Issue 39 - 16th July, 2010

Patrick Jered
A PhD in molecular genetics and a job as a medical writer for Excerpta Medica/Elsevier did not stop Amsterdam-based musician Patrick Jered from travelling to India and Sri Lanka to research a book on the history, mythology, and religion surrounding the ravanhattha, the earliest ancestor of the violin.

How did your fascination with the ravanhattha and its mythological creator Ravana start?
I have a fascination for world folk music in general, but particularly Rajasthani folk music. On a visit to the desert town of Jaisalmer a couple of years ago, I came across a street musician playing an archaic violin-like instrument that made a unique sound. I missed out on the chance to buy one of the instruments at the time. When I returned to Amsterdam I decided to do some research to find out about it, and realised that there was very little information around it (there is now quite a bit more). What little I did discover just fuelled my obsessive interest.
The ravanhattha, according to Hindu mythology, was invented by the great demon king Ravana. For hundreds of years it has been used by a sect of folk-priests (Bhopas) as an essential part of their liturgy in the worship of the folk god Pabuji. The story just got more fascinating the deeper I went into it, and eventually it was clear that I would have to go back to India for an extended period to research the matter for myself.
While researching for your book you came across conflicting tales about Ravana in India and Sri Lanka. How would you describe them?
Sri Lanka is mainly Buddhist and so the Ramayana doesn’t have the same position in the national psyche as it does in India. The Sri Lankans believe that Ravana was a great historical king. He is not regarded as an evil demon. There are also, I discovered, alternative Ramayanas that present Ravana as the hero and Rama as the bad guy. But amazingly, I discovered that the Mahayana Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka believes that Ravana invited Lord Buddha to preach on the island. This event was recorded in the Buddhist Lankavatara Sutra, which was first committed to paper around 200-300 AD. The Ravana of the Buddhist tradition is an enlightened and wise figure—the diametric opposite of the arrogant demon who abducted Sita in Valmiki’s Ramayana. In Sri Lanka, I found that young people increasingly regard Ravana as English kids might regard King Arthur—a great mystical, mythological king.
Will we be listening to the tunes of the ravanhattha in the tracks of Elephant’s Ear Music?
I release my own musical creations via a small Amsterdam-based record label, Elephant’s Ear Music. I considered releasing recordings of the ravanhattha through the label, but I want to be careful not to exploit traditional musicians who are playing music that has been their heritage for centuries. And I’m really no businessman.
However, I have a much more interesting idea. When my book is released, I intend to make freely available supplementary material including film clips and sound recordings. This will be at ravanhattha.com. I will showcase the musicians and include their contact details, which hopefully will lead to new revenue streams for people who are often very poor and frequently have to abandon music because driving an auto rickshaw provides them with a better income.
Any other Indian instruments you find fascinating and have used?
 
If you are interested in musical instruments, India is quite simply the "promised land." The diversity of instruments and musical traditions is unequalled, and I feel that I have merely scratched the surface. A few days ago I attended a performance in Amsterdam by Paban Das Baul. The Bauls of Bengal have an incredible musical tradition using instruments such as the ektara and dotara. Such use of musical instruments for religious and spiritual purposes increasingly fascinates me, and I can already see that this will pull me back to India for another period of research.
How was the experience of researching for the book in India? Any interesting experience you would like to share?
Researching a book in India was an absolute blast. I would wake up each morning not knowing what the day would bring except for the certainty that it would be an exciting experience.
My experiences were so many and so diverse that I hardly know where to begin. I met a female shaman who believed she was the reincarnation of Surpanakha (Ravana’s sister) and who told my fortune. I took music lessons in desert villages and saw aspects of India that few foreign visitors ever get to see. One of the most incredible events was finding the village in Madhya Pradesh called Ravan where the entire village worships Ravana at a small temple that houses an ancient Ravana murti. They told me some local Ravana mythology that I believe has never been written down before.
I was continually impressed by the ‘can-do’ attitude of people I met in India. There is a real buzz in the country and a general feeling that India is accelerating towards a great future.

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