur to train under Wazir Khan. Apart from Birendra Kishore Roychowdhury, Alauddin Khan did not have students in Calcutta. He would say that if anyone wanted to learn, he would have to go to Maihar where he was the court musician. Two famous Bengali sarodists, Timir Baran and Shyam Gangopadhyay had gone to Maihar to learn from Alauddin Khan.

Ali Akbar Khan

In the 1950’s Baba Alauddin Khan’s son Ali Akbar Khan and nephew Bahadur Khan settled in Calcutta. Attracted by the modern and beautiful instrument, many people joined the Ali Akbar College of Music established in 1956, thus creating a foothold for the Maihar gharana in Calcutta.