Big Gora

Big Gora

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Mujhe Dilli yaad aa raha hai

मुझे दिल्ली याद आ रहा है. [I'm remembering Delhi.]
Four years ago this week, my wife and I arrived in Delhi and began exploring. On this particular day of 2012, we visited Chandni Chowk, definitely a highlight of the trip.
We marveled at the sensory intensity of the place: tightly packed, fast-moving crowds, twisting narrow lanes, a new packed little shop every few feet, something amazing to see everywhere you looked, calls to prayer, Hindi film songs over tinny speakers, chatting, street foods of all kinds, mosques, shrines, holy portraits, and insane electrical wiring! Like tourists, as I suppose we inescapably are, we rented a bicycle rickshaw manned by a polite young man speaking pretty good English.
He took us through, and around, and (I later realized) by arrangement, took us to a particular spice shop in the heart of the district. The shop was as packed and, well, spicy as you can possibly imagine and then some. We couldn't help buying something or other there, to take back to friends at home. At the end of our jaunt, our guide photographed me in the driver's seat.
These are some of my favorite photos, and memories, of my whole life. Add this one to the list, from our first full day in Dilli, of Bridget at a stone window of the Qutub Minar.
On Chandni Chowk day, we also visited the Jamma Masjid--the Friday Mosque--which stands right at the district's edge. What an inexpressibly gorgeous place it is. Just look...
I feel sickened, pretty much daily, here in the States, at hearing ignorant bigots angrily spewing their misinformation about Muslims. Dilli has a considerable Muslim population, particularly in this part of the city. We talked (or clumsily pantomimed) to many Muslim people right on their own turf, the Masjid for example, and they were helpful, sweet, welcoming, adorable, generous in every case in every moment. One man who, I gather, could not speak led us around the place. Somehow, between our questions--he seemed to understand our English pretty well--and his signs and nonverbal utterances, he gave us a guided tour. I was a little surprised by the way he threw his arm around Bridget for this photo, but it seemed companionable and not the least bit improper.
He dropped us off at a quiet corner of the Masjid where religious relics were kept. The man inside this little alcove showed us the prophet Mohammed's (peace be upon him) sandals and prayer beads, and a Koran many centuries old. These kind people, in short, showed us their dearest treasures, with smiles and respect.
Just for fun, notice how relatively huge the Big Gora is in this setting. Our rickshaw-wallah and guide are Bridget's size, which is over a foot shorter than me, and I had to bend almost double to see the holy relics.
My chest hurts, remembering all this. I want to go back and stay.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Unnati karna sitar ke sath

[Making progress with the sitar]
It's good to be back! Sorry to have been away so long!
I'm working hard to learn the sitar. A friend from graduate school started teaching herself to play the saxophone, and began posting "Saxophone Friday" videos to record her progress. Inspired, I'm doing "Sitar Sundays." I have three so far, which I'm posting here newest to oldest. Together they total about three minutes.

Here's my problem. As far as I can make out, learning this instrument involves a series of great learning leaps. The first one is just figuring out how to hold it and yourself properly. This is a lot more complicated, and necessary, than you'd ever guess without trying. To make it sound right and even to keep from falling over, you have to put the big bottom gourd in the correct position on top of your bare foot, while you sit on the floor. The sitar must be at a 45-degree angle for you to see the music and/or to hold the frets. You must be sturdy and comfortable, or you will essentially be juggling the instrument rather than playing it. One of my musically talented friends told me that the great Sri Ravi Shankar himself warned George Harrison, "You will need three years to even learn how to hold it properly." Am I ahead of the game, then? Hah.

The next big leap is tuning. The sitar has twenty-three strings--count 'em, 23! I broke one, the not-unimportant second string, tightening it up. Then I broke two more trying to replace it. That third one just about broke my will to live. Finally, though, a few hours' worth of cursing and tinkering have showed me exactly how to do it--and it must be done according to a very exact series of steps. Now I'm afraid to ever tune that string again.
I'm getting reasonably fluent with one-string tunes and exercises, or "paltas" as they're called. When you play a wind instrument, it takes a significant amount of time and effort just to produce a clean tone, one in which there's no squawking or breathiness. The sitar works similarly. You learn how to properly work the frets, which are quite different from Western-style guitar frets: sitar frets are metal, and you have to press down on them hard, with your left index finger on the peg side of the fret rather than on top of or between. Luckily for me, I guess, I never tried playing guitar, so I haven't had to unlearn guitar-style fret placement. When you use the left hand properly, you soon wear a crease right into the left index fingertip. The masters who make YouTube instructional videos have deep, solid creases, plus colossal calluses on the right index finger, which bears the "mizrab" (pick). I see not so much as a small callus on my left index finger, so clearly I need to play a whole lot more!

