The Sitar

Our Musical Namesake

Once, there was an instrument which though beloved in its native home, the subcontinent, was completely unknown elsewhere. Gifted players would rise to the court scene and be showered with wealth and gifts by the king … if he were musically minded that is. The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb completely banned all types of music, forcing the royal musicians whose ancestors had played in the court for several generations to leave and seek employment elsewhere, or give up music altogether and start another trade.

Anyway, coming back to the story, this instrument remained relatively steady even with the downfall of the Mughal Empire, the rise of the British, and other political changes. However, it still never became famous out of the confines of its home. But then, it all changed. One player took this instrument to the West, where it trumped even the guitar in popularity, becoming the king of pop music, with many famous bands playing it. It took the world by storm, becoming the ‘cool’ instrument to play. It eventually died down, as all fads do, yet still remained in the hearts of many. Today, we pay our respects to our namesake, the sitar.

Legend has it that the sitar was invented by the renowned court poet Amir Khusro, during the Delhi Sultanate. It is thought to be a blend between the veena and the sehtar, a Persian instrument, by some. The sitar is considered to be extremely difficult to play, with professional sitarists often having calluses on their hands. Before, gifted sitarists would often attract royal patronage and play in court. Its construction is extremely complicated, with the art of creating it passed down from generation to generation, which is one of the reasons there are very few sitar makers left. A sitar is a unique feat of craftsmanship, with an elaborately carved body and detailed designs often decorating it.

A close-up view of the intricate designs decorating a sitar
Courtesey Wikipedia Commons

The sitar, though it has adjusted to such great changes as the rise and fall of civilisations, rebellions and other examples of political upheaval, now faces a grim fate. Many sitar players and makers wish to ensure that their children live a more prosperous life than they do, and encourage them to learn more profitable trades that promise a brighter future. Furthermore, nowadays the youth of the subcontinent is more interested in instruments like the guitar or the piano, instead of those native to the subcontinent. This is a problem happening on both sides of the border, and which should be seen to by both governments.

For Further Reading:

DAWN: The death of classical music

The News: Sitar playing-The art is dying

The Tribune: The dying art of making a sitar

The Business Standard: The story of the sitar Beatles used in ‘Norwegian Wood’

The Friday Times: Silence of the Sitar

The Hindu Business Line: Haunting notes from the Sitargalli of Miraj

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The Harmonium

A Western Instrument’s Journey to the East

Many will be surprised to learn that the harmonium which we know today has an extremely interesting and intriguing history. The harmonium was invented by the Danish scientist Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein in 1780, a professor of physiology in the University of Copenhagen. Incidentally, his experiments with electricity inspired the famous Gothic horror novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with his name also inspiring the name of her fictional scientist, Doctor Frankenstein.

The harmonium…

…and Frankenstein’s monster!

Its design was visually more like that of a miniature organ at first, with some manufacturers even fitting rows of fake pipes above it to siphon off a bit of the popularity of the organ. At first it was extremely popular amongst musicians, and was used in many small churches and synagogues which could not afford large pipe organs. It was brought to America by immigrating Europeans, with harmonium manufacturing companies springing up to meet the rising demand, as seen below. The harmonium’s popularity began to fade in the 1930s after the electric organ was invented, and the harmonium faded out of the Western musical scene. It had however, already found a new home in South Asia.

The harmonium in its new home

The harmonium was introduced by British missionaries to the Indian subcontinent during the British Raj. It slowly began to spread out of the churches into the homes of the common people. It became the center of attention of a few native musicians, such as Dwarkanath Ghose, who founded the instrument-making company Dwarkin and Son. He adjusted the harmonium’s design by removing the foot pedals, adding drone stops and overall simplifying its design.

Despite all this effort, it was hated by classical musicians, who viewed it as a menace to their traditional instruments, with master poet Rabindranath Tagore declaiming it as well.

“The harmonium is the bane of classical music.”

Rabindranath Tagore

It was also banned on the All India Radio from 1940 to 1971 due to its inability to create the delicacies of note needed for Indian classical music, and was afterwards allowed only along with other musical instruments. The ban on harmonium solos was lifted only recently in 2018. However, its simplicity and rich mellow voice made it a favourite among many musicians, and the harmonium managed to charm its way back to popular opinion, as it had done before in the West. It is now extremely popular in South Asia, with most Western harmoniums in museums or in the hands of a few enthusiasts. It is a key part of Hindu and Sikh devotional music, and is a mainstay of the bhajan and the kirtan, and is also an integral part of the Sufi Qawwali.

Here is a video of harmonium virtuoso Ustad Farrukh Ali Khan playing the harmonium.


The Birth, Death and Reincarnation of the Harmonium from The Mantle.

The Pump Organ from Wikipedia.

