Dinesh Subasinghe, a rising star on the Sri
Lankan rock and fusion music horizon, has a new and daring
passion - to popularize Ravanahatha, a violin-like instrument
that Lanka king Ravana had devised and played about 5,000 years
The Ravanahatha is a crude violin made of
coconut shell and bamboo, with horsehair or a natural fibre
serving as the string. Goat and sheep gut and coconut wood are
Having been the first stringed instrument to be
played with a bow, it is recognized as the world’s first violin.
Ravanahatha or Ravana’s hand is mentioned in the
ancient Indian epic ‘Ramayana’, Subasinghe told IANS.
The soulful music emanating from the Ravanahatha
is believed to have moved Hindu god Shiva, of whom Ravana was an
‘The instrument was picked by Hanuman and flown
to north India, where it is still played in Rajasthan and in the
Agra area of Uttar Pradesh and is known as Ravanahatha,’
From India, the Ravanahatha travelled westwards
to the Middle East and Europe, where in the 9th century, it came
to be called the Ravanastrom, according to the website library
From the 11th century onwards, the bowed
instrument underwent many changes before it took the shape of
the modern violin in Italy in the 16th century.
‘The Ravanahatha sounds like the north Indian
instruments Sarangi and Esraj. Its plaintive and melancholic
sound touches an emotional chord in me,’ Subasinghe said,
explaining his passion for an obscure folk instrument that the
world has long forgotten.
The melancholic sound of Ravanahatha might be a
reflection of the character of Ravana, a tragic hero who the
author of the ‘Ramayana’ demonised, conveniently ignoring his
abilities as a scholar, musician and technologist, the Sri
Lankan musician said.
The Ravanahatha’s birth itself is believed to
have taken place under traumatic circumstances. According to
legend, Ravana’s mother Kaikasi, an ardent devotee of Shiva, was
eager to go and live in the god’s abode on Mount Kailash in the
Himalayas. Ravana opposed the plan vehemently, but to please his
mother he promised to bring Mount Kailash itself to Sri Lanka.
As Ravana was lifting the mountain, an angry
Shiva trapped his 10 heads and 20 arms. Writhing in pain, Ravana
prayed for mercy. When Shiva let him off, Ravana decided to sing
his praise and instantly made an accompanying instrument using
one of his heads, an arm and some of his hair. The soulful music
emanating from Ravana’s instrument is said to have moved Shiva,
who bestowed immortality on him.
Though crude and utterly simple, the Ravanahatha
has proved to be a very versatile instrument.
‘Musicians in north India play an amazing
variety of popular film songs on the one-stringed version of
this instrument. But sadly, it is considered a beggar’s
instrument because it is only the poor itinerant musicians who
play it,’ Subasinghe said.
The 28-year-old leader of the popular band Dee R
Cee Members is keen on making the Ravanahatha an independent
‘I have already done 15 TV programs featuring
the instrument. I have done a master CD featuring the
Ravanahatha accompanied by an orchestra and a chorus, spending
Sri Lankan Rs.200,000 on this venture,’ he said.
But Subasinghe insists he will not modernize the
instrument to make it easier for others to play.
‘Modernisation will take away its identity and
charm. It already has five strings and tuning knobs. If I put
frets also, it will become a violin,’ he said.
Subasinghe is reviving another ancient bowed
instrument called Kingiri, which has three strings and three
tuning knobs. The kingiri finds mention in the Hindu epic
‘Mahabharata’, he says. The instrument was given as a gift to
Bhima by the wife of a demon he killed.
Premasiri Khemadasa, a renowned music director
and doyen of modern Sinhalese music, is encouraging him to play
it during his forthcoming visit to Europe. And if he makes an
impact in the West, Subasinghe plans to try it out in India, the
Mecca of music in South Asia. (IANS)