The Wondrous Sitar

Music lovers the world over remain indebted to the Indian maestro Ravi Shankar, and to George Harrison of the Beatles, for bringing the sitar to its rightful international place on the global stage for the best musical instruments ever invented. Ravi Shankar has devoted his entire life to playing classical music on the sitar, having started in the years before World War II. He is the recipient of endless awards and accolades, but they all put together cannot recognize his genius in full measure. It is only a tangential issue that his handling of this complex instrument is so technically perfect.

Ravi Shankar’s classic contribution lies in fusing the sitar so harmoniously with foreign genres of music. Though the best composers from many continents have been influenced by and have contributed to the sitar, the fabled name of the Beatles obviously propels George Harrison to the vanguard of timeless performers of western music who have included the sitar in their work. Joint performances by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar must rank amongst the top music creations of our times.

The name sitar may sound like guitar, but the use of strings and wood are the only and superficial similarities. The sitar has at least one resonating chamber made from a sub-tropical fruit called the gourd: some versions have a second and smaller chamber for fuller sound effects. Another major characteristic of the sitar is that it has two sets of strings one on top of the other. This makes both tuning and playing very difficult. The sitar has a separate bridge for each set of strings, and the exact shape of this part of the sitar adds immeasurably to the qualities of the instrument. The sitar goes back eons in the history of the sub-continent, and some believe that Central Asia has also influenced its design over the centuries. At any rate, the experience of playing or listening to the sitar is a hallowed experience, since it recreates a performing art that reaches back so far in time.

The sitar is not an instrument for people in a hurry. Appreciating the range and rhythms of sounds produced by the instrument at the hands of a skilled musician requires patience, concentration, and knowledge. Casual listening for a few moments can be disappointing for a novice who has heard much about the magic of the instrument! It should therefore come as no surprise that reaching a skill level sufficient for public performance can take years of daily practice. This used to be at the feet of a Guru in ancient India. It remains the best way to learn, though books and videos are now also available.