The Mystic Chitrali Sitar

Submitted by Shams Uddin on Wed, 2007-07-04 10:15.
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The Mystic Chitrali Sitar

Plato [c.427-347 BC] considered music to be an integral part of human life. The relevance and importance of the great Greek philosopher has not diminished but has increased in our age.

Man invented various form of musical instruments in response to the artistry of music, which not only reflected the abstract feelings of romanticism, but also cast a spotlight on the cultural values and history of given societies.

In the face of numerous instruments, the sitar is the most popular in Chitral northern Pakistan, the invention of which is attributed to Amir Khisro, a 4th century orthodox mystic poet, scholar and sage who lived in Delhi. Khisro, in order to better express his mystic poems infused with messages of love for God and creation, used a sitar as his instrument of predilection. Later on, his disciples and followers regarded it as an appropriate medium for preaching and spreading their doctrine of love and mysticism. The Chitrali sitar has become a popular instrument among local people. It is regarded as a token of honor and highly esteemed decoration in many households and is also a precious souvenir for friends.

Chitrali sitar is approximately four feet long and features an oval sound box at the bottom. The body and sound box are made from two different pieces of wood delicately fixed so the joints are almost imperceptible. Another feature in the fabrication of a Chitrali sitar is that the wood used for the sound box must be of the mulberry variety due to fact it contains no oil which suits the mechanism of the instrument. Mulberry wood has long visible streaks made up of small pores that facilitate the process of vibration—the key as to why a sitar produces sound. When the strings are strummed, the vacuum in the sound-box takes air in through the pores, blowing it out to stabilize the process. The thin wooden body or ‘ghazdar’ contains 13 sweet sounding parda or frets fixed at appropriate places by skilled sitar makers. There are 5 wooden pegs for tuning the strings. The basic element in Chitrali sitar is its ‘middle string’ that goes under the fourth parda from above; it is known as ‘parda-e-saaz’ in local music terminology.

So how is this particular instrument played? Sitar playing is, above all, an intuitive apprenticeship, closer to the realm of art. It does not possess fixed musicology criteria that document, catalogue and treat the specifics of the subject. Most expert sitar players of older time were not educated—they merely learned, played and enjoyed the instrument. However, they did collectively work towards its systematic development. Keen novices are recommended to seek tutor to learn the basics, including a) how to tune the strings and the various ways of tuning them b) how the fingers of the left hand should move up and down in rhythm to the strumming finger. The sitar is placed on the lap with the body face up and neck pointed up. The forefinger of the right hand is used to strum the string of the sound-box. The index and middle fingers of the left hand are placed on the parda [frets] moving up and down in harmony with the strumming of the strings. An accomplished sitar player possesses perfect coordination and timing between the running fingers and strumming one. The better the coordination, the sweeter the melody, and vice versa. Furthermore, a good sitar player will play the first two ‘rudimentary strings’ with delicate touches followed by the elementary ‘middle string’ and the ‘supplementary strings’ to produce the background percussion required to harmonize the sitar melody with the drum beats. The late Ali Zuhoor Khan is a good example of such a playing style. Some sitar players wear a ring on the strumming finger which tends to reduce the softness and sweetness of the melody. Classical sitar players contradict the option of wearing rings, preferring an unadorned finger.

Full commitment and devotion is the key in learning to play this instrument. Those who start from scratch have to learn about the tones of the songs they intend to play. When a beginner learns to produce tone, observer may see strange expressions on the face of the novice as every organ in his/her body, including the face, move in rhythm.

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