The sitar from different angles (Pt. 2): Modern players, global experiments

  • Author: George Howlett

Going in deep on Hindustani music's most famous string instrument. Part 2 looks to the future, introducing some modern sitar stars and examining the rise of fusion (also see Part 1).

—Part of Living Traditions: 21 articles for 21st-century Indian classical music

The sitar is a living instrument, and the musicians who play it traverse a rapidly changing world. Modern artists build on the work of earlier innovators, and the internet enables aspiring sitarists to draw inspiration from all kinds of music. Students rarely live with their gurus under the harsh isolation of the old-style gurukul (master-disciple system) any more, and many are now scattered across the globe.

Consequently, approaches to the instrument are in a permanent state of flux. In Part 1 we examined how the sitar produces its sound, and explored the technical, aesthetic, and spiritual contributions of three towering 20th-century masters - Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, and Ustad Vilayat Khan.

But despite its limitless reverence for the old greats, Hindustani music is fundamentally a forward-looking tradition. Here we turn to the future, covering how today’s notable players continue to innovate and sampling some sitar fusion.

Three 21st-century masters

In most genres, musical technique tends to improve over time. It may expand in different directions, but rarely goes into reverse. Standards are raised as new artists push to be distinctive and find better ways to do what their teachers did.

This is true of any genre - Charlie Parker’s alto sax chops may have astounded late-1940s jazzers, but today’s college learners are expected to be able to run a vast range of his licks on command (and in all keys, mind). But the sitar’s sharp focus on technical virtuosity means that outer limits are always being pushed particularly hard. Here are three 21st-century maestros who have found success in their quests for ever-greater musical powers.

"My sitar recognises me. And that’s what I live for..." Photo: Rehmat Rayatt

Pandit Budhaditya Mukherjee has expanded the Imdadkhani gharana’s vast range of ‘singing’ ornaments. He is revered for an extraordinary command of the surbahar (bass sitar) as well as the sitar - many count him as among the world’s best at both. On the latter he is renowned for balancing ferocious speed with a strong melodic command, with live performances that take Hindustani music to soaring heights.

As a child he studied under his father Pandit Bimalendu Mukherjee, one of Vilayat Khan’s senior disciples. Bimalendu was an eclectic musician, also learning from a plethora of different singers, drummers, sarangists, and exponents of sursingar, veena, and esraj. Budhaditya quickly absorbed his father’s influences, maturing remarkably early - at the age of just 22, veena maestro S Balachander described him as the “sitar artist of the century”.

The young man also dedicated himself to academic work, graduating with a first class degree in Metallurgical Engineering (it is rumoured that he barely made a key exam on time after flying straight in from a performance). In his student days he sought to replicate the techniques of Vilayat Khan, his father’s guru, calling him “my goal, the shining star, and the sun in whose ambience I too wanted to bathe”.

He soon began to tour internationally, and holds the odd distinction of being the first musician of any genre to perform in the British House of Commons. Always seeking to broaden his gharana's vocabulary, he is recognised as the first sitarist to convincingly capture the fast, angular melodies of tappa music - a semi-classical vocal style derived from Punjabi camel-riders which commonly depicts the emotional outbursts of a jealous lover.

Over the years he has used his engineering knowledge to customise his sitars, and continues to bring fresh imagination to playing them. He prides himself on musical self-control, not allowing his near-unrivalled speed to distract from the underlying shape of a melody (“speed in sitar music is an incidental decoration, not the core on which aesthetics of sitar music stands”). Largely uninterested in self-promotion, he focuses on the music itself.

"Then came the realization of responsibility. When that hits you, it feels like an earthquake opening up the ground below you and that you might be falling straight into the earth’s core...However, my sitar recognises me. And that’s what I live for."

Listen | Darbar filmed the video below in dramatic circumstances: “Kolkata, West Bengal, one cloudy March afternoon...a combination of wishful thinking and resentment for the miserable forecast leads us to choose the magnificent open courtyard for our evening shoot...Quite obviously, it begins to rain.”

“The wind is beginning to pick up and the tiny flames from the clay lamps go out faster than I can re-light them...Mukherjee tunes his sitar, undisturbed by the roaring of the rain and thunder. I notice that the rain is beginning to descend with such force that it is splashing inside, soaking the corner of Pandit-ji's rug. He is at risk of playing his piece from a puddle if the rain continues at this ferocity.”

