Experience 20: Learn to play sitar in the home of Indian music

by Christa Larwood
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Approach the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi and you’ll be met with a dizzying cacophony of splashing, chanting, dog barking and bell clanging. But away from the river, in the dusty, hard-baked streets of Varanasi’s city centre, there is a different soundtrack playing. On the air, above the honking of rickshaw horns and singsong cries of street hawkers, is the thin, sonorous call of the sitar, and thrumming along with it, like the heartbeat of the city, is the rhythmic tip-tap-tupping of a tabla drum.

Varanasi is the heartland of Indian music. This is where musicians come from all over the country to learn their craft, and Ravi Shankar – the world-famous sitar master who tutored George Harrison in the 1960s – was just one of the city’s musical prodigies.  

Three floors up from street level at the Music Melody House store, musicians Tarak Nath Mishra and Babalu Varma were sheened with sweat in the stifling heat as they played a raga – a soaring, swooping and largely improvised performance that can ebb and surge for over an hour. Tarak closed his eyes in exquisite concentration that seemed almost painful as his fingers flew over the sitar’s strings. Babalu gave a beatific grin, looking to all the world like a plump-cheeked minor deity as he sat cross-legged and tapped out a galloping tabla beat.

Too soon, their performance stopped. It was time for our lesson to begin. We were here to learn how to play these classical Indian instruments – or I should say, given that the mastery of each demands years of single-minded training and we had just an afternoon, to have a thumb-fingered stab at it.

I was up first, with Babalu patiently taking me through some basic tabla moves. "Ge-ge, te-te, ge-ge, na-na," he said, demonstrating a simple beat no doubt played by children of five or six in the surrounding streets but fiendishly difficult for my uncoordinated fingers to grasp. He patiently oversaw my progress, but then finally indulged me by taking up the tabla and giving a scorchingly rapid solo performance. I was more than happy to sit back and watch.

Oli, with years of guitar playing under his belt, was far better positioned to take up the sitar. After mere minutes of familiarising himself with the instrument, he joined Tarak in a new raga, two sitars together, all sounding surprisingly good, especially when embellished with Tarak's nimble-fingered improvisations. Oli set his teeth into his lower lip in concentration while Tarak looked on like a proud father, willing his charge to find his way with this complicated instrument. 

When the lesson ended, Tarak clapped Oli on the shoulder. "Very good!” he said, with a gap-toothed grin. “You see, throughout the world, music is the same. The language changes, but the scale is the same. And when we play, we know what we hear – it is God."

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