The sound of the rabab has a magnetic lure. The nylon or gut strings evoke a soulful serenade, tugging at our heartstrings. Originating from central Afghanistan, the instrument is a staple of Pakistan’s Pukhtun populated musical landscape. Yet, the art of crafting a fine rabab has taken a hit in recent years, with the number of rabab makers swiftly dwindling.
In Peshawar, 25-year-old Khurram Shahzad and his family are the last remaining torch bearers of this intricate exercise. “Everyone loves the rabab. Demand for this instrument is not limited to Pakistan. Social media has shaped our business and what was earlier limited to Pukhtuns has now spread all over the world,” shares Shahzad. He says many educated boys have picked up the instrument but, unfortunately, very few good rabab makers remain.
“Learning how to play the rabab is much easier than making it. Years of struggle and hard work go into becoming an expert rabab maker,” explains Shahzad. It takes three years to just learn some of the basics of this craft, that too with a lot of dedication and in the presence of teachers who are eager to impart their knowledge and skills, he adds.Tucked away in the narrow streets of Shah Qabool Bazaar, Dabgari, Shahzad’s workshop is more like a small hujra. At any given time of the day, one finds customers and guests sitting on charpoys, some struggling with simple melodies, others skilfully manipulating the fret board with nimble fingers. Dabgari was once known for hosting musicians and having several shops to cater to their needs. Today, only Shahzad’s shop bears testament to those glorious days. It was Shahzad’s grandfather, Ustad Samandar Khan, a recipient of the Pride of Performance award, who founded the shop.
Shahzad demonstrates how he makes the boat-shaped body of the rababfrom the refined trunk of a mulberry tree. This single piece of trunk is hollowed out with the help of a machine. Rababs are made from a single bough. The lower part is known as the sound box. The process was much more difficult earlier, but machines have now made it easier for a whole bough of a mulberry tree to be hollowed in no time.
The rabab generally has three main strings, also called the ‘melody strings’, which are made of gut or nylon and stretched over a bridge made of bone, running to the pegs at the Taj. “Even these strings are imported from India as they are not produced locally,” says Shahzad. There are also a number of ‘sympathetic strings’, which local artists call tarab. They pass under the bridge, ranging from nine through 15, depending on the size of the rabab. The tarabs run to the friction pegs located at the side of the rabab. On the finger board of the instrument, there are four to five nylon frets. Shahzad says that usually no colour is applied to the body of the rabab. However, some musicians like decorative carvings on its body.The hollow bowl of the sound box is divided into two sections connected by a narrow tunnel formed by indentation on both sides of the instrument. The lower sound chamber is covered with chamra or goatskin, whereas the one adjacent to the neck is covered with a thin wooden plate. The carved peg box is made out of a separate piece of mulberry wood that is attached to the neck of the instrument which some musicians call the ‘Taj of rabab’.
Shahzad says that he can make two simple rababs in a week. However, the carving and intricate decoration on the peg box and the lute can take up to one month, increasing the price of the instrument, which ranges from Rs8,000 to Rs35,000.
The rabab usually comes in two sizes. According to Shahzad, professionals who play it in a studio with a microphone in front of them like rababs which are smaller than those used for performances in hujras or other open spaces.
“The rabab has a long history of evolution,” says Waqar Atal, a virtuosorabab player, who also runs a centre to impart his knowledge to the youth. “It has existed for decades and has become a part of our culture, tradition and poetry.” He adds that the rabab may have come to our part of the world due to a cultural interchange that happened in the past. “Some people believe that it is the predecessor of the sarod, a vital instrument in Indian music.”
The origins and inspiration behind the instrument may be somewhat unclear but what is not up for debate is that people like Shahzad are making sure the rabab is here to stay.
source:The Express Tribune, by Hidayat Khan
THE PASHTUN TIMES