Home Art/Culture Sri Lankan revives Ravana’s musical instrument

Sri Lankan revives Ravana’s musical instrument

By P.K. Balachandran, IANS

Colombo : Dinesh Subasinghe, a rising star on the Sri Lankan rock and fusion music horizon, has a new and daring passion – to popularise ravanahatha, a violin-like instrument that Lanka king Ravana had devised and played about 5,000 years ago.

The ravanahatha is a crude violin made of coconut shell and bamboo, with horsehair or a natural fibre serving as the string. Goat and sheep gut and coconut wood are also used.

Having been the first stringed instrument to be played with a bow, it is recognised as the world’s first violin.

“Ravanahatha or Ravana’s hand is mentioned in the ancient Indian epic ‘Ramayana’,” Subasinghe told IANS.

The soulful music emanating from the Ravanahatha is believed to have moved Hindu god Shiva, of whom Ravana was an ardent devotee.

“The instrument was picked by Hanuman and flown to north India, where it is still played in Rajasthan and in the Agra area of Uttar Pradesh and is known as ravanahatha,” Subasinghe said.

From India, the ravanahatha travelled westwards to the Middle East and Europe, where in the 9th century, it came to be called the ravanastrom, according to the website library thinkquest.org.

From the 11th century onwards, the bowed instrument underwent many changes before it took the shape of the modern violin in Italy in the 16th century.

“The ravanahatha sounds like the north Indian instruments Sarangi and Esraj. Its plaintive and melancholic sound touches an emotional chord in me,” Subasinghe said, explaining his passion for an obscure folk instrument that the world has long forgotten.

The melancholic sound of ravanahatha might be a reflection of the character of Ravana, a tragic hero who the author of the “Ramayana” demonised, conveniently ignoring his abilities as a scholar, musician and technologist, the Sri Lankan musician said.

The ravanahatha’s birth itself is believed to have taken place under traumatic circumstances. According to legend, Ravana’s mother Kaikasi, an ardent devotee of Shiva, was eager to go and live in the god’s abode on Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. Ravana opposed the plan vehemently, but to please his mother he promised to bring Mount Kailash itself to Sri Lanka.

As Ravana was lifting the mountain, an angry Shiva trapped his 10 heads and 20 arms. Writhing in pain, Ravana prayed for mercy. When Shiva let him off, Ravana decided to sing his praise and instantly made an accompanying instrument using one of his heads, an arm and some of his hair. The soulful music emanating from Ravana’s instrument is said to have moved Shiva, who bestowed immortality on him.

Though crude and utterly simple, the ravanahatha has proved to be a very versatile instrument.

“Musicians in north India play an amazing variety of popular film songs on the one-stringed version of this instrument. But sadly, it is considered a beggar’s instrument because it is only the poor itinerant musicians who play it,” Subasinghe said.

The 28-year-old leader of the popular band Dee R Cee Members is keen on making the ravanahatha an independent concert instrument.

“I have already done 15 TV programmes featuring the instrument. I have done a master CD featuring the ravanahatha accompanied by an orchestra and a chorus, spending Sri Lankan Rs.200,000 ($1,900) on this venture,” he said.

But Subasinghe insists he will not modernise the instrument to make it easier for others to play.

“Modernisation will take away its identity and charm. It already has five strings and tuning knobs. If I put frets also, it will become a violin,” he said.

Subasinghe is reviving another ancient bowed instrument called Kingiri, which has three strings and three tuning knobs. The kingiri finds mention in the Hindu epic “Mahabharata”, he says. The instrument was given as a gift to Bhima by the wife of a demon he killed.

With the music scene in Sri Lanka becoming high tech and bands playing only tried and tested music, will a new and simple instrument like ravanahatha make an impact? Subasinghe is confident that it will.

“Its sound should touch the people’s hearts, as it did mine. In fact, my TV programmes featuring this instrument have had a good response,” he said.

Premasiri Khemadasa, a renowned music director and doyen of modern Sinhalese music, is encouraging him to play it during his forthcoming visit to Europe. And if he makes an impact in the West, Subasinghe plans to try it out in India, the Mecca of music in South Asia.