So now I'm coming up against the next huge hurdle: how in the world do I play more strings? Early on, I gathered from brief passing references in my two teach-yourself books:
1) There are "drone strings," which as the name would indicate provide a kind of constant background harmonic. These are--I think?--the next two or three strings after the all-important first string.
2) There are "chikar strings," which are strummed. The key first string is at the "bottom" of the instrument as it's held, most readily available to the mizrab-playing finger. The chikar strings, which would be all the strings other than first and drone, count down from the opposite side, the top. I remember from tuning that they cover the full tonal range: one is super-low, one is super-high, and there are a couple in between.
Now that I have a tiny bit of fluency in simple one-string play, I'm wondering:
1) How advanced will I have to be to start adding in these other elements, drones and chikars?
2) Are these notated on the music? Or do people just improvise?
3) How in the world am I going to learn all this on my own?
About this third concern. Learning Hindi is in a sense much easier, because it's just not difficult at all to hear Hindi spoken. Put a Bollywood movie on Netflix, and voila. With the sitar, there seem to be innumerable lessons online, at YouTube, to get people started and playing at a beginner's level--then nothing. I barely feel qualified to say "I am playing the sitar": my instrument is gorgeous, complicated, and capable of producing amazing art; I am plinking out little one-string baby tunes on it. As David Foster Wallace said about most Americans' use of English: "It's like using a Stradivarius to hammer in nails." "You know nothing, Brian Cowlishaw."
I'm humbled, and I'm doubtful about how far I can or will get--but I'll keep plinking away!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Maine sitar bajata hoon!

मैंने सितार बजाता हूँ ! (I play the sitar!)
Well, sort of. I try. I took a few hundred dollars that would have gone towards a conference (which I just didn't have the heart to attend this year--long, boring story, so never mind why), and instead bought this beautiful sitar! Check it out...
It came in this huge box! I am, as you know, a Big Gora, and this box comes up to my chest! Heavy, too. So I unpacked it, screwed on the smaller upper resonating bowl, and started goofing around with it.
You can tell this is fresh out of the box in two ways. First, I'm sitting on a bench in nothing near the same ZIP code as proper sitar-playing position. One of the very first things I learned is how to sit, and it's not this: instead, sit on the floor or a fairly flat cushion, cross the legs with left foot underneath, and prop the sitar against the left foot and right, upper leg. Second, I'm holding it like a guitar--another big no-no. Any sitar player can tell you that you hold its strings/frets exactly 90 degrees from the floor; you should be looking at the strings that mark each fret from about a foot behind the instrument. Unlike with a guitar, you don't look at the strings--they're on the other side of the board from you.
But what the hell, eh? As with learning Hindi itself, this is all about having a good time as I enjoy participating in Indian culture. I'm an amateur, etymologically meaning that I do it just for the love of it. What does it matter if I'm any good?
I'm intrigued by the Indian music notation system. It's called "Sargam," an acronym for the first four notes. Just as Western music has "Do Re Mi Fa" and so on, Indian notes have names: "Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa." There are three octaves, so the middle or base octave notes are just written as the (capital) letter without embellishment, whereas the upper octave places a dot over the letter and the lower, a dot below the letter. Thus, "S R G M" is all the notation you'd really need for those four middle-octave notes. Apparently--and I haven't gotten to this yet, in practice--sharps and flats, which is to say keys, are taken care of by tuning beforehand and/or by pulling a string to change the pitch. For now, I'm playing little scales and learning-the-notes and getting-used-to-the-notation-type exercises. I'll put up a short demonstration video as soon as I feel a little better about making that public.
It's a gorgeous instrument, and very satisfying to play. It's also one of the most engrossing things I've ever done; when I'm concentrating, I lose myself completely, more so than playing a video game or reading a good book. There is so much to learn! I need to learn the complicated art of tuning all those main and sympathetic strings, the "chikar" strokes (strumming the bottom few strings during play), how to keep a "drone" going (the signature sound of the sitar), and of course gain some dexterity/skill at basic play. Here I go!