I come from a lineage of rabab makers, who for generations, have made some of the finest instruments in the land. Our workshop is tucked away on the first floor of a nondescript alley surrounded by a labyrinthine of small businesses in the heart of Lahore. In one of the rooms, there are scores of rabab at various stages of completion. Their basic shape looks the same, but each is a unique expression of the maker.

At any time of the day, especially when the windows are wide open, you can hear the busyness of the craft: the planes, the chisels, gorges, the scrapers and other hand tools. Each maker has his own personal idiosyncrasies in making instruments and crafting techniques by cutting and bending woodstaves, drilling holes in the pegblocks, fitting tuning pegs, vanishing or sealing the instrument. Much of the making is a process of trial and error by craftsmen spanning generations, and all of them have spent a lot of their time obsessively enhancing the sound of their instruments, exploring finer layers of amplification. And then there are the materials: pine, maple, mulberry, and other woods that sing and celebrate to their own vibrations. 

What is the social life of a rabab? We are part of so many social gatherings and a complex web of relationships that we too are social animals. We are active members of a community. We are not just objects to be bought and exchanged like spices or part of cosmopolitan trade empires. 

The life of a rabab is many things: an instrument, a voice that tells stories in any social setting, the first encounter with a potential buyer, the last dialogue before a player passes away, arriving at a workshop to be repaired by a master craftsman, upended after a letter arrives from a wealthy merchant offering a far more spacious arrangement than the musician's tiny squalor of a hovel in an overcrowded neighborhood, tuning the instrument as a sudden downpour of rain falls against window shutters and the distracting yet welcoming wafts of freshly baked bread from a nearby bakery, part of a vibrant underground arts scene where the police might show up at anytime and arrest player and instrument, a cache of rabab discovered in the basement of a museum partially destroyed by a fire, a poet nursing a broken tuning peg at a roadside eatery, several rebabs approved by a sea captain as "essential cargo" before departure, a player stricken with fever and both feeling distraught at the days of absent music making, a player exploring a new melody and getting his fingers around a tricky passage, an audience spellbound for an hour of a forgotten melody that propels those present to have visions of other worlds where horses grow wings and soar into the clouds, where melodic and rhythmic uncertainties are embraced, where flowers and birds are also the rebab's friends, where the rabab player imitates a bird song and a white crane teaches him a tune passed down by her distant avian cousins that fly to a lake that never freezes in winter in China's southwest. 

We can be forlorn, forgotten, neglected, negligent, hidden, concealed, stored away,  but for the most part, we are conspicuously conspicuous social animals. We interact with people and other musical instruments. And we too like our players have secrets  which we usually take to the grave. 

There was a Muslim musician and a holy man who traveled four epic journeys covering some twenty-eight thousand kilometers spanning over twenty years. My job was not to entertain crowds of curious onlookers or provide a welcome diversion after dinner under the shade of a large pine tree to escape the summer heat, but to accompany the message of a new faith. The founder Nanak would sing verses and Mardana would play along. 

There were different kinds of rababs, but this one had only three main strings and a small fretboard. 

Nanak's journeys were not to any imperial decree. Neither was he defying an imperial prohibition that forbade people from traveling to foreign domains or requiring documentation to travel from one frontier zone to another. He departed on his own authority. He sang and expounded his faith before kings, high priests, yogis, poets, philosophers, merchants, bankers, carpenters and farmers alike. Our travels became a blend of fact and fantasy, myth and history out of which we weaved countless stories, many of them fiction. When I started traveling with Nanak and Mardana, it gave me the impression, when I was still very much a green thumb in the world of music making, that there was nothing more grand or noble or even as much fun as being a rabab. 

Numerous depictions of our journeys, real and imagined, can be found on wall murals, relief sculptures inscribed on the entrance to grottoes, books cloistered in monasteries on mountain precipices. And as our journeys were long and invariably dangerous, they were usually retold with doses of the "perilous," the "unimaginable," the crossing of fortified passes, border patrols guards, a new dialect or variations of a familiar tongue, the bandits, the so-called "bad guys." Other stories or versions, both oral and in print, have several recurring elements like demons and monsters masquerading as monks instead of the marauding bandits. 

Looking back, there are moments when it all seems like a blur, and there are moments when it's as clear as the blue sky. I take a deep breath knowing that I won't be here forever. Everything deteriorates, including this pear-shaped body of mine. And I have to keep reminding myself, and it seems so self-evident, but without a player, how can my voice be made, conceived or appreciated?  I am not a picture though many artists have depicted me on canvas and other surfaces including vases and frescoes. Some have asked what it's like being part of a famous mural or painting or the centerpiece of a work hanging in some art gallery or private collection. I don't get as much attention from the crowds, but I am attentive to what people are doing and talking about which may have nothing to do with the artwork in front of them. And if there are disagreements or tension between couples, they bring them unconsciously before me, bits of speech and conversation. The sour puss expressions on their faces become another painting. It would be fun to paint these moments and give the illusion of permanence by offering them a home at a prestigious art gallery. Something as common as an argument between unhinged couples or lovers would most likely draw more crowds than a rabab player.

A large goldfish breaks the surface of the water shattering the reflection of a moon recovering from a hangover and a broken heart. “There is nothing to be said, dear rabab. We don’t need to hear all the things you have seen and heard, the spaces between memory and what is missing.  Just play as you always have and we will know.”

Peter Micic

Peter Micic

I write about the beauty of Sikhi by telling stories. I am attempting to capture the nuances and currents that exist beneath the narratives of Sikh history and bring to the surface the shining jewels the Sikh Gurus have bestowed to us. If the light of the Gurus is a shining prism, then let its rays of light refract across time and space and be shared by everyone. 

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