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While My Sitar Gently Weeps

i returned from last year's trip to Nepal with a beautiful sitar in tow, one that I couldn't play for toffee, but would at least sit in the corner of my parents' front room and look pretty. Now, having been in the instrument's natural home for a mere twelve hours, I decided I'd try and unlock some of the secrets of the sitar. Beginner courses are widely available in Indian cities, and since the temperature outside was hitting 44 degrees Celsius some days, spending the hottest hours of the day cross-legged on the floor of a music shop seemed like a pretty viable option.

Anyone who's ever done any traveling in India will tell you that it is NOT EASY. Bureaucracy and incompetence all play a part, and frequently white becomes black, days become weeks, and moderate blood pressures become heart attacks. So imagine my surprise, when, half an hour after having mentioned my intentions to a slightly shady guy outside my hotel in the holy pilgrimage city of Varanasi, I found myself taking my very first sitar lesson. Many of the other travelers I met during my time in the city were making their own pilgrimage to Rishikesh; the place where the Beatles' most elaborate publicity stunt with the Maharishi had led only one of them to come away with anything worthwhile.

Truth be told, I didn't much enjoy Varanasi—it's a filthy, time-warped city that seems to prey on the inexperienced traveler, relentlessly reducing him to a puddle of food poisoning, sunburn and tears. But what follows is my week of learning: the tables were again turned, I'd gone from student to teacher and back to student once more—and this is how it happened:

Day One
The first lesson was very much introductory; there to confirm what it was I wanted from the experience, how much could plausibly be learnt in such a short timescale, and how much my fingers (which hadn't seen a guitar in three weeks, and even then only fleetingly) were going to be able to take of the sitar's razor-thin strings. I remembered quickly that for some reason (probably owing to lack of exercise, but not sure) I haven't been able to sit fully cross-legged since I was in junior school, and wondered if this might pose a problem. Pleasingly it didn't—there are in fact more ways to sit with and hold a sitar than you can shake a stick at. Once I'd found the right one, we were away. Slipping on the mizrab (a sort of over-the-finger plectrum) I ran through some major scales, and was taught the Indian musical alphabet, in which "doh re mi fa so la ti do..." becomes "sa re ga ma pa dha ni sa...".

Day Two
Arriving for lesson two I was greeted with the mandatory cup of chai (stupidly sweet tea). More scales. Fingers hurting quite a lot, despite my teacher Raj's provision of an oily rag to grease me up good. After working through more complicated scale patterns and improvisations, Raj tells me he reckons I'll be playing a raga by the end of the week. Well, it's good to have targets, right?

Day Three
Today was rhythm class, taking my various scale runs over however many suptakas (octaves) and applying them to basic seven and eight beat timings. Having had my exercises restricted to "lead" (note to self: stop using vaguely-appropriate Western music terminology in this context) parts up to now, the rhythm playing was the first moment playing the sitar actually sounded like playing the sitar—all sympathetic strings and spicy flicks over the thickest string - it felt pretty good. Rhythm or lay is dependent on the various boles prevalent in Indian classical music: patterns of sound produced, for instance, by a tabla player.

Day Four
This lesson was, well, more of the same. However, in the evening I was invited to visit Raj's storeroom and factory. He makes his own instruments, predominantly sitars but also tabla, guitars, sarod, santoor and tanpuras. The wood used on a sitar is allowed to dry for a period of years, and the longer it dries the better the sound, the more durable in extreme hot or cold climates (the former being a necessary consideration in Varanasi, the latter vital for the many tourists who take them back to eastern Europe or wherever), and the higher the value. Raj had a whole array of sitars, including some that have been drying for a pretty incredible thirty-five years.

As I left his storeroom to head back through the Old City's myriad passages and alleyways to my hotel, my ever-patient tutor called after me, "And tomorrow we start raga!" Which just seemed a bit mental, really.

Day Five
Beginning work on one of dozens of Yaman (evening) ragas was simple enough: playing and improvising patterns around the raga's scale, drinking chai and chatting about music. I'm told the improvisations will come in handy later. The last part of the lesson was to learn the gat, a sort of classical chorus; an Indian refrain. This would be the basis for the first section of the raga, and while the music often strays way beyond the confines hooks, it will always return like a faithful Labrador to its owner, its definition, its gat.

Day Six
As my week of tuition draws to a close, and we realize how much work is needed in order to emerge with anything resembling a raga, I opt to take two lessons on Day Six. Lessons are generally two hours long with very little stoppage time, so this was going to be pretty heavy going. I could have done with just a little more time on yesterday's gat when Raj forced upon me the Yaman's antra—a seldom-repeated middle section bridging the gat and the most important section of any raga: the tan, the improvisation. Taking one lesson at noon and another early in the evening, I was sort of getting the hang of it. Sure, one week is not sufficient to learn anything substantial on any instrument, particularly one for which the basic principles are so far removed from anything I'm used to. But this was always set as a challenge, and after four hours and a bit of swatting up in my "Learn Yourself Sitar" (sic) book, I was starting to feel the heat. Hell, I'd been feeling it all week!

Day Seven
It seems to me to be ridiculous to teach improvisations—actually write them down and show the student how to play them, but Raj knows best. The tan taught to me were probably still vital, since everything is relative and as a music writer and not an Indian classical musician I'm certainly not predisposed to know how these things are put together without a bit of guidance. Then...

Putting it all together was a bit ropey. But it was recognizable, it was something to work on, and an experience to cherish. You learn something every day in this job.

Thanks to Raj Javiswal at Seetla Music Centre, D10/28 Biswanath Lane, Varanasi.

Photography: Kim Rutgers

By: Colin Cooper
Published on: 2005-04-27
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