Entirely unphased, he announces that he will play Miyan ki Malhar, a powerful monsoon raga, and we submit in the knowledge that whatever happens next will be by virtue of the force of nature...He begins to play. Nature takes pity on us and orchestrates the most magnificent light show we have ever witnessed, illuminating the courtyard for us. We exchange incredulous glances as we bear witness to one of the most magical moments we have ever experienced.”

Budhaditya will perform in more hospitable circumstances at Darbar Festival 2019, in a double-bill with Pandit Shivkumar Sharma’s santoor (Sun 13 Oct, Barbican Centre - book early for the best seats).

Pandit Kushal Das is another leading master of both the sitar and surbahar, with a style that builds on Pandit Nikhil Banerjee’s Maihar repertoire. Despite growing up in a family of successful sitarists and sarodias he was never pressured to learn classical music, with his family first letting him play his way through film songs and find his own connection to the instrument.

But Kushal soon realised his calling ("when I suddenly realised where my goal was, I became serious”), and worked tirelessly to capture the nuances of his idols. Like Vilayat Khan he uses a first-hand understanding of vocal music to expand his mellifluous string phrasings, bending patiently around both his instruments in a gharana-blending style.

And like Banerjee he garners particular respect from fellow musicians - the late sarod master Pandit Buddhadev Dasgupta once remarked that he wished to be born again so he could learn music from Kushal.

"I fell in love with Pandit Nikhil Banerjee’s style of playing and started shadowing him, both literally and figuratively...there was a point when I tried to imitate Nikhil with all my might and I thought it worked for me rather well; but then I was ticked off by well-meaning veterans, who encouraged me to evolve my own musical persona by finding a different vista. Since then I tried to imbibe whatever I could from all the three greats, forming my own melodic syntax."

Listen | Kushal Das follows in the footsteps of Ravi Shankar by sharing the stage with Carnatic musicians, duetting here with venu flute pioneer Shashank Subramanyam on Darbar’s stage at the 2017 Ravenna Festival in Italy. They play Raag Vachaspati, a South Indian scale which has been adapted into Hindustani music by Shankar and others:

Niladri Kumar is known for stretching the boundaries of classical music, enthusing younger audiences with a lively modern style. Trained under his father Pandit Kartick Kumar, a disciple of Ravi Shankar, he was quickly recognised as a prodigy (footage exists of him playing on Gujarati TV at the age of eight).

As an emerging artist he became notable for inventing the zitar - an electrified sitar. At the time he was playing many multi-genre events, and found he often struggled to gain a foothold for Indian classical music there amidst competition from more 'modern' styles: “I remember that moment. Armed with a sitar, but placed for a performance between an EDM and DJ set. How is our sound to be heard in the midst of that? On that kind of a global platform, that will make audiences turn their attention towards our music, our country?”

His bright red electric creation features magnetic pickups and a smaller body, meaning it can be played without sitting on the floor. The zitar may not be to the taste of ardent traditionalists, but Niladri’s sellout shows suggest that it has attracted younger audiences. In his words: “It’s about a small attempt to turn attention towards the sitar...[to] draw people towards India, and explore her proud and profound legacy, heritage, and the neverending musical mystery that she has to offer”.

But Niladri has always been an acoustic sitarist at heart. Today he is renowned for his varied technical command, overflowing with dextrous double stops, whispering string bends, and flamboyant taans (melodic elaborations). He has made forays into film composition, and tours extensively as a solo artist as well as with Ustad Zakir Hussain’s percussion ensembles.

"Sitars are like wands described in Harry Potter. You have to mutually select each other, and only once you warm up enough does the musical spell start to grow - and only after that does some magic start to begin."

Listen | Niladri Kumar showcases his extraordinary bending techniques on Raag Bhairavi, live from Darbar Festival 2014 with Pandit Subhankar Banerjee on tabla:

Female sitarists: lost talent, stifled innovation

In the words of esteemed sitarist Sahana Banerjee, "It pains me to see reviews of my concerts where a certain concession is offered by the generous critic on grounds of gender. I think it is outright discrimination, and not a holistic response to my music”.

In this spirit, I am certainly not giving female sitarists their own category here because none of them merit mention in another. Few musicians of any gender can match Sahana’s broad command over her instrument, and I’ve written much of this article to a soundtrack of Mita Nag as well as the old greats.

