By Ahmad al-Salhi
At some point in the mid-19th century an oud arrived in Kuwait from India and became a central instrument in the genre of music known as saut both in Kuwait and Bahrain. By the 1930s it had been wiped out completely by ouds brought from other Arab countries, whether Syria, Iraq, or even Egypt. But the oud hindi, as it was called, leaves a number of intriguing traces, and allows us to think about ouds beyond the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire, and indeed over the Arabian Sea.
According to Aḥmad al-Beshr al-Rūmī (d. 1982), the first person to bring an oud hindi to Kuwait was Abdullah al-Faraj (d. 1901). He returned from studying music in India a few years after his father’s death in 1854. So it is probable that the oud arrived shortly before 1860. Although this oud is generally referred to by the name hindī in both Kuwaiti and Bahraini sources, Muḥammad Zuwayid (d. 1982), used two different terms, namely oud bambāwī in reference to Bombay (now Mumbai), and oud bū-raqma (oud of skin) in reference to the skin face.
According to the descriptions of musicians and commentators, it seems that the oud hindi was rather different from the oud that is known most widely today, which here I refer to as ‘Arab oud’. Most musicians and commentators describe the oud hindi as much smaller and identify the shape of its body (qaṣ’a or ṭāsah) as round. Its neck (raqaba) was longer than that of the Arab oud. For Maḥmūd al-Kuwaiti, the instrument’s round body and long neck made it similar to the mellās, a type of circular shaped ladle known in Kuwait with a long arm. The entire oud hindi instrument was made as one segment from a large piece of the Indian teak. The body was carved out to become a circular bowl and other parts of the oud were also carved, namely the neck and the pegbox (bunjuq). The body of the oud was covered by a thick skin (raqma) to act as a soundboard (saṭḥa or wajh) and a small hole cut in the middle of the soundboard which they called shamsiyah or wardah. Seven small holes were made in the pegbox to install the pegs (malāwī or mafātīḥ). The strings were tied to the pegs and on the other side to the tailpiece (marbaṭ), at the end of the oud’s body. The strings were raised by a floating bridge (ghazālah) made from wood, and set up somewhere between the tailpiece and the sound hole.
Muḥammad Zuwayid’s illustration from a TV interview in around 1976 is the only existing picture of the oud hindī.
The oud hindi had four courses: three double and one single. Each course (double or single) was associated with a particular local term: al-sharār (C4) which means the spark, al-methānī (G4) which means the second, al-methāleth (D4) which means the third, and al-yetīm (A3) which means the orphan, because it is a single course. Yūsuf Dūkhī is the only scholar to refer to the fourth course (A3) as al-bām. This term was probably inspired by or borrowed from the same name used for the same course of the Abbasid oud. Dūkhī mentions the fifth course and calls it al-rākhī, and it seems that this term appeared after the appearance of Arab oud in the Gulf, because the courses of oud hindi are four in number, not five.
The oud hindi has many similarities in features with the qanbūs, a lute that is known in Yemen and other areas in Arabian Peninsula. They are both made from one segment of wood, the material of soundboard is skin, and the number of courses is four.
However, the round shape and source of the oud hindi distinguishes it clearly from the qanbūs.
Many renowned musicians in Kuwait and Bahrain used to play the oud hindi, including the Kuwaitis Abdullah al-Faraj and Yūsuf al-Baker (d. 1955) and Muḥammad bin Fāris (d. 1947) from Bahrain. Al-Baker gave his instrument the nickname oud baṭlūs, while Muḥammad bin Fāris received his oud as a gift from his uncle Shaikh Jāber Āl-Khalīfah and named it bāshat Maṣir (the pasha of Egypt). Apparently, all the instrumentalists mentioned here and those named in the other sources as oud hindi players were performers of ṣaut. Therefore, it is possible to say that this oud was primarily dedicated to playing ṣaut songs.
It would seem that the oud hindi had many drawbacks within ṣaut. The frequency was low as the body was small and thick, so it was incompatible with the loud mirwās, the percussion instrument played in saut. Khāled al-Baker (d. 1925) manufactured an improved oud hindi in the early 1890s in Kuwait, making a bigger and deeper body that approached the size of the Arab oud. But another problem was probably the tuning: the soundboard tension was not stable, because it was made from skin that shrinks in dry weather and stretches in humidity. Presumably it was played widely because it was cheap and readily available.
Until the 1950s, commercial life in the Gulf was mainly reliant on ships trading with the Indian seaports, and there were tens of people from the region travelling to India frequently. Thus it was easy for any sailor or merchant to find and buy an oud during his visit into India. But in the 1920s, the spread of the oud hindi had already begun to shrink and it disappeared in the 1930s after six decades of use in Kuwait. The last musicians to use it were Yūsuf al-Baker and ‘Alī al-Tamīmī, but regrettably their instruments do not survive.
An instrument closely fitting the description of the oud hindi is held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Its origin is late 19th-century Zanzibar.
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