Esraj was a mainstream instrument at one time. One of my teachers Pandit Vinayak Vora accompanied eminent vocalists in the concert hall on tarshahnai (see picture on music research page). Ravi Shankar played the esraj and had a great fondness for it, so did several other great instrument players of Bengal.
Still, Esraj always suffered from an identity crisis. Being a common instrument of accompaniment with vocal music, esraj was looked down upon by other instrument players. In the prejudice-ridden and hierarchical world of Indian classical music, esraj shared the lowly fate of sarangi. I overheard a conversation my father once had with his friend, a great sarod player, who expressed the same prejudice.
Some of this confusion affected the performers of the instrument and their manner of playing it, torn between the vocal or gayaki mode and the staccato style of plucking instruments like sitar. The choice is artificial in my mind. The very sound of esraj, like that of any major instrument, creates a distinct idiom.
It is a rare instrument. Last known concentrations of master-apprentice lines could be found in Benares, Gaya, Bishnupur, and Santiniketan, where, thanks to Rabindranaths fondness for the sound of esraj, some of the Bishnupur masters relocated.
The temple town Gaya could boast of three eminent esraj-players at the turn of the twentieth century, Sohni Singh, Chandrika Prasad Dubey (who lived in Powoi near Gaya), and Kanhaialal Dhendi. The reputation of Gaya in esraj built around one renowned master, Hanumandas Singh. He was Sohni Singhs father. Sohni Singhs grandfather Haridas or Harlal was believed to have migrated from the princely state of Charkhari in central India, to Gaya, during the mutiny (1857). His son was renamed Hanumandas by his spiritual guru. Hanumandas Singh (c. 1840 - 1930?) was an accomplished classical musician and a great esraj player. He lived a long life and was known to be generous and accessible as a teacher.
Among his many disciples, Chandrika Prasad Dubey (1875-?, see picture) belonged to Gaya. Other names included a doctor of Calcutta known as Bhelubabu, and possibly Kanhaialal Dhendi. Dhendi was an instrument maker as well as an esraj player. Sohni Singh learnt esraj from him. Kanhaialal became a brand name in esraj. One of my teachers, Pandit Vinayak Vora, mentioned to me that kanhaiyalal was a mark of quality, though the original Kanhaiyalal was long dead. Chandrika Prasad is said to have left a few esraj recordings.
Another renowned disciple of the Gaya lineage was Shitalchandra Mukhopadhyay (1872-?) of Kirtipasha, Barishal. The biography of Shitalchandra brings up the name of another esraj-player of eastern Bengal, Ramchandra De Sarkar of Kirtipasha, who was one of his early teachers. Shitalchandra was later trained by Amritalal Datta, a relation of Swami Vivekananda and a music student of Hanumandas, and finally by Hanumandas himself. His further training in Gaya was made possible by sponsorship from another patron of the instrument, the head of the landlord estate of Gauripur, Brajendrakishor Raychaudhuri.
Bishnupur gharana left a lasting legacy on style and conscious rethinking on style, thanks to its relocation to Santiniketan. This move led to the establishment of esraj as a mainstream subject of instruction in the university there, and gave the instrument and some of its modern practitioners more visibility. The two names often mentioned in this connection are Ashesh Bandopadhyay, and Ranadhir Roy (1945-89).
Roy innovated a distinctive manner of playing and redesigned the instrument to suit that style. Without question, he did the most to establish esraj's claim to a distinct place in the pantheon of Indian classical instruments. A collection of English-Bengali essays produced in his memory after the untimely death of this extraordinarily gifted musician contain detailed discussion of his experiments with style, technique, and instrument (Esrajer Ranadhir).
Moment of glory
The Gaya masters left a few students in Calcutta, including a few from the family of the Tagores. A later member of the lineage, Dakshinamohan Thakur (1915-86, see picture), lived in Bombay. He created the most famous background music in all of Indian film music - an overpowering 30 second movement in the raga Patdeep, played on the tarshahnai in Satyajit Rays film Pather Panchali (music director Ravi Shankar), in the scene where Harihar returns home from his travels to learn that his daughter had died.
No other instrument can be imagined producing the same effect as this movement on tarshahnai did.
Dakshinamohan Thakur (Dukhibabu) of Calcutta, Bombay
At present, there are several players who are known to accompany vocal music on esraj. They are scattered throughout the world. But performers in classical and solo esraj are rare. A few can be found in Santiniketan (mainly students of Ranadhir Roy), and in Delhi, where Alauddin Khan of Delhi sarangi line has established esraj and dilruba as mainstream concert instruments.
By construction, esraj is similar to sitar, suitably reshaped as a bow instrument. It has two other close cousins, dilruba and tarshahnai. Dilruba has the base of a sarangi, and tarshahnai is fitted with a soundbox. All three share a similar upper part or stem.