But the reality is inescapable and uncomfortable. Sitar history, like the rest of Indian music, has thus far been depressingly male-dominated. Women have certainly played vital roles in the instrument’s evolution - Annapurna Devi taught Nikhil Banerjee for years, and many of the Imdadkhani gharana’s distinctive vocal ornaments were adapted from female singers. It is said that Vilayat Khan would only listen to criticism from his mother.

But broadly, women have been denied the chance to learn the sitar on equal terms - or even to learn at all. And the accomplishments of those who do master the instrument are often lost in a fog of prejudice and extra pressure. The complexities of this will be examined in another extended article, but for now we should consider the specific challenges faced by today’s female learners.

Maa Annapurna Devi

For one, many still see the sitar as inherently masculine, with mastery requiring a strength presumed to be absent from women’s delicate hands. This is curious - Annapurna Devi was without question one of the 20th century’s finest surbahar virtuosi, an instrument universally regarded as a far heftier physical challenge than the sitar. But powerful perceptions remain, leading many young girls to unjustly but understandably feel the instrument is ‘not for them’.

Social expectations constrict in a variety of other ways. Daughters may be dissuaded from taking up the instrument by their parents (a trend Sahana chastises, saying “do not teach only vocal music or dance to your girl with the single-minded agenda of improving marital prospects"). And after marriage many must give up their musical ambitions to run the household. In the words of Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam, “It can be more difficult to be in touch with your inner talents, as society expects women to nourish others first”.

And virtually all sitarists struggle with confidence issues at some stage, but for young women this is exacerbated by a persistent absence of visible female icons. Female players have rarely found the audiences they deserve - names like Vidushi Manju Mehta, Vidushi Kalyani Roy, and Vidushi Jaya Biswas should not, on merit, be so unfamiliar (n.b. Vidushi is the female equivalent of Pandit or Ustad, meaning ‘respected teacher’ - but tellingly, it’s not in wide usage yet).

Old prejudices are falling away in the modern age, but for them to fall faster we must celebrate female artists directly for their achievements. So, while the musicians below deserve mention in any list of modern maestros, we should not forget the specific struggles female sitarists must so often endure. The issues above by no means confined to India either - all societies face similar challenges.

Sahana Banerjee learned vocal music from her mother Chhabi and sitar from her father Santosh. Her parents instructed her in their own styles while also allowing her the freedom to form her own. She seeks to expand Hindustani music’s audience through organising the Swarsudha series of baithak (house concerts), saying her central aim is to “propagate Indian classical music among musically common people”.

Listen | Sahana plays Raag Piloo against the backdrop of a lakeside Maharashtrian sunset:

Mita Nag is the sixth sitar generation of her family. She hails from the Bishnupur gharana, a dhrupad-influenced tradition of Bengal, and is known for a virtuosic approach, infused with strands of vocalism not found in the Imdadkhani or Maihar vocabularies. She has a degree in English Literature, and in 2002 founded the Gokul Nag Memorial Foundation in honour of her grandfather, a cultural organisation which seeks to preserve Kolkata’s musical heritage.

Listen | A trance-like segment of Raag Miyan ki Malhar, live from Mita’s concert with Satyajit Talwalkar at Darbar Festival 2015:

Anupama Bhagwat studied under Pandit Bimalendu Mukherjee, father and guru of Budhaditya, winning All India Radio’s sitar competition in 1994. Now based in Bangalore, she continues to refine her style while touring to acclaim and participating in fusion projects. For her, music is an unending joy, saying "so exhilarating has been the beauty of my journey in the realms of music that the destination is no longer important".

Listen | Anupama plays Shahana - a late night raga literally translating to ‘of royal demeanour’:

• Like Darbar Festival, Roopa Panesar was born in Leicester. She trained under British-based maestro Dharambir Singh and is currently a student of Pandit Arvind Parikh (who for over 60 years balanced life as Vilayat Khan’s disciple with his worldly career as a successful industrialist).

Her career has seen her collaborate with the Belgian Symphony Orchestra, make numerous BBC appearances, and record for the film West is West. But the path was not always clear. Roopa “was a chemical engineer...and didn't think I would take up music professionally...I worked for about two years, but then I decided to take music up full time. I just didn't feel fulfilled in my job”.

