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The history

Early chronicles
A single string
A new system
A prime influence
The whisper of the soul
Traveller’s tales



Ragini Kedar,
Hyderabad,
towards 1750,
Kolkata,
the Indian Museum
(detail)
 

Traveller’s tales
 
 

While bin portrayed with an obvious concern for realism in this extraordinary paintings allow us to appreciate the features of instruments of that era, to observe certain details and pinpoint the context in which they were played, the literary descriptions left behind by some of the travellers of the 17th and 18th centuries are just as interesting.
In 1623, during a stay in Gujarat, the Italian Pietro della Valle had the opportunity to listen to a vina player from the court of Ibrahim Adil Shah II, the Sultan of the kingdom of Bijapur. Pleasantly surprised by the melodious sounds of the instrument he had heard, the explorer wrote:

"(...) We were entertain’d a good while with good Musick by an Indian, who sung tolerably well, and play’d upon a certain odd instrument used in India (...) His instrument was made of two round Gourds, dy’d black and varnish’d, with a hole bor’d in one of them, to reverberate the Sound. Between the one Gourd and the other was fast’ned a piece of wood, about the length of three spans, upon which they both hung, and the strings, which were many, partly of brass and partly of steel, were extended, passing over many little pieces of wood like so many bridges; and these were the frets, which he touch’d with the left Hand, to diversify the sounds, and the strings with the right, not with his Fingers or Nails, but with certain iron wires fastened to his Fingers by certain rings like thimbles, wherewith he did not strike the strings strongly, but lightly touched them from the top downwards, so that they render’d a sound sufficiently pleasant. When he play’d he held the Instrument at his breast by a string that went round his neck, and one of the Gourds hung over his left shoulder, and the other under his right arm, so that it was a pretty sight".
In 1788, there appeared in Calcutta a short but extremely documented article entitled "About the vina or the Indian Lyre". This was published in the form of a letter in the first volume of Asiatick Researches. Its author, Francis Fowke, governor of Benares for the East India Company, provided a detailed description of the bin of a renowned musician, Pyar Khan, brother of the illustrious binkar Jivan Shah, both of whom were – according to oral sources – descendants of Misri Singh, a.k.a Naubat Khan.
To add to the precision of his study, Fowke compared the intonation of the bin with that of his own harpsichord. He wrote to Sir William Jones, judge at the Supreme Court of Calcutta and founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal:

"You may absolutely depend upon the accuracy of all I have said respecting the construction and scale of this instrument. It has been done by measurement and, with regard to the intervals, I would not depend upon my ear, but had the Been tuned to the harpsichord, and compared the instruments carefully, note by note, more than once. (...)".
  View image in bigger size (41 Ko)
Hindu Music, S. M. Tagore, 1875.

Fowke also sent Jones a sketch of the bin that he had studied as well as a portrait of Jivan Shah. Having listened attentively to Pyar Khan playing his instrument, he made sound remarks on the playing technique, the principle of micro-tonality peculiar to this music, and transcribed the results of his observation into Western notation.
Finally, disconcerted by the music he had heard, he admitted to Jones:

"The style of music on this instrument is in general that of great execution. I could hardly ever discover any regular air or subject. The music seems to consist of a number of detached passages, some very regular in their ascent and descent: and those that are played softly, are most of them both uncommon and pleasing".

Fowkes, who was an amateur musician gifted with a keen sense of observation, described here with extraordinary acuity the characteristics of an alap.

 

 
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