To say that Ram Narayan's name has become synonymous with the sarangi in the contemporary worlds is to indulge in clich‚. His name is to sarangi, what Bismillah Khan's is to shehnai or Shivkumar Sharma's is to santoor. At a time when the bowed instrument was losing out totally to the harmonium, it was Pt. Ram Narayan, among the generation of musicians who came of age during the post-Independence period, who single-handedly gave it an autonomous role.
Ram Narayan was born in 1927 in Udaipur into a family of singers and instrumentalists. Nathuji Biawat, his father, was a renowned dilruba player whose fingering technique was considered unique. When Ram Narayan was only five, his father noticed him attempting to play on a broken sarangi using a piece of wood. He intuited the boy's inclinations and had him trained in the instrument elaborately from that day on. He was fortunate enough to receive further guidance from such veterans as Ustad Mehboob Khan and Pt. Udaylal early on. But his genius blossomed in the hands of Pt. Madhav Prasad of Maihar. His meeting with his guru in Maihar was one of a disciple finding an ideal teacher and the guru finding an apt vessel for pouring the fund of his musical knowledge. His training under Madhav Prasad lasted for almost five years. In the meantime, he was appointed a staff artist in AIR, Lahore. While in Lahore, he also learnt under Kirana maestro, Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan. Later, he joined AIR Delhi at first and eventually moved to AIR Mumbai.
While in Mumbai, he started accompanying many great singers on the sarangi. This happened at a time when the instrument was as good as eased out of the field. To get a break as an accompanist then must have meant that his talents must have been stupendous. Ram Narayan's maturity and gifts were soon recognized by several great singers who also went ahead and initiated him into the finer points of their style. The years he spent as an accompanist were indeed his years of learning, assimilation and experimentation. It was around the early 1950s that Ram Narayan, distressed by the third-class citizenship given to his instrument in the concert circles, as also its secondary role in a concert, decided to resurrect the fortunes. To this end he decided to bring about changes in the instrument, and also the method of playing, in order to introduce many serious aspects of vocal music into his style. In order to accomplish this, he had to make many modifications both on the instrument and also in his bowing and fingering techniques. He first changed the pitch of the instrument from what was prevalent to a higher one. The new pitch afforded him an amazing four octaves, thus giving his alaaps and vilambits a solemnity unheard of until then. He also used imported metallic strings as also higher quality bows, again imported from abroad, to get better tonality. The length of the playing bow or gaz was increased in order to get long, unbroken spans of sound. One can witness him employ the full length of the bow when playing both the rising and descending movements. It is this steady movement that lends his music its continuity and fullness. Most of the significant alterations he brought about have now become part of the repertoire of many younger sarangi players.
Along with his gifted brother, Pt. Chatur Lal, a tabla player of genius, he gave numerous solo concerts during the mid-1950s. The response was mild to cool at first, as the audience of his time were more quite used to the idea of listening to solo sarangi recitals. But a momentous concert he gave in 1957 altered the tide so completely that even the unconcerned and the mildly hostile critics, connoisseurs and listeners were compelled to take note of the amazing musical possibilities that Ram Narayan's sarangi had unleashed. Soon things began to take shape on their own and he was recognized as a maestro in many circles in the country and abroad. He gave up accompaniment and turned a solo artist from this point on. In any event, Ram Narayan is widely honoured in the country as a pioneer who achieved what seemed like the impossible five decades back through sheer dedication and untainted devotion.
Having delved the genius of the sarangi fully well, Ram Narayan realized that the instrument shines best in the alaap vilambit sections. In these sections he conveys ample depth of feeling. His raagavistaar is meticulous and melodious at the same time. His supple meends are soft and graceful. To hear him play such grave raagas as Gujari Todi, Poorya Dhanashri, Marwa or Darbari, is to experience the true character of his style as also the feel of his sense of proportion. The commendable weightiness of his alaaps and the disciplined and dignified presentation of vilambits does never emote the sarangi's association with dance and thumri; on the other hand, it demonstrates its autonomous status as an instrument worthy of being compared to stringed instruments like the sitar and the sarod.
Ram Narayan has been liberal enough to cross the gender barrier when he taught the instrument to his daughter Aruna Kalle Narayan and also encouraged her to take to the concert platform. His son, Brij Narayan has emerged as a brilliant sarod player
|More Articles in Indian Classical Instrumentalists (26)|