Since it is India, if I were to turn to the Goddess of knowledge, music and the arts the answer would be in her hand. Sort of. The Goddess Saraswati holds and plays the veena, a plucked string instrument that looks very much like it’s more famous cousin, the sitar.
In fact, during my time here a Saraswati Festival was held over several days. On the first, she appears out of the Ganga River. The middle days, she dances about. And on the last day, she returns to the Ganga which the citizens represent by throwing 10+ feet tall statues of Saraswati into the river and chugging whiskey in the streets.
Considering up to 5 years ago my Facebook stated “I want to learn to play the sitar” it seemed like a no-brainer though actually my interest started much earlier…. Like many others, my interest in the instrument was sparked by its inclusion in 60’s rock. Most famously, The Stones used it in “Paint It Black” and the Beatles in “Norwegian Wood.” Pandit Ravi Shankar rose to international fame as the teacher of George Harrison:
After searching the city, I found a nice, relaxing place about ten meters from the main burning ghat, Manikarnika. Sarcasm is a subtle mistress, so let me explain: I previously mentioned the heightened frenzy with which Varanasians interact with foreigners. Around the main washing and burning ghats you find some of the most relentless of these denizens. Combined with eye-watering smoke from the pyres and cattle using the steps as pasture, it may not seem the best local for a music school. Yet the owner, Arjun, is genuine bloke and the teacher he uses, Rakesh Mishra, has an approachable teaching style.
Sur Sarita Music School
Window view of pyre wood.
So lets play some sitar. First some mechanics. The full-size sitar is 42 inches high. Number of strings can very, mine has 7 main and chikari strings that are actually strummed or plucked. The remaining 12 lie recessed in the neck and are sympathetic strings. That means you don’t actually play them, but through the vibrations of the instrument they create a complex harmonic resonance that is further amplified by the toomba. The toomba is the bulbous end of the sitar made from gourd (also called the pumpkin). Another toomba can optionally be attached to the top of the neck, but this is often only decoration on lower model sitars and made of wood, not gourd.
Photo Courtesy Wikipedia
Indian classical music is new to me and differs quite a bit from Western style. There is more emphasis on single instrumentalists with a percussion accompaniment, tabla in the case of sitar. There is a highly evolved methodology using scales with note names Sa, Ra, Pa, Ma, Dha, etc as opposed to Western Do, Re, Mi, Fa, etc.
You’ve probably heard the term rāga, which is a “series of five or more musical notes upon which a melody is made” (Wikipedia). Rāgas are associated with different times of the day in the Indian tradition and really should only be played during the correct time. The mood created by the rāga corresponds to the environment; slow building morning rāga, fast paced afternoon rāga, and middle of the night rāgas that are slow but can explode with activity.
The first thing I learned was alankar, which are basically exercises that move up and down the scales in patterns. These are the building blocks of Indian classical music and are inserted at certain points during a rāga. They vary in difficulty and are how a player shows of his skill. In fact, many serious students will only practice this for years and years before taking on the actual rāga.
Only one string is really plucked on the sitar, the bottom sting, but sometimes a second is used. With only one string, this means the music is quite linear going up and down the scales. The sympathetic strings create the unique sound of the sitar and the very top chikari stings are strummed at the correct places to create even more resonance.
Like the guitar, it takes sometime to build up a callous on your left index finger. The string you pluck is thick metal and really wears painful lines into your finger. A band aid was required for much of my practice time. But you develop a groove in your finger and are soon sliding up and down. In addition, a mizrab is used in the right index finger. Like a guitar pick, this wire apparatus also digs into your finger and is used to pluck the main string. This hurts too.
With little time, I bought a notebook, slapped a sticker of Saraswati on it, and filled it with lots of alankar exercises, notes on tuning and mechanics, and several easy rāgas. I hope to have enough that I can continue on my own for some time, with the help of internet instruction, to teach myself for the time being. I’m sure sitar lessons in the US will be much more expensive than India.
I’m more interested in fusion music with the sitar, that is taking Indian classical instruments and using them in a Western musical environment. This is how the early fusion players, like the amazing John McLaughlin, popularized the instrument in the West. Today, Prem Joshua is a very popular fusion player. I’ve loaded lots of Indian Classical and fusion onto my iPod so I look forward to exploring these styles of music more.
Sweet Child O’ Mine on the sitar
I also attended a couple Indian Classical concerts in Varanasi. One featured a very fine sitar player, who to the distaste of most kept a couple white guys on stage. Fine, but one only sat in front of is MacBook, eyes closed, monitoring the recording of the performance. Weird.
Another was held where I stayed at Munna House and was organized by many of the people staying there since so many are music students. Lucy and Israel had a cool jam session of flute and hang drum (one of the best instruments period), a table and harmonium set, and the final by a longtime English sitarist who played the immense surbahar. The surbahar is like a bass sitar; larger, heavier and deeper sound with intricate demon head carvings on the top of the neck. The devil’s sitar.
Varanasi provided me a great opportunity to become acquainted with the sitar and Indian classical music in general. I ended up purchasing a sitar and shipping it to the US, so I can’t wait to get my hands on it again!