Listen | Roopa plays a solo rendition of the austere Raag Kaunsi Kanada:

The Khan dynasty continues

In Part 1 we hailed the 19th century innovations of Ustad Imdad Khan, who redesigned the modern sitar and formulated the singing gayaki style that has influenced all players since. We also looked at Vilayat Khan, his grandson, a firebrand of 20th-century Hindustani classical.

The Khan family is still at the forefront of modern sitar. Here are a few of Imdad’s great-grandchildren, all successful global performers who bridge the late 20th century with the early 21st:

Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan has been described by critics as ‘Indian music personified’. His playing reaches breathtaking standards, with unique picking patterns and a signature command of layakari (rhythmic-melodic interplay). He believes the sitar is now a “complete instrument”, which, in his Imdadkhani idiom, means that “you can replicate any aspect of vocal music on it”.

His father Ustad Aziz Khan was a famously demanding teacher (“often [his] wife would bring in food, and he would forget about the food and go on teaching his son, oblivious of the fact that his son would also be hungry...”). The guru avoided praise, and never smiled at his son’s prodigious accomplishments despite widespread acclaim. But for the young virtuoso this, perhaps remarkably, did not poison the music. Today Shahid sits at the pinnacle of the sitar world, astounding audiences wherever he goes and continually improving.

His intriguing career personifies many aspects of Indian classical music in the modern world. He has one foot in the isolated routines of the old greats, but also demonstrates a new global focus, teaching online and choosing to found his eponymous SPK Academy in Arizona. (Read my full interview with the Ustad here: What you play spontaneously must be perfect).

“I am always moving forward. I always want to proceed, and overcome whatever boundaries I come across. But the direction is never pre-planned. It is about the green light. I don’t have to wait for it to flash - I have reached a level where it is always on. There are no shortcuts to this place, but it must be the goal."

• Listen | Shahid Parvez showcases some fascinating layakari (rhythmic-melodic interplay), stretching and compressing Raag Yaman’s melodies over Ojas Adhiya’s 16-beat tintal cycle:

Ustad Shujaat Khan is Vilayat’s son. His famous father had lofty ambitions for him from the very start, demanding his pregnant wife attend regular concerts so the unborn child could absorb full ragas of only the highest quality. But he proved to be an irascible, demanding teacher: “After strumming the strings of the sitar for several exhausting hours - overnight practice that would make my fingers bleed - he felt that I wasn’t good enough”.

Their personal bond became strained, and Shujaat eventually fled the family house: “At the age of 17 I left home to carve my own life...rebellion is not easy to stomach. Sleeping exposed in public parks, washing utensils to fund your is a very tough call”.

But he forged his own successful path, gaining recognition for singing in unison with his instrument. He has soloed with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and formed the Grammy-nominated fusion band Ghazal with Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri on tabla and Kayhan Kalhor on kamancheh fiddle - like the sitar, an instrument rooted in Persia.

“When I performed, there was always the burden of matching the sky-high expectations set by my father. Treading the path carved by your forefathers is not all glitzy like it appears. The journey is beset with travail."

• Listen | Shujaat Khan sings and plays Vaishnav Jana To, a tribute to the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi:

Ustad Nishat Khan is renowned for formidable speed and control. He recounts his early life in the Khan family as involving skipping school to practice and staying up all night to analyse the concerts they had just seen. Nishat has since has taken his sitar into flamenco, Gregorian chant, and jazz, playing with heavyweights such as John McLaughlin.

• His brother Ustad Irshad Khan has taken the family’s sitar and surbahar styles to North America, settling there to play and teach. Ustad Wajahat Khan has adapted their bending techniques to the sarod’s sliding context. Vilayat’s daughter Zila Khan became a successful crossover singer, and Shahid’s son Shakir Khan (who, it has to be said, learns under much more forgiving conditions than his father) is emerging as a young talent. There are many more besides - see the Khan family tree here.

• Listen | Nishat Khan plays a mournful, almost bluesy rendition of Raag Darbari, running agile shapes through the jor’s steadily increasing pulse:

Experimental contexts: sitar fusion

In the words of Shahid Parvez, “I always explore within certain boundaries, but find that these boundaries are vast. It is like a great ocean". In other words, he finds all the satisfaction he needs within the established limits of Hindustani frameworks. But for many others, their heart pulls them in different directions. Modern sitarists increasingly look outside the confines of classical music, embracing new contexts and sonorities.

