Today when I try to bring back those distant memories, I am confident about one evening that stands out clearly as one of those few incidents that laid bare the sheer beauty Indian Music possesses. It was a recital of Raga Sindhura by Ranadhir Ray, a musical genius forgotten not only by the multitude but also by the music community.
Pt. Ray used to play a near extinct instrument called Esraj, whose origin can be traced back to more than two centuries. In the north of India, this instrument is popular as the Dilruba, Esraj being a more accepted name in the east. Esraj had its high time when Rabindranath Tagore chose it as accompaniment for his songs. This situation arose out of the India liberation movement when it became very unpopular to use anything that was of Western influence. Santiniketan, his highly evolved artist community, could still be called the home of the Esraj.Ashesh Bandhopadhyay, an Esraj player from Vishnupur, was invited by Tagore to live and teach in Santiniketan. Ranadhir Ray was a disciple of Pt. Bandopadhyay and started experimenting with the instrument by building a bigger body, adding another bridge and succeeding in adding volume and a stronger presence. Thus, an intrument solely used for accompaniment was transformed into a solo one.
Personally, I feel that this instrument has more appeal than Sarangi, whose sound is closest to the Esraj. Esraj's sound makes me more desolate, shades of similar emotions seem to be expressed more than any other medium. The very very few Ragas that I have heard on this instrument have been their best portrayals. Ragas Miyan Ki Todi, Tilak Kalyan, Sindhura, Sindhu Gandhar, Jaijaiwanti, Bihag and Jaunpuri. I have been fortunate enough to listen to the Jaunpuri by Pt Ashesh Bandopadhyay himself, who's recorded only a couple of discs.
The Jaijaiwanti haunts me quite often. I haven't heard explorations of the Raga the way Ray has portrayed it. It was recorded in 1988 just before he passed away from a heart attack at the age of 45. Other than my not being able to listen to Pt. Mansur live, not receiving an opportunity of being a part of his audience is perhaps an equivalent loss.