The Sitar Diaries- ABC of Playing A Sitar

So you got your sitar, got your mizrab and even coaxed your feet into the slightly uncomfy position sitting like a pretzel. Now it all comes down to holding the sitar properly (aka getting a solid grip on it) and striking a note!

The sitar has a longish neck that culminates in a rounded bottom. While holding the sitar, the neck (daand) is pointing upwards and the player’s elbow rests on the swell of the bottom aka the tumba.

The mizrab is put on the index finger of the right hand and the left hand is pressed down on a fret while the hand does either of these four movements-

DA. RA. DIR. DRA! I added an exclamation after the last mode of playing a note because it’s played in a quick and almost aggressive manner.

DA is the bol representing the upward strike. The mizrab starts from the bottom end of the string and strikes upward.

RA is the bol representing the downward strike. The mizrab starts from the top end of the string and strikes downward.

DIR is a quick flick doing a Da, followed by an immediate Ra. It will seem like a “stutter” from the sitar.

DRA is when the first string is stroked from inward and then immediately outward very fast, giving the outward stroke more power/emphasis than inward stroke.

The left hand moves up and down the neck of the instrument while the right hand continues to strum the strings in a medley of the movements described above and sounds are emitted. Once the proper sequence of notes are put into play, a melody emerges.

Incidentally the higher up you go on a sitar’s neck the lower the tonal quality of the notes and conversely the lower you move on the neck the higher the tonal quality. Highs and lows on a sitar often take novices a while to master since the hand typical tends to reach for a higher place when told to strike a high note and vice versa.

Also, initial days of playing a sitar can be tough in more ways than one- the steel wires cut into your hands and thankfully causing calluses which help you play as time goes by. But till the time the calluses form it’s a wee bit painful and applying bandaids on the index finger of the left hand can help the younger students withstand the discomfort that can occur.

Tuning a sitar is also very important. With all string instruments, the tautness of the wires can make or break the sounds that will be created. The pegs on a sitar are to be tuned gently (by novices) and a good way to find out how your sitar should sound is to sing the sargam (that is singing the notes instead of the composition). The notes, SA-RE-GA-MA simplistically corresponds to the DO-RE-MI-FA in Western classical music.

But alongside learning bits of theory, it’s more important to get to know the instrument, familiarize yourself with its contours and then just jump headfirst into playing it.

Attribution: some texts within the blog post have been taken from these sources-



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