It was interesting to get different perspectives from three of these masters of the sitar.
What do you have to say about the origin of the sitar.
Since not much has been obtained in writing over the centuries about the origin of sitar, it is but natural to find controversial versions of its origin. I only play the sitar as it exists today, and from what little I have heard - it was a slow almost 400 years long fusion of concepts between the Persian ‘sehtar’ and the Karnataka veena.
I actually have no idea; I don’t go into historical speculation as I feel it’s not relevant. It’s a belief – either you believe or you don’t believe. Some say it’s a creation of Amir Khusrau, some that it’s a version of the veena, or it’s developed from the Persian sehtar – honestly it doesn’t matter to me. I believe today the sitar we play is completely different to what it was earlier.
I think it’s a version of the Persian sehtar that my ancestors, of the Ustad Imdad Khan lineage evolved, standardized and perfected over the years.
Do you think the physical adaptations made on the sitar have made it truly a 21st century instrument?
The sitar as I know it, if handled sensitively and with a great deal of serious devotion, is a greatly satisfying source of music. While, indeed, there is no end to the varieties of ongoing adaptations made to the sitar with time, it certainly needs to be assessed which kind of adaptations have enhanced the concept of this instrument. Some trends of ‘modernization’ that I have seen of the sitar, in different parts of the world, have changed the very nature of its sound to the extent where I am unable to even recognize the sound as that of a sitar I have grown up with.
I think 90 percent of the sitars made and played today are the version refined by my father Ustad Vilayat Khan. He has expanded the scope of the sitar so much – the 5 note “meend” (the glide from note to note, by pulling the wire) possible today, the rounded sound, the use of thicker wires for resonance, reducing the “tumba” (the rounded head of the sitar), removing the second superfluous tumba, refining the “jawaari” (the bridge on which the wires rest) - so many things, to create the best quality tonal sound.
Yes, if I could bring about a useful change it would be in the throw of the sound of the sitar – the violin and cello have great natural throw, and if some work could be done on this aspect it would be great, if the sound of the sitar could reach 50-100 people without enhancement. For now, we just use mics!
I think the present day sitar is perfect the way it is. It has been much refined upon, and I find it needs nothing now.
What to you is the most difficult aspect of playing –holding it on your foot, the tight “mizrab”, your left hand fingers getting cut and bleeding, the length of the stem which is the longest of any Indian instrument….
Having spent 57 of my 62 years of age assimilating the myriad of colours of musical pleasures that sitar is capable of offering, I find no aspect of playing the sitar playing even slightly painful!! However, if someone does find any of the various enumerated (apparently complex) issues of playing the sitar painful, it only reflects upon the lack of dedication of that individual towards sitar, not the sitar, itself, as an instrument.
I feel the most difficult aspect is the meend – to pull 5 notes, and that too bring in the emotive aspect in the notes, to make them melodic, and pleasing. It’s not just straight “sa re ga ma pa”, (he sings) it’s the music within the notes.
Truly, handling the sitar is more about what age you start playing it. The initiation is important, one needs to be correctly taught, and after that all the physical difficulties don’t matter. One must have the love of music and the zest to practice.
What was the most memorable moment with your sitar?
There are two – one, when my father late Acharya Pandit Bimalendu Mukherjee thought me fit as a 5 year old boy to touch the sitar, and secondly, when I successfully created in my sitar the sound of my dreams after a 15 year extremely risky and strenuous research, concluded in 2009.
Difficult to answer, but as of now I can remember a concert when at the time of the ending, at the crescendo, my main “baaj” wire broke! To stop and change it was impossible, so I carried on, and I think no one even noticed. If you have developed a relationship over the years with the sitar, physically, it sometimes bails you out in difficult times like these.
A very significant memory for me is when I graduated from playing the small sitar made for me as a boy, to a regular sized sitar. This was one which my father Ustad Imrat Khan had himself played for years, made for him especially by the great sitar maker Kanhai Lal. He gave me this, and I was really ecstatic. I was able to continue my next chapter as a musician, with my father’s beloved sitar, and all the vibes of the great music he had created on it.
The writer writes on music, musicians and music matters