This is not a 21st-century phenomenon. For one thing, India’s musical arts have been in a state of flux for centuries, constantly absorbing new influences. Ancient temple chants were intertwining with folk melodies at the same time as the pharaohs ruled Egypt, and the music has since been coloured by many other cultures - Sikh warrior-saints, medieval Afghan traders, the Islamic Mughal empire, and colonial Britain. Modern technology has had an influence too, with microphones allowing the sitar’s whispering overtones to reach the full expanses of a vast auditorium.

So it is natural that sitarists have been experimenting since the birth of our instrument. We could hardly do otherwise - the sitar is itself a hybrid form, and its ‘pure’ classical repertoire is an amalgamation of dhrupad, khayal, and countless regional ideas. Looking outwards is inevitable, and fusion has been happening since day one.

Sadly, sound recording technology has only been available to the past few generations. But sitar players have been busy since then, achieving varying levels of success for their fusions. Here are a few notable cross-genre sitar excursions (definitely not an exhaustive list!)...

Ravi Shankar was always eager to collaborate with other dedicated musicians. He found a singularly talented acolyte in Yehudi Menuhin, widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest violinists. In 1966 the two virtuosi recorded the landmark West Meets East, playing compositions in tight unison and trading raga-based phrases over Ustad Alla Rakha’s tabla.

Their respective students Gaurav Mazumdar and Daniel Hope improved on their forebears’ work a generation later, filling the same compositions with a greater freedom and energy (witnessing their Homage to Ravi Shankar live in Bath was my first real introduction to the sitar).

Shankar would go on to experiment in other directions. He worked with minimalist icon Philip Glass on 1990’s Passages, playing short, sharp melodic interludes amidst string swells and punctuating rhythms. His first Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra came in 1971, and a second, entitled Raga-Mala (‘garland of ragas’), followed a decade later. Others have also placed the sitar in Western classical settings - Eric Whitacre’s Winter has a choir sing gentle cluster chords around a sitar’s alap (rhythmless section).

Composers have often struggled to integrate the sitar’s spontaneity into their music. But the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Universal Notes took Indo-Western classical to new heights in 2016, seamlessly integrating string sections with windows of melodic improvisation. Led by cellist Matthew Barley, the piece placed Niladri Kumar’s sitar alongside a bansuri, veena, ghatam, and a string quartet, and was the result of a year-long collaboration between Darbar and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

The sitar’s melodic capabilities have long fascinated the jazz world. John Coltrane was in particular awe of Ravi Shankar (“if I recorded with him I’d increase my possibilities tenfold”), even naming his son after him. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis attempted to realise something of Trane’s dream half a century after his death, adding sitar and bansuri to a live performance of My Favourite Things.

Collin Walcott learned the instrument under Shankar, playing it with impressive fluency on Oregon’s Out of the Woods. John McLaughlin redesigned his acoustic guitar to capture some of the sitar’s characteristic strengths, hollowing out the fretboard and adding strummable sympathetic strings - see his astonishing creation in action on Shakti’s Joy.

The 2008 Miles From India project brought together alumni of Miles Davis’ groups with top Indian classical musicians. Goan sitarist Ravi Chary leads the ensemble through a captivating version of All Blues, compressing its original 6/8 lilt into a sharp-cornered 5/4 cycle.

• Listen | Wynton Marsalis partners with the Sachal Jazz Ensemble for a sublime cover My Favourite Things:

The sitar’s persistent relationship with rock has borne inconsistent fruit. George Harrison’s study with Shankar is part of pop folklore, and others made their own attempts too. Brian Jones played it on Paint It Black, and Gabor Szabo on Jazz Raga, but neither really sounded in full control.

It fascinated Hendrix, who drew psychedelic inspiration from Shankar’s live sets and experimented with the Coral Electric Sitar (n.b. which isn’t really a sitar, just a guitar with an extra ‘sparkling’ bridge). Jeff Beck has gone further in, reworking Indian-style melodic ornamentations on his Stratocaster with fine control of the whammy-bar (Nadia).

