The Indian instrument Esraj: History and journey
A 300-year-old instrument it has supports the tradition of folklore
From the vast cultural history of the musical instruments that India has emerged from different regions, there is one in particular that has long been forgotten. Esraj from the agricultural land of Punjab is an instrument that was a famous part of reciting the verses of Guru and when narrating folklores. This string instrument from the looks of it appears to be like a sitar, veena, or tanpura but differs on a large scale. This bowed string instrument is made with a goatskin soundboard, sympathetic strings that are attached to a sitar-like neck, and twenty frets. This centuries-old instrument has a rich history that traveled from Punjab to the eastern states of India.
Stringing the melody from Punjab to West Bengal
The instrument of Esraj is popularly associated with and known as the Voice of the Sikhs. According to the various historical accounts, Esraj was made and widely used by a particular sect of Sikhism – the Namdaris. A relatively 300-year-old instrument, Esraj’s base formation began in Punjab in the 17th century and then traveled across the country to the West and East.
To learn the origin of the instrument, folklore has it that the esraj was invented by Ishwari Raj, a musician who lived in Gayadam. It is said to be a variant of another ancient instrument originating from the state of Punjab, Dilruba. The instrument of Dilruba was and is a part of the Sikh traditional music as it was used by the Sikh Guru while reciting lessons to his followers. So an Esraj is basically a modern variant of dilruba. And the dilruba itself is said to have been invented by the 10th Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, who himself based it on the even older, and heavier instrument, Taus. Unlike esraj, dilruba was made for the Khalsa, the Sikh army, to carry the instrument on horseback.
Apart from Punjab where esraj is used to accompany the Sikh music, in West Bengal, the instrument accompanies the Hindustani classical compositions. But most importantly, the association of Esraj is that of an accompanying instrument in RabindraSangeet. In the Vishnupur tradition, Esraj is mostly performed as a solo instrument in Hindustani music. In West Bengal, the body of esraj is of wood, while the resonator is covered with goat skin. There are four main strings, 15 sympathetic strings, 19 frets, and is played using a horse hair bow.
The fading rhythm of Esraj
Over time esraj saw itself fading from the world of traditional music. But with the rise in the GurmatSangeet movement to revive the traditional instrumentation of Sikh Kirtan, Esraj is once again in the limelight.