The sitar is considered one of the most distinctive instruments in Indian music and has inspired everyone from legends like The Beatles to new rock royalty like Green Day. Music teachers in the country lament that the instrument is losing popularity with young students. It would be a shame to lose this rich tradition and The Record does its bit to keep the music alive by bringing you a beginner's guide to the sitar.
Brief History Of The Sitar
- The sitar is one of the most popular instruments of the North Indian classical music tradition. It also lends itself well to inclusion in various other styles of music and can be used in ensembles or as a solo instrument.
- A common myth about the invention of the sitar states that it was created by Amir Khusrau in 1300 AD. This has no basis in fact. What is known however is that the name ‘sitar’ comes from the Persian word ‘sehtar’ or ‘setar’ meaning ‘three strings’. The sitar first appeared in the 1700s at the end of the Mughal era and evolved from the Persian lutes that had been played in the Mughal courts for centuries.
- The sitar is one of the most versatile instruments in the world and is traditionally taught by a teacher or guru to his student over a long period of time through a process that involves intense training and practice.
THE SITAR IN WESTERN MUSIC
It is common knowledge that The Beatles embraced the sounds of the sitar and used it extensively in their music. Here are some other Western artists who incorporated the sitar into their tunes.
- It is often reported that the first known use of the sitar in a western song was in 1965, in The Yardbirds song Heart Full Of Soul. However that version was not released at the time.
- The Beatles used it in many songs including Norwegian Wood,Tomorrow Never Knows and Within You Without You. Beatle George Harrison was so inspired by it that he later studied sitar under Pandit Ravi Shankar.
- Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones used the sitar in the song Paint It Black.
- Other songs in the '60's featuring the sitar include: The Monkees This Just Doesn't Seem To Be My Day, The Lemon Pipers Green Tambourine and The Kinks Fancy.
- Modern Scottish band Belle & Sebastian used the sitar in their song Legal Man. Rockers Kula Shaker and electronica giants Morcheeba have also used sitar sounds.
Studied sitar under Ittawah Gharana maestro Pt. P.B. Deb Burman. Presently taking guidance under Pt. Arvind Parikh, the seniormost disciple of legendary sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan. Performs all over the world and imparts training in sitar in Mumbai and the U.K.
TR: What do aspiring sitar students need to know before they begin learning?
NT: They need not know the instrument but they should have a liking for Indian classical music. As far as ideal age to begin goes, it depends on the purpose of your study – are you looking at it from a professional point of view or is it a serious hobby? If you are looking at it as a hobby, age is no bar. You can start at any age and really enjoy playing and learning the instrument. If you have professional aspirations then ideally we say that ages 8 to 10 are when it’s best to begin. Either way, commitment and dedication towards the sitar as a hobby or a profession are necessary.
TR: How much time should students practice playing the sitar?
NT: It is not realistic to ask students to spend hours and hours on it these days because their lives are just too hectic. So I tell them that even if they can get in a minimum of 15 minutes a day that helps keep your hand in. People who are really focussed and professional realise the importance of practice and riyaz. So I think you should give it as much time as you can, but do it everyday because that keeps your hand in and unless you keep at it you can’t begin to play the sitar and enjoy the music.
TR: Share an anecdote with us from your early days as a student.
NT: I began learning at the age of 12 and I remember I really enjoyed the alaap then. You are just playing different notes of that raag and unfolding the raag during the alaap. I used to sit by myself with all the lights out just practising for hours. It gave me a lot of peace and satisfaction. At that time you don’t need anyone, you are totally immersed in the notes. That to me is pure music.
TR: Where does the sitar stand with young students to day?
NT: I do feel that the sitar today is getting less popular among the younger generations. They go more for the tabla or vocals because they are more instantly rewarding. Since all students are not exposed to music at home, I think it would be really worthwhile if these instruments were introduced as a choice in schools. Let the students atleast be exposed to the sitar and even if 1 out of 10 take it up it’s worth it.
Sitarist and tabla player Ashwin Batish received training in the North Indian classical tradition from his father, respected musician Pandit Shiv Dayal Batish. He later created his own unique fusion of Indian classical sitar with pop, rock, jazz, calypso, funk. He is also very well known for being an educator and has created instructional videos for the sitar, tabla, dilruba, dholak, vichitra veena and harmonium with his father.
TR: What is your advice for students who are interested in learning the sitar?
AB: Learning can be at various levels so a different set of advice will apply to students learning that have attained various levels of mastery. Here are some issues I hold important and are listed in no particular order.
