Someone please teach me sitar

Ustad Vilayat Khan (1928-2004) was one of the greatest sitar players of the 20th century, praised as Bharat Sitar Samrat (“India’s Emperor of the Sitar” in Sanskrit) and Aftaab-e-Sitar (“Sun of the Sitar” in Persian). In this 1976 recording, he is playing Alhaiya Bilawal, a morning raga. He is accompanied on tabla by Pandit Kishan Maharaj (1923-2008).

For the past year or so, I’ve been listening increasingly often to Indian classical music, and I’d say about 60% of the music I listen to now is Indian classical. Usually, I listen to South Indian classical music (called Carnatic music), because that’s what I learn and play on my violin. Yet, for some reason, ever since I started college, North Indian classical music (aka Hindustani music) has had an increased presence in my life.

Aside from learning tabla for a couple months when I was in second or third grade, my experience with Indian classical music has almost completely centered around the Carnatic tradition. However, being in my university’s South Asian music ensemble has changed that; we have a sarangi player and a tabla player, and we’ve been working on a variety of Hindi / North Indian songs. Additionally, a couple of guest artists have come and given lecture-demonstrations for the ensemble, including Portland-based sitarist Josh Feinberg and the first all-female Indian classical music and dance group, SAKHI (who came and talked to us the day after they performed at Carnegie Hall!).

Coming from a Carnatic background, being exposed to so much Hindustani music has been like meeting a distant cousin who speaks the same language as you, but with a very different accent. Carnatic music (karnataka sangeetam) and Hindustani music (hindustani sangeet) are the two distinct traditions that make up Indian classical music. They share a common ancestor, but while Carnatic music, just like medieval South India in general, remained relatively untouched by foreign influences, Hindustani music emerged as a distinct style in North India due to various Muslim invasions that began in the 12th century or so, bringing Persian and Arab influences into India.

Listening to Carnatic music and Hindustani music today, it is obvious that they are very distinct musical traditions. To begin with, they use different instruments. The sitar and sarangi are the stringed instruments of choice in Hindustani music; Carnatic music uses the violin and veena. Also, although they share some common ragas (melodic scales), the way in which ragas are sung or played is very different for each tradition. For example, during the opening improvisation of a raga (the Hindustani alaap and the Carnatic alapana), Hindustani artists tend to rely on slow, meditative phrases, dwelling on single notes for extended periods of time, while Carnatic musicians place a much greater emphasis on complex oscillations between different notes. I might have been previously biased towards Carnatic music, but now I honestly can’t say I prefer one style over the other.

All of this was basically just to say: I’ve fallen in love with the sitar. Gone are the days when I scorned it as being too “stereotypically Indian” so I would refuse to listen to it (true story). Pandit Ravi Shankar, his daughter Anoushka Shankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Shahid Parvez, Josh Feinberg, and many other sitarists have shown me the light. It’s such a beautiful and complex instrument and yeah, I love my violin, but… if someone’s feeling particularly generous and wants to buy me a sitar that would be a pleasant surprise.

Thanks for reading — hope you enjoy the Vilayat Khan recording!


2 thoughts on “Someone please teach me sitar”

  1. I know exactly how you feel, Nikhil. Similar to my story!! The sitar is a supremely beautiful instrument and to hear its melody is to come under its spell for life. Thanks for sharing Ustad Vilayat Khan saab’s recording.

    Liked by 1 person

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