It has a beautifully eerily, emotional sound that echoes the human voice, that comes not from vocal chords, but from bowed strings in this instrument from southern Asia – mainly music in Sikh, Punjab and eastern Bengal culture. Only created around 300 years ago, the esraj or ਇਸਰਾਜ (Gurmukhi) is a redesign of the original dilruba, first played and championed by the 10th Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh. The instrument has variously described as “the voice of the Sikhs”. The esraj regained popularity in the 1960s, but then declined again but now has re-emerged in Sikh music, the Gurmat Sangeet movement, and in Bangladesh.
The esraj, like the dilruba, has a medium-sized sitar-like neck with 20 heavy metal frets. and a long wooden rack of 12–15 sympathetic or non-played resonant strings. The metal bowed strings (four on the esraj, six on the dilruba) going over a, soundboard made of stretched goatskin similar to what’s on a sarangi, and the instruments sometimes have a gourd at the top assist balance and tone. It is generally held upright like a cello, with the player sitting down next to it or holding it between the knees.
But let’s hear it, first with Arshad Khan:
And Takashi Kougo:
Here also is a slow version of the well-known Hindu chant, the Gayatry Mantra played and interpreted by Denovaire, who graduated in composition in Graz, Austria, then travelled to Delhi and Benares to study traditional Indian music.
Perhaps though the best known esraj playing came in the 1967 Beatle’s album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on George Harrison's song Within You Without You, in which the guitarist collaborated with the Asian Music Circle.
Other notable players include Ravi Shankar, best known of course for the sitar, Pandit Shiv Dayal Batish, Pandit Ashish Chandra Banerjee, Pandit Ranadhir Roy, Pandit Buddhadev Das, S. N. Bose, and Joel Goldsmith.
Care to pick more examples of the esraj in any genres of music? Feel free to share other examples in songs, instrumentals, on albums, film, art or other contexts in comments below.
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