1. Teacher Hunt: find a good teacher that has time for you. This can be a daunting task for many. Teachers are also known to traditionally be very critical of their disciples offering exclusive dedicated teaching efforts to only their family members or to a very select group of students. This policy of accepting and creating only true gems has created an inferiority complex in the generations that wants to study this art but find themselves shut out from the best teachers. I am not saying that all are in the same boat perhaps larger classes tend to dilute the teachers individual Guru-Shishya approach and stresses the teacher / maestro’s time and energies. Some teachers have cleverly managed and are maintaining a school type environment and breaking the mould. Apart from the Batish Institute that was started by my father and me to do just this, I also would like to give credit to the Ali Akbar College of Music in California for a very concrete direction and effort to spread their teacher's teachings. I am sure others are out there and would like to invite them to enter their school information on our free teacher's database at www.gurushishya.com
2. Quality vs. affordability: Get the best sitar you can afford and make sure it is strung with high quality strings. This is a great problem for the beginner. They are not only facing an uphill struggle to learn this difficult instrument and the concept of Indian music but when one has to confront this with a poor quality instrument it makes the task almost next to impossible. A poorly setup instrument will put many physical barriers in the student's path. The jawari, the action of the strings, the intonation of the frets, the placement of the bridge and the quality of the strings on the sitar are only a few of the areas that need to be taken into account to help the student give their best shot at the learning process. This also depends on the affordability for a beginner. Luckily, in India this is easier than in a foreign country as the labour is so highly priced in countries like the US.
3. Jawari Adjustment: Do all the necessary adjustments to make the sitar's action as easy to play as possible. One should start with the Jawari the bridge. Get it to sound just right. My father will not go forward with his playing until his instrument sounded good and was capable of producing all the nuances he wanted to hear created out of it. In the beginning I didn't understand why. I wanted to just pick the instrument up and play. Gradually, as I learned more of the techniques and wanted to play the finer nuances and gamaks, I found that the jawari's tweaking can make all the difference between a heart wrenching performance or a mediocre one.
4. Practice Exercises: Spend time doing your exercises and building your finger calluses. Without calluses a student might as well forget about playing anything serious. The beginning weeks even months can be a tedious effort in developing your finger strength and calluses. Even for a professional player, if they were to stop playing their sitar for even a few weeks they are pretty much back to the beginning and have to again spend time developing their calluses. Therefore once you start and are on your way don't stop for more than a day or two before you resume.
5. Seeking Perfection: A wise man once said, "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99 % perspiration." Learning something and then playing it to perfection takes a lot of practice. In today's fast paced living one tends to have many distractions. The ones that clearly move to the top ranks of any art are the ones that have a clear focus and vision of where they are headed and what they have to do to get there. Some students complain that it is very hard for them to sit in the proper position i.e. the half lotus traditional posture. I encourage my students to not be discouraged with this. While they are learning to get the yogic position, I tell them to go ahead and practice even if they have to stand and play! Just don't stop and trust there will be a good outcome to all the slog work.
Other areas of great significance are listed here realizing a need for conservation of time and space for this article. So here are some of these.
6. Learn to sing before you play anything
7. Learn basics of tabla and tala
8. Practice with rhythm whenever possible
9. Build stamina in your playing by spending a concentrated effort
10. Listen to as many live concerts as possible and sit as close to the performers so you can see how they play
11. Learn ascending and descending arohi and avarohi of a raga on the full range of the sitar and slowly work on playing this as fast as you can manage and thus develop fluidity
TR: What are the biggest mistakes that beginner sitar students make?
AB: When a student does not go back to the teacher often they open themselves to developing bad habits that can then become very hard to erase. I recommend that whole learning process be audited often so corrections can be a timely reminder to re align the student to the correct path. Also, don't be in a hurry to play fast. It breeds confusion and can hinder clarity in the students' hands. Playing slowly and then gradually speeding up will build accurate movement and control.
TR: How many hours of practice do you recommend for beginners?
AB: There is no magic formula for this. Complete dedication to this effort is the real answer but it has to be adjusted to account for the present lifestyles. I was, of my own free will without duress from my father and my teacher, always so excited to be playing this instrument that as soon as I came home from school I would immerse myself in playing this instrument. This sometimes was from 4 - 6 hours a day. When I started my music school in 1973 in Santa Cruz California, I was practicing and playing and teaching almost 8 - 10 hours a day and found it to be a very spiritual time. For a beginner, I would recommend playing as much as their hands can stand. This is because as the calluses are developing, it will create a restriction to how much they can effectively practice. Just take precautions from getting your fingers cut as this will probably bring the practice process to a halt. As the calluses develop gradually put more time into your practice sessions until you hit upon your ideal practice space.
You can read the rest of our special feature Getting Started in the August 2006 issue of The Record Music Magazine available at your local newsagent.
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