All our pictures were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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The Rubab

A Traditional Afghan Lute

The rubab, also spelled rabab, is a wooden lute originating from Afghanistan, which is mostly played in Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. Its body is traditionally made of a solid block of mulberry wood, with its head being made of goat’s skin and the strings of the intestinal strings of young goats. Its powerful and energetic music have given it the popular name of ‘the lion of instruments’. A few of the rubab’s notable players include Aziz Herawi, Sufiyan Malik and Humayun Sakhi. It is one of the two national instruments of Afghanistan, with its music being extremely popular over there. It also enjoys an important role in the history of Sikhism.

A variant of the rubab called the rubab-e-pamir played in Tajikistan. The rubab was also played in several varied forms in Europe as well. A pear-shaped type was adopted in the Byzantine Empire in the 9th century as the lyra, and spread westward to Europe. A boat-shaped type, which is still played in northern Africa, was introduced by the Arabs to Spain in the 11th century. The rubab also gave rise to the rebec, a bowed string instrument which was played in Italy during the Renaissance.

The rubab is a wide-spread instument: here is an Azerbaijani stamp depicting it. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

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Tanveer Hussain

Tanveer Hussain (b. 1960), better known as Khan Sahib, is a former musician, music director and poet. He was born in Lahore, with his family coming from Jhalandar in Northern India. His maternal uncle or mamoo, Muhammad Qais, specialised in the harmonium, singing and music directing. He was responsible for his early musical education along with Shamshad Bai. He then was taught the harmonium, tabla and singing by Master Akhtar Akkhiyan. His career started in the Androon Shehr playing music with Khursheed Bai. From these humble origins he toured London, Dubai and Singapore. He became a music director and released an album of ghazals, while performing on the harmonium and tabla. He also taught many students including Nasir Ali and Naseeboo Laal. His sight began to fail in his mid-fifties. He is now retired and is does play music but still composes and writes poems.

Tanveer Hussain has been interviewed by Save the Sitar. If you want to check out his interview, which includes a poem that he wrote about the decay of Lahore’s classical music, please visit our post Broken Strings

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Broken Strings

An Interview with Tanveer Hussain: Lahore’s Musical Decay

Tanveer Hussain, better known as Khan Sahib, is one of the few remaining classical musicians in Lahore.  His family has been playing classical music for seven generations.  Khan Sahib used to sing, play the tabla and harmonium and compose music.  In his youth, he has played with famous classical musicians such as Noor Jehan, Mala Begum and Pervez Mehdi.

In his interview, Khan Sahib highlighted the destruction of an age old classical music tradition. He attributed this to many factors such as the advent of pop music, the lowering standards of academies, etc.

According to Khan Sahib, pop music ‘ready made hai’  (is ready made), meaning that it does not have any effort behind it. He believes that pop music ‘kaam nahin hai’  (is not [proper] work).  Pop music, being easy on the ear, is virtually the only type of music listened to nowadays.  Its popularity has resulted in the decimation of classical music, with no one listening to it any more.

The introduction of Western instruments has also been very detrimental.  As Khan Sahib puts it, ‘ye kab hui jab vo English saaz aagaey’  (This[decay] happened when those English [Western] instruments arrived).  The arrival of guitars, drum kits, etc. have been damaging, but the most destructive has been the electronic keyboard.  Electronic keyboards have the (dis)advantage that they can replicate a wide array of instrument voices.  Khan Sahib explains how they have robbed classical musicians of their jobs; meaning that fewer and fewer musicians can make a living by playing classical music.

Fewer classical musicians result in fewer listeners, which in turn result in even fewer musicians.  This vicious cycle of decay means that classical music is being abandoned by both the musician and the audience.  Khan Sahib sorrowfully recounts how his children have left the seven generation old family tradition of classical music. Except for one son who plays the electronic keyboard at a local hotel, none of his children have a job related to music.

The government has not taken any steps for the preservation of classical music or encouragement and benefits of musicians of this genre.  Khan Sahib compares the Pakistani government to the one across the border, the Indian government. He believes that good music academies are non-existent in Pakistan, while the Indian government has both created new academies, and honored musicians, resulting in a thriving musical culture. He considers the so-called music academies which exist in Lahore not as places to learn, but as places to perform.  Neither classical nor pop music is taught there. Students simply come to sing a few pop songs and then leave.  They do not train at all, Khan Sahib maintains.  He contrasts this to his rigorous classical training as a child under the old teaching style.

Khan Sahib reminisces how the musicians of the Old City (the home of classical music in Lahore) used to practice for hours at a stretch in the sweltering Lahori heat without a punkha (fan).  In the following video, Khan Sahib reproaches the lack of professionalism in musicians nowadays.

With no proper training in music, be it classical or pop, most of Pakistani musicians have reduced music to a shoddy replica of Western pop music.  As an expression of his discontent for contemporary music, Khan Sahib has written a poem in his mother tongue Punjabi in which he criticises the culture that worships shallow pop music at the expense of classical.

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