Sculpted Sound: The hypnotic lutes of the Santals

Dhodro banam (Stringed instrument), c.1970, Wood, Carved. Collection: Sushmit Sharma.
Dhodro banam (Stringed instrument), Santal, c.1970, Eastern India, Wood, Carved. Collection: Sushmit Sharma. Photograph by: Renu Dhiman.

Santals are a group of people who occupy certain areas of Bihar mostly Jharkhand, also spilling over to the neighboring states of Odisha and West Bengal. They are primarily a farming community growing mostly rice. Music and dance are an integral part of their life and culture, connecting to fertility and harvest. Of all their musical instruments, the dhodro banam is one of the most spectacular creations, in terms of design which heavily aided by the art and skill of sculpting. Like all the origin theories and myths of the Santals, this instrument too has a peculiar myth of origin. The story goes in this way that long ago in a village, seven brothers had a sister, who was cooking a meal one day for her brothers. While engrossed in her cooking she accidentally cuts her finger, from where a drop of blood falls on to the food. The food was perceived as very delicious and it made them wonder if a drop of blood makes it so tasty, her flesh might be even more delicious. At the spur of moment, a unanimous decision was taken to eat her up. The youngest of the brothers could not eat his portion, as she was his beloved sister, and decided to bury his share into a white ant-hill. From this spot a beautiful Champa tree grows and its branches whistled melodious music as the wind blew. A yogi passing by could not resist listening to it and broke a branch which he later converted into a dhodro banam, a musical instrument in anthropomorphic form.

The surviving examples are carved out of a hard wood, although the myth mentions the Champa tree which is a rather softer medium. Dr. Verrier Elwin, a noted anthropologist, in his book, The Tribal Art of Middle India, records that a heavy wood, specifically Grewia tiliaefolia was used for these instruments and the surface was darkened with oil. Carved on all sides, the sound box was covered with lizard (Land monitor) skin. The string mostly singular was made from the intestines of a goat.[i] The instrument was played held vertically with the help of a stringed bow.

With the nature of the form, the Santals believe the instrument is a human being (or the long lost sister with a tragic fate), and that, it possessed the power to connect the world with other supernatural realms. Even the sound that the instrument resonates was believed to be a voice of a human being. These instruments were mostly in anthropomorphic form with pronounced head, neck and a torso. There are certain examples with limbs as well. The top of the head of the instrument is decorated with delightful themes such as dancing village belles, drummers, couple with a child, or animal forms, all ingeniously carved. One of the most iconic one, is in the National Museum, New Delhi, from the collection of Dr. Verrier Elwin, depicting an automobile being crossed by a gentleman in horseback.

This instrument according to Dr Verrier Elwin was often used by travelling ascetics and yogis. He also added that the instrument would be cremated along with them, but with presence of many old examples, in various collections of the world, there might have been exceptions.[ii] With changing times, the popularity of these instruments is vanishing. Although, few still survive who practice the art of making these fantastic instruments, trying to keep the tradition alive. But the glorious days of the dhodro banam are long gone.

With the rituals associated with these objects, abandoned or changing with time, most of them are becoming mute artefacts in showcases of museums or collectors. This change is inevitable and probably it is the journey of every object before reaching its last stage. An abstract idea designed to take a tangible form to fulfill a certain need or aspiration, after a certain point of time becomes an art object or relic. In spite of the irony linked to it, it still performs the function of delighting our eyes.

[i] Verrier Elwin, The Tribal Art of Middle India. (London: Oxford University Press: 1951), 134.

[ii] Johannes Beltz, Marie-Eve Celio-Scheurer et al, (eds), Cadence and Counterpoint: Documenting Santal Musical Traditions. (New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2015), 46-47.

Other important reference:

The Lutes of the Santal by Bengt Fosshag,

Sculpted Sound: The hypnotic lutes of the Santals

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