Kamancheh, the Persian bowed instrument
Kamancheh is the chief Persian bowed instrument and is played both in Persian art and folk music. The aim of this article
is to offer an introduction to this important Persian instrument.
Kamancheh before Ghajar Period
Kamancheh is an ancient instrument. According to different books that I have studied, Ebn-e-Faghih is the first who mentions
this instrument in 10th Century. Also some Persian poets such as Masoud-e-Sa'd, mentions the name Kamancheh in his poems.
Allameh-Ghotb-al-Din Mohammad Shirazi, in his famous encyclopedia, Dorrat-al-Taj, mentions this instrument by the name
Komajeh that should be a dialect of Kamancheh. The very famous Persian musician/theorist/poet, Abd-al-Ghader Maraghi, describes
this instrument in his famous book, Jame'-al-Alhan and says that the sound of Kamancheh is more beautiful than Ghezhak that
is another Persian bowed instrument and today Ghezhak (with the name Gheychak) is played in Sistan-Baluchistan of Iran and
is related to Indian sarangi.
In the book Kanz-al-Tohaf by Hassan Kashani that is maybe the only historical book on making Iranian instruments, it
has been written about Kamancheh of that time and describes how to make a Kamancheh and its accessories. It is very interesting
to notice that the author of the book mentions this instrument with the name Gheshak (another dialect of Ghezhak). Maybe some
object us what he describes is not the Kamancheh but fortunately he has painted the shape of Kamancheh in his book and it
is wonderful that he mentions that bow (he calls it mezrab. I should mention that mezrab today is used for plectrum of Persian
plucked instruments) of Gheshak is called Kamancheh. Etymologically it is better to say that Kamancheh is more suitable to
mention the bow of this bowed instrument than the instrument itself. The reason is that the word Kamancheh is the combination
of the two words, Kaman that means bow and cheh is diminutive suffix in Persian language. Anyway, to apply Kamancheh for this
Persian bowed instrument is error allowed by usage and it seems there is no better name to offer.
Another book the Behjat-al-Ruh, mentions Kamancheh as a perfect instrument.
Fortunately there are some historical Persian paintings (called in the West as Persian miniatures) that show the Kamancheh.
Some famous Kamancheh masters of Iran before the Ghajar Period are: Mirza Mohammad Kamancheh'i, Ostad Ma'sum Kamancheh'i,
Molana Ahmad Kamancheh'i entitled to Amir Ghazi, Ostad Zeytun, Malek Mahmud, the brother of the author of the famous book,
Kamancheh in and after Ghajar Period
According to different books in Persian language, it seems Kamancheh had only two strings. Though we don't know when
the third string had been added to this instrument, but we know that in Ghajar period, Kamancheh had three strings.
Different books mention the completion of this instrument. For example, one of the famous Kamancheh players of Ghajar
Period, Agha Jan, the father of Mirza Habib Sama' Hozur (very famous santoor and tonbak player) had invented a kind of Kamancheh
that had strange strings and keys and it had a long handle and he was used to play that while standing up and he had named
that Kamancheh, Majles-Ara!
Some famous Kamancheh players in and after Ghajar Period are: Khoshnavaz Khan, Agha Motalleb, Esmail Khan, Hossein Khan
Esmail-zadeh, Gholi Khan, Musa Kashi, Mirza Rahim, Javad Khan Ghazvini, Bagher Khan Rameshgar, Alireza Changi, Mirza Gholamhossein,
Safdar Khan, Hossein entitled to Karim-Kur and his daughter, Vajiheh, Farmanfarma the Uncle of Naser-al-Din Shah, Jamileh
(the female student of Esmail Khan), Ali Khan, Reza Khan Nikfar, Hossein Yahaghghi and his sister Keshvar Khnum entitled to
Farah-Lagha, Haig and at last, Asghar Bahari.
According to some books that we brought some parts of them here, we see that Kamancheh was very popular and important
in Persian art and folk music. After the introduction of Western violin to Iran, unfortunately everything changed! Though
the forth string was added to Kamancheh after seeing that violin had four strings, but many instrumentalists put the Kamancheh
down and started playing violin. It is interesting to mention that even most of the students of Hossein Khan Esmail-zadeh
such as Reza Mahjubi, Rokn-al-Din Mokhtari, Abu-al-Hasan Saba, Ebrahim Mansuri and so on were violin player.
Please consider what Ruh-al-Allah Khaleghi, the famous historian/composer/theorist says about Kamancheh in his famous
historical book, Sargozasht-e-Musighi-ye-Iran:
"The sound of Kamancheh is nasal, while the sound of violin is closer to nature! When the violin was brought to Iran,
since it had four strings, another string was added to Kamancheh for imitating the violin and since it was very similar to
Kamancheh, many Kamancheh players became violin instructors. Since violin was similar to Kamancheh, portable and its shape
was more beautiful, therefore gradually replaced by Kamancheh and today nobody plays Kamancheh. It is always natural that
the more complete instruments will be replaced by non-complete ones. Similarly flute was replaced by ney and oboe by sorna."
Anyway, there were some compassionate artists such as Aref Ghazvini that was not happy for what was happening to Persian
art music and warned about the danger of abolishing the Persian art music and its important instruments like Kamancheh, Santoor
One day Hasan Mashhun, Persian art music researcher, asked from one of the most famous Kamancheh players of his time:
"Why did you put down the Kamancheh? We have lots of violin players, but Kamancheh players, one after another, are becoming
old and disabled." That the master replied: "There is no student of Kamancheh. People have become modern and play violin!"
It is obvious that using western instruments instead of Iranian instruments is not necessarily a smart idea. As my ethno-musicologist
friends tell me, there should be a difference between modernization and westernization. Violin is violin and Kamancheh is
Kamancheh. It is clear that every instrument has its own value and there is no need to discuss about that more.
As historians mention, the late Asghar Bahari, gave a new life to Kamancheh by playing this instrument in many concerts
and gatherings and radio and TV.
It is fortunate that today we have many Kamancheh players in such a way that today there is no need to be anxious about
being abolished the art of Kamancheh playing.
The picture of the late Asghar Bahari in this article appeared
in Jean During's book, The Art of Persian Music, page 114.