Ivory Sarinda

3 • An Ivory Sarinda

Central India, circa 1700
36 cm long; ivory

Early Indian musical instruments made completely out of ivory are exceptionally rare; only three other ivory sarindas are known of – one belongs to a private collection (see Gloire des Princes, France, 2003, p. 118), another is at Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait (see Selections from Tareq Rajab Museum, Hawalli, 1990, no. 21), and the last is in the British Museum (see A Garland of Melodies, Ramos, I. Orientations, Vol. 48, No. 5, 2017).

Sarindas are usually instruments used by folk musicians: being lightweight and free-standing they were a perfect travelling companion for bards who enjoyed maintaining a constant dialogue with their instrument; also for the wandering fakirs and yogis whose devotional music was of great interest to courtly patrons. In the Cleveland Museum of Art an ivory box from the same period (c. 1700) shows just such a scene: a patron enjoying a hookah pipe whilst being entertained by three musicians, a sarinda player in prominent position.

Panel from a box, India, Northeast Deccan, ivory, c. 1700. Notice the elaborate decorations at the top of the neck of the sarinda, similar to the example shown here. © The Cleveland Museum of Art.

These Mughal patrons greatly revered music for its powers to heal, to induce love, to promote happiness and to assist devotion. One such patron was probably responsible for commissioning all four of the known ivory sarindas, they could quite possibly even have originated from the very same workshop. We cannot determine which court or patron it was, other than to say that an extremely refined court environment was necessary to produce instruments of this quality; its patron would therefore have been a very high ranking aristocrat, possibly a prince, with some speculating it could have been a member of the Adil Shah Dynasty. This version is the smallest, though the extensive and intricate decorations are similar across all four instruments: the top is decorated with a mythological beast grasping an elephant whilst swallowing another and on either side celestial winged figures hold shields and swords, popular Deccan symbols of power.

Ivory Sarinda
The British Museum Ivory Sarinda. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum example was acquired in 1829 but entirely forgotten until recently. Put on display for the first time in 2017 it is now a permanent fixture of the South Asia galleries. After its rediscovery, Richard Blurton and Dr Imma Ramos conducted research and arranged for it to be toured around a number of UK cities in 2017. They even found its original entry in a registration book:

‘1829 November 14: a very curious musical instrument of ivory, acquired by Col. Shuldham in the Burmese territory (Nizam’s territory (printed donation). Col. Shuldman Bombay N.I. through W Tyndale.’

Col. Shuldham is thought to refer to Thomas Shuldham O’Halloran, who received a medal for war service in India, returning to England in 1834 after spending 20 years there.