It has found its way into electronic music too, bringing a spontaneous, microtonal fluency far removed from the world of pre-programmed beats. Brian Eno sampled it on 1977’s One, and Four Tet did the same on 1999’s Charm. Sheema Mukherjee, Nikhil Banerjee’s British-born niece, has recorded with Mercan Dede (Ab-i Lal) and Transglobal Underground (Vanilka).

Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka has collaborated with flamenco musicians (Buleria con Ricardo), and eccentric loopmaking visionary Madlib worked sitars into his Beat Konducta in India series. Rob Scallon’s Sitar Metal is impressively tight, drawing together the fiendishly complex subdivisions common to both Hindustani music and djent.

And we haven’t even got started on Indian filmi music - its blend of classical textures and Western pop forms deserves an article to itself. This is only a haphazard overview, and there is much more to sitar fusion beyond this.

• Listen | Anoushka and Ricardo Miño perform a dramatic bulerias (flamenco in fast 12-beat rhythm):

Personal snapshots of a global instrument

When studying the sitar in Varanasi under Benares gharana exponents Pandit Shivnath Mishra and his son Deobrat, the gurukula we lived at played host to a curious array of musicians from across the globe - Australian guitarists, American sax players, Czech spiritual chanters, visitors from South India, and many more from still further afield.

I will never forget meeting a Japanese student who had just performed impressively at a ganda bandhan (the ‘tying of the sacred thread’ ceremony, performed to confirm the lifelong bond between guru and disciple). He had initially intended to stop by in Varanasi for a short time - like me, to spend a few months branching out from the guitar.

But he quickly become drawn to both the music and the discipline of learning it, and decided to stay for the long term. He even took a pittance-paying menial labour job after his money ran out, telling me he was planning to get a better one once his Hindi improved.

The academy’s wider comings-and-goings also reflect the modern sitar’s global imprint. In a given week you could interact with ‘traditional’ Indian artists - dancers who came to practice kathak with the tabla teachers, khayal Pandits who attended our baithak (house concerts), and Mishra family guests who came bearing all manner of different instruments (including a mini-sitar which guru-ji’s 6-year-old grandson could outclass many of us students on).

Global visitors were drawn to the academy too, for a variety of reasons. There was David Laborier, a jazz guitar professor from Luxembourg who came to perform with my gurus. We met a meditation instructor from Arizona who wished to learn more about the music he used in his sessions, and local community leaders who came to discuss a fundraising concert to help clean the Ganges. At one point our gurus left for a week, answering a last-minute invitation to play for the Danish royal family.

• Listen | Pandit Shivnath Mishra, my guru, performs for the BBC in the 1970s, playing the morning Raag Ahir Bhairav on a boat on the Ganges:

Though still rooted inexorably in North India, the sitar now has a plethora of listeners and learners from all around the world. Exponents have long led globally connected lives - Ravi Shankar toured Europe as a dancer aged ten, and his senior student Premadasa Hegoda, born in Sri Lanka, moved to Japan in 1974.

Western learning hardly stopped after George Harrison (...some critical voices say that he barely got started). Sitarists from outside the Subcontinent have since gained respect for straight-up classical playing, including Paul Livingstone, Patrick Moutal, and Josh Feinberg. Alan Posselt took the instrument to Australia, and Alberto Marsicano to Brazil. Japanese psychedelia pioneer Hideki Ishima studied it and later invented the sitarla, perhaps the first broadly convincing electric guitar-sitar hybrid.

London-based Jonathan Mayer further exemplifies even these transglobal tangles. He learned European classical composition with his Kolkata-born father John Mayer, an early Indo-jazz pioneer, and studied sitar under Clem Alford, a Scotsman who in the late 1960s had given up the bagpipes to learn under Pandit Sachindranath Saha. Mayer currently plays and teaches around the UK, collaborating across a variety of genres.

Even inexperienced, Western-resident learners such as myself can find a multitude of performance opportunities. I’ve played jazz gigs, meditation sessions, Indian weddings, a Celtic folk festival, and even (with my guru-ji’s unexpected blessing) an all-night psytrance rave at the historic Lakota nightclub. Despite living in Bristol, a provincial English city, I found it surprising how regularly people specifically wanted a sitar for whatever it was they were putting on.

While the instrument was once rarely heard outside the royal courts of the Mughal Empire, it is now found everywhere. And I mean everywhere - in 2018, neuroscientist and Sufi-inclined fusion artist Shama Rahman became the first sitarist to perform in Antarctica.

