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Shubha Sankaran

By Tad Hendrickson
Published July 5, 2007

The surbahar might look a little bit like a sitar, but it’s a whole different animal. It’s got a deeper range, a longer and wider neck, significantly thicker strings, and a four-octave range. Few people, male or female, play it as their primary instrument, but Shubha Sankaran has devoted her life to mastering it. She began her musical career studying the sitar under Ustad Imrat Khan, in 1966. Though she continued to study sitar until 1979, Sankaran brought a surbahar to America with her, and gradually moved from one instrument to the other, first devoting herself to the larger instrument full-time in 1988. Today, she is the only woman publicly performing on the instrument, and the only artist working exclusively with it.

The attraction, for her, was almost elemental. “I first heard the surbahar being played by Khansahib, and was immediately attracted by the deep, low voice of the instrument and its extraordinary resonance and expressiveness.”

In 1994, Sankaran was inspired by a dhrupad vocal concert by the Gundecha Brothers to begin performing accompanied by the pakhawaj (a barrel drum). This is the instrumentation heard on her two CDs, Resurrecting A Raga and Seven Ragas In Seven Talas. The former features a single 50-minute raga divided into three movements; the latter finds Sankaran singing as well as playing seven shorter pieces. Her playing has an almost bluesy power. As she describes it, “[The surbahar] has an expanded capability of expression due to the wider neck, which allows for pulling the string laterally to achieve a continuous fluid melodic ornamentation (“bending” in western terms), of up to seven notes, whereas the sitar at best can accommodate a pull upward to a fifth.” While her music moves more slowly than sitar music, this fluidity gives it a meditative quality that’s soothing and welcoming.