Wood, skin and steel
Some sarods, like the Afghan rabab, are made from mulberry wood, but most are made, like the sitar, from teak. According to Amjad Ali Khan, teak gives a fuller, richer sound. The front of the wooden belly is covered with goat skin. The best place to get goat skins is Calcutta and that’s where most of the sarod makers are based, including Hemendra Chandra Sen, of Hemen & Sons, who is around 80 years old and the most important sarod maker in India. “In Bengal,” explains Amjad Ali Khan, “there is a strong cult of Kali worship and there are lots of sacrifices to her. There are lots of goat skins in Calcutta and that’s why you find most of the tabla makers there too. This is the character of India and its history. A Hindu woman wears a beautiful Sari made by Muslims in Varanasi. I myself am a Muslim, but I play an instrument made in Calcutta by a Hindu. We all have different religions, but we depend on each other. The history of India is like that.”
It was Amjad Ali Khan’s forefathers that effected the most important development in the instrument and replaced the wooden, fretted neck of the rabab with a smooth polished-steel fingerboard which permits the characteristic slides (or meend) which are used extensively at the beginning of a composition to establish the raga. Just as a tabla player will always have his bottle of talcum powder to sprinkle on his drums, Amjad Ali Khan has a small, decorated box of palm oil to help his left had slide effortlessly around the fingerboard. The rabab’s gut strings have also been replaced by steel ones – piano strings in fact – which give a much more ringing, and singing tone. There are just four strings used for playing the melody, two drone strings and two chikari strings (raised drone strings which are used to punctuate the melodic phrases with rhythmic accompaniment). Amjad Ali Khan uses 11 sympathetic strings (tuned to the notes of the raga), although other players use more which increases the reverberant effect. The four melody strings are generally tuned (from the top) doh, fa, doh, mi. The lowest string is made from bronze and has a deep, powerful sound, “full of passion”.

The strings are not plucked with the fingers, but with a java or coconut-shell plectrum. “This plectrum can be a hammer or a feather,” says Amjad Ali Khan. “You can play very loud, or give it just a feather touch, skimming gently across the strings.” Actually, the range of colours that a player like Amjad Ali Khan can get out of the instrument is quite incredible and is certainly why it’s found such an important role in classical Indian instrumental music.
Nail-biting technique
Like many musicians who play an instrument that’s been ‘elevated’ from folk to classical status, Amjad Ali Khan can talk quite dismissively of the rabab. “It’s not a very expressive instrument,” he says, “and quite limited.” Using the soft tips of his fingers, he imitates the duller, more gutty sound of the rabab and contrasts it with the clear, ringing tone of the sarod. There are actually two schools of sarod playing – one in which the strings are stopped by the fingertips and the other in which the strings are stopped by the finger-nails of the left hand (as practised by Amjad Ali Khan). This is what makes the clear ringing sound and is one of the things that makes it so difficult to play. “These two nails I never cut,” says Amjad Ali Khan, showing the first and second fingers of his left hand. “They just get worn down. I have to file them after every concert. People might think I am just beautifying my nails, but it’s essential maintenance. They get little grooves cut into them from the strings.” I get a vivid picture in my mind of the ridges worn into wells in India by the continuous pulling of ropes. It is nails on steel that gives the sarod its clear, muscular sound. “In Hindi we say ‘Swara hi ishwar hay’ - ‘Sound is god’ and whilst you are playing you can feel god. I often have my eyes closed to feel the sound.”

Amjad Ali Khan shows how he can play melodies just using his left hand. “My father used to play like that for five minutes at a time,” he says. “Many years ago, a sarangi player at the court challenged my grandfather. ‘You must play anything that I can play’, he said. My grandfather took up the challenge and copied everything the sarangi player could bow on his instrument. Then my grandfather said: ‘Now you see if you can imitate me’ and asked the sarangi player to tie-up his right hand. My grandfather played beautiful melodies with one hand, but the sarangi player could do nothing without his bowing hand and lost.”

For Amjad Ali Khan the sarod is more than an instrument. He is more than a slave and it is more than a master. It is a friend and spiritual companion: “The sarod should have human expression. The sarod should sing, should yell, laugh, cry - all the emotions. Music has no religion in the same way flowers have no religion. Through music – and through this instrument - I feel connected with every religion and every human being – or every soul, I should say.”