Book: Inventing the Sarod

Inventing the Sarod: The Marketing of a Musical Tradition
Calcutta: Seagull Publications 2004

This is a major study of the sarod, a leading string instrument in Hindustani classical music. It documents the cultural origins, historical development and music styles of this instrumental tradition over the last three centuries. It does this by documenting the history of its musicians, their social organization, patron groups, modes of patronage, musical and aesthetic developments, instrument design and construction, narratives, musical terminology, and conception of musical sound over this period. In doing so it provides a detailed account of how this community of musicians devised and implemented strategies to deal with the major challenges to their survival thrown up by a succession of political economies from pre-modern times to the present. This study also highlights the cultural syncretism and diversity that has underpinned the development of the tradition to date. This study also sets out to construct a methodology that historicises sound and makes it an object of study. 

The primary aim of the book is to address the current climate of contestation over the cultural ownership of the tradition and its history. Regard this as one of the cultural consequences of globalization and part of a wider proclivity towards the re-invention of the past. In doing so the study draws upon a diverse range of materials and sources. These include the rich oral histories and narratives that pervade the tradition; Sanskrit texts on music; primary materials and studies in vernacular languages such as Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and Farsi; Indian musicology, ethnomusicology, philosophy and cultural theory; contemporary historical, anthropological and sociological studies; colonial records and  ethnographies; sound recordings; and the author’s fieldwork and rigorous training on sarod over the last two decades.

  • This book is available online from major book suppliers like, but also through recommended distributors Underscore Records, or Scholars without Borders. Who are Scholars without Borders?

    Review of the Book

    Inventing the Sarod: A Cultural History. Adrian McNeil.
    Calcutta (Kolkata): Seagull. 2004. pp. xii+277. Includes glossary, bibliography and index. Rs 575. 
    ISBN 81 7046 213 4

    There are two main reasons why Adrian McNeil’s masterly study of the sarod is likely to become a standard work of reference on the subject. The first is the comprehensive range of the work: it answers, or at least addresses, most of the questions that arise in one’s mind when one considers the history of the sarod as an instrument and the development of sarod styles in the last two centuries. Secondly, it sensibly blends a number of critical approaches to the study of musical instruments and forms. In doing so, it is able to avoid the limitations of a purely organological or purely ethno-musicological approach. The impressive archival and field research that is gone into this study is demonstrated by the author’s ability to negotiate historical, ethnological, sociological and above all musical issues. 

    The sarod as McNeil sees it is essentially both less and more than a single defined instrument. On the one hand it is part of a family of short-necked lutes that were played and still are played in extensive areas of South and Central Asia. On the other, the sarod is shorthand for a number of individualized instrument types that were evolved by musicians and master craftsmen in response to their own musical requirements. In doing so he is able to avoid taking sides in the heated debates over the “origins” of the sarod. He traces with care and expertise the role played by Pathan musicians – who were also mercenaries and horse traders – in the evolution of the instrument. The detailed study of specific ethnic groups in transmitting the immediate precursors (like the Afghani rabab) of the instrument is one of the strongest sections of the book (Chaps. 2 and 3). Systems of patronage receive close attention. McNeil deals circumspectly with the various debates over the term sarod itself, and tries to account for the emergence of the terms sarod and sarodi. (An authority he quotes describes the Pathan sarodi as playing on the “rabab or sarod” but also being a “tumbler”, p.18). We read of the Pathan settlements in Shajahanpur where apparently there were in the 18th century no less than 55 mohullas or neighbourhoods of Pathan troops in the town, of which no less than 11 were of “sarod” players alone (p. 48).

    The encounter of Pathan musicians with the proponents of Seniya music in various centres of patronage in North India is the next part of the story. The accounts of Rampur and Lucknow in this connection give a clear idea of the way in which Pathan musicians found employment in these places and the way in which the instruments that they used underwent changes as new musical requirements were imposed on them. This story is, in its basic outlines, known well enough. But what distinguishes McNeil’s study is his sensitivity to a central issue that figures in all these exchanges and transformations: that of musical sound. The encounter with dhrupad singers and been players did not evidently make sarod players alter their instruments to merely incorporate new elements of repertoire or accommodate new techniques. There is also a search, which characterizes the history of Hindustani music as a whole, of a certain quality of sound which becomes the ground on which musical values are ideologized. This, one feels, has been insufficiently theorized, and McNeil’s study is an important step in this direction.

    Mc Neil surveys the major schools and styles of sarod playing in India. The accounts of the origins and early development of the styles is admirably exhaustive. The picture that he gives of the present state of these schools is however somewhat patchy: apart from occasional errors (Uma Guha is not Shyam Ganguly’s daughter as stated on p 195; the sitar player Sanjoy Bandyopadhyay is mentioned as Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay on p. 223), the account of contemporary sarod players is too cursory to serve any useful purpose. The sections on the means in which sarod players, like other exponents of Indian classical music, are made available to a world market is sensitive and insightful, though perhaps a little too abbreviated. The same is true of the last chapter, entitled “Do We Deserve the Sarod?” Clearly McNeil has important things to say on both these scores, but perhaps they deserve a separate study.

    Inventing the Sarod is clearly one of the most important books on North Indian classical music in recent times, and one hopes that it will set the tone for work of the same high quality. It is important, perhaps, that the author is both a performer and a scholar, and as such is alive to both the intricacies of modern historical scholarship as well as the fine nuances of the music itself.


    Amlan Das Gupta
    Professor of English
    Jadavpur University