The Esraj belongs to the category of the Chordophones and is a bowed stringed instrument, which is usually played in the East and central regions of India, particularly in Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Assam, Tripura and also Bangladesh.
In Bihar and Bengal, it is learnt, that the Esraj became popular about a hundred or two hundred years ago. This instrument, which had become almost extinct during the 1980s, was revived and used in Gurmat Sangeet. Known as the ‘Voice of the Sikhs’, it is learnt, that the Esraj was made and promoted by a sect of Sikhism – the Namdaris.
The Esraj is generally used as an accompanying instrument (as in Rabindra Sangeet). It is also mostly performed as a solo instrument in Hindustani music mainly in the Vishnupur tradition.
Having a strong semblance, with slight difference in structure, to the Dilruba, the Esraj was originally an instrument of Afghanistan and was said to have made its appearance in North India during the Pashtun rule. It is learnt, that both these instruments emerged, combining the features of Sarangi and Sitar, due to needs of the society during that period.
Apart from the Sarangi, there were no other bowed instruments on the classical music scene during the 19th century.
Moreover, the Sarangi was a difficult instrument to play and to master, while the frets on Dilruba and Esraj made it a bit easier to play them.
The Sarangi was also associated with artistes, who belonged to a lower social status and was used to accompany dancing girls/ coutesans/ tawaifs.
Currently, the instrument, although not extinct, has become rare.