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Strings of history

In her quest to trace the evolution of string instruments, academic Dr Allyn Miner, comes to Lahore

Strings of history
Dr Allyn Miner.

Dr Allyn Miner spent more than 10 years in India, mostly in the city of Banaras, but she travelled far and wide especially in the northern part of the subcontinent, studying string instruments, and looking into their history and evolution — particularly in the last couple centuries.

Her quest did not stop once she left India, as she became the shagird of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in the US, and remained so for the next 15 years. Despite her visits to, and stay as well as contacts in India during the last 45 odd years, she was never able to come to Pakistan. She once reached Amritsar but was not able to cross the border.

She now has got the opportunity to visit Pakistan, and is meeting musicians and reconnecting with the subtle process of the personalised understanding of the music.

A double PhD, one in musicology and the other in Sanskrit, she has been in the US pursuing her interests at the academic level. Currently associated with the University of Pennsylvania, she takes sitar classes, gives lectures and pursues her interest which is currently focused more around the playing of the violin.

While she was in India, everyone talked of Pakistan — Lahore in particular — and it appeared to her that her journey of understanding music of this area could not end without her visit to Pakistan. Musicians in India particularly talked about the role that Lahore had played in the development of musical norms and of music in general.

To understand music, and particularly its theoretical side, it is imperative to have a functioning knowledge of the practice of music; otherwise, the essential link between practices and its theory or general theories get mangled and no clear-cut connection between the two can be sustained. She learnt to play the sitar, and her first guru was Dr Raj Bhan Singh. She learnt a lot from her dada guru Pandit Shivram Ramchandra Malvankar of Allahabad.

She also benefited from Pandit Jyotish Chandra Chaudhury, Ustad Ilyas Khan — and then Prem Lata Sharma, the former Chairperson of the Department of Musicology at the Banaras Hindu University, as she coached her through the doctoral programme.

It is hoped that her trip to Pakistan, her meetings with the musicians and scholars of music inspire her to continue with her research because the principal source of information here are the oral sources

There are a number of theories about the origin of the sitar — the one that is carried through oral sources is that of Amir Khusro being the originator. But it has become clear with the passage of time and research that his name got confused with another Khusro Khan who lived in the 18th century. Social motivations and the tenacity of tradition caused the idea to persist.

The second view was propagated by Ravi Shanker — that stringed instruments existed much before Amir Khusro in the 13th century, the sitar probably being the modification of tritantri — a three-string vina. The third theory refers to the appearance of the long-necked lutes in the ninth and tenth centuries as evidence by the temple sculpture of the time, and suggested that sitar was in existence from the earliest time in India. But its final form was influenced later by Central or Western Asia instruments.

It has also been speculated that it developed from the Persian instrument sehtar which in the first place was originally developed from the Indian citra vina. Some attribute it to the introduction of the long-necked instruments introduced in the Mughal Courts from Central Asia like the Persian sehtar, tambur and Uzbek Dutar. The melody tambur, its modification in the form of the drone instrument which is still called the tanbura and the current Indian sitar clearly appear related. Even more evidence pointed to the Persian or Kashmiri sehtar as being the immediate ancestry of the mainstream sitar.

What has really been lacking is an evolutionary development of the forms and instruments of music in our part of the world. The oral sources as they have come down to us treat all of it in a finished manner, and do not emphasise the process itself. Such scholarship which has been carried out by the non-subcontinent scholars seems to be more objective as they seek evidence to supplement or complement the oral sources not treating ancient written sources as sacred and perceiving the following history as only the outcome of something that was meant to be ordained.

Dr Miner delivered a number of lectures in Pakistan last week on the evolution of the instrument, on the lines as propounded in her book, Sitar and Sarod in the 18th and 19th Century. She rightly did not dwell on a single type of string instrument, rather treated the family of string instruments, as these influenced each other and resulted in the form of the sitar as we know it today.

Sarod too has figured quite prominently in her research. Dr Miner dilated on her research conducted about four decades ago. She has been keen to add to her book, have it reprinted as a second edition in the light of some of the other findings that she has since come to know about.

It is hoped that her trip to Pakistan, her meetings with the musicians and scholars of music inspire her to continue with her research because the principal source of information here are the oral sources, and very little research with documented evidence has been carried out in the subcontinent. Where documentary evidence is concerned, the ancient Sanskrit sources are oft-quoted and the linkages derived from there.

Dr Miner pointed out enough research has not been carried out on the Persian/Central Asian and even other sources that may offer a more objective and well-rounded understanding of our musical past and its gradual evolution.

This article was published in The News on Sunday on March 05, 2017 under the title Chasing history.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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