Big Gora

Big Gora

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!