Ravanhatta - Of Bards and Villains

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    It is an instrument most popularly associated with wandering bards and folk musicians in Rajasthan. But did you know that the simple stringed instrument known as the Ravanhatta is said to have been invented by Ravana the villain of the Indian Epic - Ramayana. While there is an interesting story, within the story of the legend, what is important is that even music historians from across the world, vouch for the Ravanhatta’s antiquity. Some claim, that this simple stringed instrument is the ancestor of the modern Violin.

    The Ravanhatta is a fiddle played by the bards and minstrels of the Nayaka community in Rajasthan and Gujarat. Known as Bhopas, these minstrels perform religious-themed songs in honour of Pabuji, the folk deity of the Rabari or shepherd community of Rajasthan. There are more than 32 different nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes living in Rajasthan, each with their own unique cultural identity and traditions. Rabaris are pastoralists and camel herders who believe they were sent by Lord Shiva to tend the camels owned by Parvati.

    The instrument is made of bamboo attached to a coconut shell and covered with goat’s skin. The string is made up of horse hair and it is played with a wooden bow.

    The instrument’s name, Ravanhatta is a corruption of the word ‘Ravan Hasta Veena’. According to legends, Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, from the Ramayana, was a great devotee of Shiva and played the Ravanhatta as a musical offering to the god. The legend goes that after the death of Ravana at the hands of Lord Rama, the Ravanhatta was brought to India from Lanka by Hanuman. However, there is no historical record of such an instrument ever existing in Sri Lanka.

    Outside myth and legend, what also makes the Ravanhatta amazing and a subject of such interest among musicologists and historians alike, is that it is one of the oldest known musical instruments played with a bow. Books on Music history published in late 19th and early 20th century such as ‘The History of Violin’ by William Sandys and ‘The Violin & its Story’ by Geoffrey Alwyn propounded the view that ‘Ravanstrom’ as they called Ravanhatta was the ‘ancestor’ of the modern Violin.

    However, there are varying views among historians on this. Musicologist Werner Bachmann, in his 1969 research paper called ‘The Origins of Bowing’ stated that the first known reference to any musical instrument played with a bow comes only from the 10th century CE onwards and that too from areas corresponding to territories of Byzantine and the Arab empires.

    Meanwhile, the earliest known textual reference to the Ravanhatta in India is in a musical treatise Bharatabhasya, written by a scholar named Nanyadeva (1094 – 1133 CE), who was resident of Mithila in Bihar. The instrument also appears in the works of 17th century Tamil Poetess Ramabhadrambha. Here there is a reference to this instrument being played by female musicians in the Tanjore court. In 1711 CE, a German Missionary from Tanquebar, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, mentions the instrument in his writings on the Musical Instruments of Malabar.

    Joep Bor, the noted Musicologist and Professor of Music at Leiden University has also studied the Ravanhatta extensively. In his research ‘Ravanahasta, a musicological puzzle’ he points out that the Ravanhatta became popular in India somewhere before 12th century CE. But from the very start, it seems this instrument was ‘out’ of the mainstream. ’It was not seen as a classical instrument, but that ‘of the beggars’, Bor points out. Over centuries, the use of the instrument narrowed even further. It became confined to the wandering Ministrels of Rajasthan and Gujarat.

    Today, thanks to its rustic folk appeal, the sounds of the Ravanhatta, which were once only heard in settlements of nomads or Banjaras, can now be heard across popular tourist sites, hotels, TV commercials and even reality TV shows, on Indian television.

    But few people who hear its simple notes, realise the many layers of stories that have gone into making it strike a note!


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