Making Instruments Sing


I have long contemplated the human voice for its potential as a musical instrument. According to the ethnomusicologist J. Montague of Oxford University, music is “sound that conveys emotion”.

By this definition, the human voice is essentially a musical instrument that we all innately possess. Our voices produce the sounds that are fundamental to the constructs of emotion, connection and meaning that we develop throughout our lives. 

As a vocalist, music student and avid listener of raag sangeet, my interest has not only been in the technical aspects of singing, but also in the use of the voice to evoke memories and elicit deep emotion.

As an audiologist, I am familiar with research in the human brain’s processing of sound. This work demonstrates that our brains are highly attuned to the sound of the voice from birth. Our brains associate complex meaning and emotion with the voice based on features like timing, intensity, intonation, pitch and prosody, referring to the poetic and rhythmic inflections characteristic of spoken words and vocal music.

Believe it or not, our brains perform this function without the need for language carrying literal meaning. When I pause to ponder this fact, I quickly realize what an amazing feat of our brain’s auditory system this truly is! 

With this knowledge about humankind’s penchant for the voice, it’s not surprising that great effort has gone into developing schools of Indian classical instrumental music (i.e., gharanas) that have focused on inculcating techniques that encourage an instrument to be played in a manner that emulates the voice. This is true, as I discovered, in learning about the Imdadkhani gharana – also known as the Etawah gharana – of sitar and surbahar. 

The Imdadkhani gharana traces back to Ustad Sahebdad Khan, who is reputed to have invented the surbahar and received training from the doyens of the Gwalior gharana of vocal music in the 19th century. His son, Ustad Imdad Khan, through training with his father, developed a unique style of playing the sitar and surbahar that became the characteristic of the gharana, which was named after him. His sons Ustad Inayat Khan and Ustad Wahid Hussain Khan were leading musicians of their time, and propelled the gharana’s popularity in the early decades of the 20th century.   

The Imdadkhani gharana is one of the most prominent gharanas of Indian classical instrumental music. Its most salient feature, the gayaki ang, describes the technique of playing the sitar or surbahar to produce a sound that resembles the flow, intonation and prosody of the voice. The sound of the instrument emulates singing to the listener and the embellishments of khayal singing are absorbed into the playing of the instrument. Years upon years of effort were devoted by the doyens of this gharana into developing techniques and making structural modifications to the instruments that would suit the gayaki ang. 

It is said that Ustad Vilayat Khan, an acclaimed and celebrated sitarist of the Imdadkhani gharana in the later 20th century, was greatly influenced by leading vocalists of his time including Ustad Abdul Karim Khan of the Kirana gharana and Ustad Faiyaz Khan of the Agra gharana. He and his brother, Ustad Imrat Khan, are credited with making significant contributions in further developing and disseminating the Imdadkhani gharana.

Over generations, several notable features of the gharana have emerged, in particular with the technique used by the left hand of most sitar players:

• Emphasis on tone, resonance, and purity of swaras (notes) to resemble the voice.

• Meend (gliding) of four to five notes on one fret of the sitar.

• Sapat taans (notes of a raag, or scale, sung or played in fast succession in ascending and descending order).

An early experience I had of hearing the gayaki ang and Imdadkhani gharana style was in watching the Satyajit Ray film Jalsaghar (1958). In one scene, a musician is playing raag Bihag on the surbahar with beautiful flowing meend while the melancholy zemindar is lost in his thoughts. I later learned that the soundtrack for the film was composed by Ustad Vilayat Khan and the artiste in the film was none other than his uncle Ustad Wahid Khan. 

As a more experienced listener, I have been deeply moved by the sitar and surbahar renderings of the current maestros of this gharana. I have been fortunate to hear a number of concerts by Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan, Ustad Shujaat Khan, and Ustad Irshad Khan who performed a concert of sitar and surbahar for Raag-Mala Toronto in May 2022. All these maestros are direct descendants of Ustad Imdad Khan himself and their performances have left me mesmerized.    

Recently, I had the pleasure of listening to a surbahar recital by Pandit Budhaditya Mukherjee for the Blue Planet Music series presented by First Edition Arts and co-sponsored by the Raag-Mala Music Society of Toronto. A true maestro of the Imdadkhani gharana, Panditji’s recital was nothing short of soul-stirring. The beauty of his rendering evoked many emotions and memories that at times brought me to tears. Upon reflection, I realize that this was my experience, in large part due to the resemblance of the sound of Panditji’s surbahar to the sound of the voice, which led me to relate to my own memories, emotions and experiences.        

In a recent interview that Panditji gave with Raag-Mala Toronto’s Manoshi Chatterjee, he said, “Everybody’s mind is singing. What comes through the hand is a reflection and representation of what the mind is singing”.

The lifelong dedication and focus that the virtuosos of this gharana have devoted, and continue to devote, to their music will never be lost on me. Their music is carrying an enduring tradition that is inextricably linked to something we are all born with, a voice with which to sing, communicate and emote. 

Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan is scheduled to perform in Toronto at a rare concert of afternoon raags this month and Ustad Shujaat Khan and Pandit Budhaditya Mukherjee are slated to perform for our 2023 season.

Don’t miss your chance to be present with these incredible artistes as they make the sitar and surbahar “sing” according to their mind’s eye and let your mind and heart sing along!

When and where: Sunday October 16, 4 pm. Aga Khan Museum Auditorium, 77 Wynford Drive, Toronto. Tickets:

Samidha Joglekar is on the Raag-Mala Toronto team.