Happy Birthday Ram Narainji!

Years ago, a few music friends and I were driving along, listening to old Hindi film songs on a CD as we were passing through Bandra, a Mumbai suburb, when an OP Nayyar tune for Shamshad Begum came up. That was the CID gem, Kaheen pe nigaahen kaheen pe nishaana. Among the many amazing facets of this melody is the exceptional sarangi that takes you to the start of Shamshad’s entry, and then again and again in the interludes. This sarangi work is so arresting that we heard the song four or five times, just for this instrument! We decided to find out who played the instrument so blissfully. Was this man alive? In Mumbai? The next day we found that the player was Pt. Ram Narain, and it tickled us to know he lived in a building at about the same spot in Bandra we had passed by the night before, just as we were experiencing the aural nirvana he helped make!

Here was a man who added significantly to Rajasthan’s musical reputation by taking the sarangi—before his days primarily a court instrument used in accompaniment with dancers and mujra singers—and got for it international acclaim as a solo concert instrument. Much later, I got the opportunity to meet with him several times (at the same Bandra residence too!), in connection with a long interview we recorded for WorldSpace satellite radio. Here’s what emerged by way of his essential story:

Padma Vibhushan Ram Narain was born at Udaipur on December 25, 1927. He learnt the basics of the sarangi from his father Nathu Biyavatji, who was an esraj player. In 1943, at age sixteen he went to Lahore and somehow got a job at All India Radio as a sarangi player in that city. When partition happened, he went across to New Delhi, where he not only worked with AIR again, but also came in close contact with Roshan (also working at AIR there), a friendship that would reward the young virtuoso with a lot of work once he moved to Bombay, which he did in 1949.

Around this time he started his work in cinema and also on the concert stage. In 1950 his first 78 rpms started coming out in the market, and many of these were to enrich his fame: he played short runs of raag Pilu, Marwa, and Lalit, Asavari and Des. These 78s were later followed by LPs. His sarangi also started showing up significantly in film songs, with Roshan initializing it for the young man. Apni nazar se unki nazar tak (Mukesh/Hum Log, 1951) has the sarangi’s catchy strains in the intro piece itself. Then Malhar (1951), Raag Rang (1952), Barsaat Ki Raat (1960), Aarti (1962), Mamta (1966), in fact Roshan used Pt. Ram Narain’s talents in most of his films.

Over two decades, Ram Narain’s sarangi was featured by various composers in hundreds of songs, and many were mujras to be sure, but more often than not, these were songs which were totally removed from the kotha scene. Among the composers, OP Nayyar really tapped the gold from the art of this amazing virtuoso and his exceptional sarangi.

Meanwhile on the concert stage, the musician went abroad several times and climbed mountain after mountain. He was written about and celebrated by the international music community. They loved the sound of the sarangi, which reminded them of their violin and viola too. Ram Narain made some changes in the strings, the way the bow is held, the technique of the run up and down the strings and what have you. He absolutely won the heart of the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who said this: “The sarangi…in the hands of Ram Narain—most revealingly expresses the very soul of Indian feelings and thought”. Menuhin already knew a few things about India, through his interest in Yoga, so he was doubly competent to make that remark.

That’s good to hear. While the following line is not good to hear at all, certainly not for many people who love old Hindi film music: “It pains me even today that I had to play sarangi in film songs for more than 15 years to make ends meet…”. This is the view of the maestro himself, viewable on his own site, www.ramnarayansarangi.com

This is sad to hear from a classical music maestro who many of us remember for his work in cinema, especially during the golden era of the ‘50s and ‘60s. We would like to imagine he means he was unhappy with some of the film people that he had to work with, which is different from film music, which shouldn’t be faulted. Baaharhaal, what concerns us now is the lovely fragrance his sarangi brought, in hundreds of songs. Here are some that beg to be heard again and again:

  • Aankhon hi aankhon mein ishaara ho gaya (Rafi, Geeta Dutt/CID, 1956)
  • Unko ye shikaayat hai ke hum kuchh naheen kehte (Lata/Adalat, 1958)
  • Kaise din beete, kaise beeti ratiyaan (Lata/Anuradha, 1958)
  • Intezaar aur abhi (Lata/Chaar Dil Chaar Raahen, 1959)
  • Tum ek baar muhabbat ka imtihaan to lo (Rafi/Babar, 1960)
  • Do hanson ka joda bichhad gayo re (Lata/Ganga Jamuna, 1961)
  • Kuchh sher sunaata hoon main (Mukesh/Ek Dil Sau Afsaane, 1963)
  • Jo baat tujh mein hai (Rafi/Taj Mahal, 1963)
  • Ik chameli ke mandwe tale (Rafi, Asha/Cha Cha Cha, 1964)
  • Tum bin jeevan kaisa jeevan (Manna Dey/Bawarchi, 1972)


We love your sarangi in film songs Panditji. We love the way your mind coordinated with your hands to produce the wonderful notes in Dil laga ke, kadar gayi pyaare, caressing Asha Bhosle’s voice in that extraordinary mujra from Kala Pani (1958).  We absolutely love the way it romances our hearts in the song Deewaana hua baadal, from Kashmir Ki Kali (1964), perfectly complementing Rafi and Asha, a vital link in the entire melodic experience. We raise our glass to you, Sir—Happy 85th birthday!


Originally published: December 12, 2013