What next for the sitar?

The modern sitar may have gone global, but the core of its sound is still firmly rooted to North India’s devotional traditions. This is always likely to be the case - the instrument’s characteristic sparkle is near-synonymous with visions of the country in the global mind, immediately conjuring up whatever essence of ‘Indianness’ is required for a film, advert, or festival tent.

But beyond this basic associative solidity, the sitar’s long-term future is anyone’s guess. Budhaditya Mukherjee, Shahid Parvez, and other classical masters continue to push forward, reaching ever-greater heights of musical and technical sophistication. Talented young artists are emerging too, such as Dhruv Bedi - Budhaditya’s student and perhaps the first sitarist born in the 1990s to receive widespread acclaim.

Dhruv, like most other modern students, learns a multi-gharana style, and listens to a huge variety of other music from around the world. While you can still categorise most young sitarists you hear as coming from a particular gharana, plenty of this is down to the design or tuning of their instrument rather than the music itself.

Stylistically, young musicians have been converging, and the great gharanas of old are beginning to merge. Will a broader repertoire enhance the sitar’s expressive power? Or can you find more strength through completely mastering one particular idiom?

Established classical artists continue to deviate too. Purbayan Chatterjee plays flamenco-jazz alongside traditional ragas, and also runs the Classicool initiative, which introduces short-form ragas to younger audiences with accompaniment from bass and drums. (You might expect Hindustani’s traditional elder statesmen to recoil in horror at such an apparent dilution of the music, but it has the backing of bansuri pioneer Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia among others.)

Anupama Bhagwat in London

Methods of learning are changing. Shahid Parvez now teaches via Skype, and the best place to receive regular one-on-one instruction from him is at his academy in Arizona. And you can discuss the music with fellow aficionados on Reddit and other forums. So will sitarists educated outside India eventually start to reach the highest echelons? Or can the music’s heights only be summoned amidst the rituals, temples, and landscapes of its traditional habitats?

The economics of sitar manufacturing are changing rapidly too, turning outwards towards global markets. Yusuf Mulla, a hereditary sitar manufacturer from Miraj, Maharashtra, says the vast majority of his orders now come from abroad: “Just this year alone I have shipped 50-60 sitars to Russia. We are seeing a reversal. The West is adopting our culture and we are imbibing theirs. Indians mostly buy guitars now”.

Microphones and other technology have already altered the way sitarists play. And nowadays, the sound of many acoustic instruments can be electronically recreated with MIDI and sample banks, often with surprising accuracy. In some genres it will surely become common practice to dispense with human musicians altogether. So are sitarists going to be out of a job any time soon?

I don’t think so. My guess is that music improvised by living, breathing people will always have a particular power to captivate those who witness it. There is too much to the feeling of it being created right now, right here, by another human - and also to the knowledge that it may go wrong at any moment.

And even if the robots did take full control, the sounds of the sitar would be some of the last to fall. While a piano’s fixed, finite set of pitches can be recreated impressively using a few hundred sample recordings, the sitar’s ‘spaces between the notes’ contain infinite detail, bending and dissipating with precise ripples. It will take far longer for algorithms to convincingly recreate these distinctly human, singing elements (sitar MIDI hasn’t got very far yet at least).

The instrument is still fairly young in global historical terms, stretching back a few centuries at most. But it has evolved far from its roots. 'Sehtar' translates from Persian as ‘three-stringed instrument’ - only around twenty short.

Its branching futures will be shaped through the decisions of those who play it, both as individuals and collectives. Young sitarists may do well to paraphrase the words of Yasiin Bey (a.k.a. Mos Def), a rapper who has himself sampled Indian sounds: “So the next time you ask yourself where the sitar is going, ask yourself - where am I going?”

George Howlett is a London-based musician and writer, specialising in jazz, rhythm, Indian classical, and global improvised music.

• Listen | Rising sitar star Dhruv Bedi plays Raag Bhimpalasi, filmed on location in Maharashtra:

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Festival 2023

21-29 October 2023, Barbican Center

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New to indian Classical Music?

The beginner's guide to Indian classical music. Whether you’re completely new to raga music or just need a refresher, we’ve put together this brief overview of all things raga music to help you feel at ease when visiting one of our concerts or watch our videos on our YouTube or our Darbar Concert Hall.

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