Saraswati Mela

Preserving instruments long lost in the alleys of time – Bygone Beats

We hope that no instrument or music form ever has to pass into oblivion in the minds of people.


Yatindra Mishra writes about the long lost instrument ‘Raavanhattha’in his poem ‘Magical Fiddle”

Just mention this bowed fiddle
and even the dead come alive
on its lilting music reaching out
the faraway sands
one finds footsteps of
the Bengali Baul Saint
called Lalon Faqir
This is no mere instrument to
just play out the notes
but a spontaneous part
of life for long years…
…..Just letting it languish alone
we may forget the names of
who knows how many
Fakirs and Kabirpanthis….

The symbols and motifs which  constitute our culture, develop much like their biological counterparts of an ecosystem. They don’t develop in seclusion but in a symbiotic relationship with a multitude of many other things. Losing any part of it is akin to losing a product of thousands of years of evolution. As Yatindra Mishra says, losing a simple instrument is losing a part of our cultural legacy , losing Raavanhattha is also losing the songs of longing and prayer which accompanied it,  the beautiful writings of the poets and bards which were sung on it. It is also losing the philosophy which forms a part of our shared history and only time knows what else with it. 

With this ache in my heart , I recently came across an initiative by the Music Club of BIT Mesra, Dhwani   . They were working on a project titled Bygone Beats where they chronicled the history of seven instruments lost to time. They researched deeply and made invigorating , short videos on them which would familiarize the viewers with these instruments. They also share rare recordings of the instruments. Their choices covered eastern and western music worlds, Hindustani and Carnatic practices of music. The instruments  covered were Rudra Veena, Lituus, Pena, Bassoon, PakhawajMorchang & theNadaswaram.

Deeply appreciative of the initiative I got in contact with the people behind these projects to know about their inspirations, challenges and rewards.

SM: This is such a novel concept digging deep in the love of music, how was the concept of Bygone Beats conceived?

The loss of any instrument is, in a way, like losing a part of our history, our roots. We felt that we, as musicians, should know about these instruments and their value in music and their importance to musicians and audience. It was also important to understand the causes of their extinction so that we may be able to see if a similar fate awaits any more of the existing instruments or art forms, and to preserve and protect them.

SM:With project of such a vast scale, what is the methodology of your research?

We read about instruments which are lesser known or extinct and selected 7 instruments of various types which we were going to feature in our series. We had even asked our spectators to suggest instruments that they would like to be featured in the series and we included those instruments. We then studied the selected instruments extensively, took help from people who had more knowledge about them and listened to audio recordings to understand them better.

         (‘Nadaswaram’, performed by Mambalam M. K. S. Siva)

 SM:Tell us about  the most enchanting experience of the journey so far. 

 When elders and knowledgeable musicians hear of this initiative and the instruments we are covering, they feel surprised and happy that the younger generation knows about these instruments and is making efforts to spread the knowledge

SM: And your learnings from it ?

Working on this series was quite an enriching experience. Not only did we learn about the technicalities of the instruments, but also their origin and how each of them served as a prominent symbol of the culture of the region where they were popular. It is incredible how musicians spent their entire life devoted to the practice of these instruments and how slowly, imperceptibly, these instruments started losing their touch with audience and musicians alike, until very few people remained who could play them and teach them to the younger generations.

(Morchang Maestro- Rais Khan)

 SM:And the difficulties you faced. 

 Since most of these instruments are no longer played, sometimes information about them or recordings are difficult to find.

SM: How does it feel to recover the lost nostalgia?

 The loss of any art form or an instrument associated with it is a huge cultural loss to humanity. It is indeed sad that these instruments could not survive the changing interests of the audience. But we found the series to be a good way to spread knowledge about them. It was gratifying to know that even people who don’t have the technical know-how of music were interested in knowing about these instruments and appreciated our work.

( Reconstruction of the etruscan Lituus )

SM: What are your future plans and hope from it?

 The subject of music is very vast with numerous genres, styles and instruments, all designed to suit different types of audience and artists. Each of these holds some connection to our deepest emotions and is equally important. We hope that no instrument or music form ever has to pass into oblivion in the minds of people.

The Dhwani Team

Despite all the difficulties and the challenges faced in uncovering the long lost history and performances , Team Dhwani did a commendable job . They have shared various videos and text posts which are available on their Facebook page providing an insight into the times and beauty of these instruments.

To summarise this truly noble preservation initiative , I would again like to quote Yatindra Mishra from his poem In the Boat of Poetry and Music’-

Carrying on their shoulders
the boat of poetry and music
who knows how many
minstrels and mendicants have
been walking piercing the
mist of long centuries
Even they would not know that
what difference they made to
our lives by walking in thus
They were the ones who saved
in their dinghy a tune
of the endless music of life
that had fallen out of our palms
just as though it had slipped from
musical repertoire of the formless one……

Much like the Derveshes and the minstrels of the poem, the Dhwani team brought for us a glimpse of different hues and melody of life’s infinite music which had been previously lost to us. We hope that like the etrenal nature of their name ( Dhwani stands for sound) they lend a new life and renewed spirit to the music, expressions and art which have been buried in the sands of time and oblivion .


Note: All images and video courtesy –  Dhwani – Music Club, BIT Mesra.