The Sitar Gharanas of Pakistan

A Journey Across Pakistan’s Five Major Sitar Gharanas

A self-taught teenager, part of the underground rock scene in the 1990s in Lahore, playing the role of David Gilmore, Ali Ayub could not ask for more. However, he was far from comfortably numb. He was searching for meaning in music. The teenage band eventually dissolved, and Ali Ayub got interested in progressive rock and jazz. This search eventually led him in 2005 to enroll in the Musicology Department of the National College of Arts (NCA). He fell in love with the sitar. Maybe it was his jazz playing experience that helped him see the connections between the head in jazz and sitar’s bandish, or maybe it was his Jimmie Hendrix copying days that helped him relate to the stringed instrument. But it was love at first sight.

As he learnt to play the sitar, he slowly came to a startling realization that Pakistan, despite years of neglect at the government level and active suppression by a Taliban-inspired religious fundamentalism, had a breathtaking diversity of sitar playing maestros, each deeply committed to their own style. For instance, Ustad Rais Khan promoted the gayaki ang, Ustad Kabir Khan and Machhu Khan played in masitkhani baj, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan played in purab baj, Ustad Imdad Hussain, despite sharing gayaki ang with Ustad Rais Khan, would not vocalize the bandish, and Ustad Sharif Khan blended imdadkhani baj and dhurpad ang into a unique style that was later acknowledged as sharifkhani baj.

Luckily for Ali Ayub, Lowell Lybarger was a visiting scholar at NCA at that time. Under Dr. Lybarger’s tutelage, he read everything he could about the sitar. He found out that many eminent modern scholars such as Stephen Slawek, Allyn Miner, and James Sadler Hamilton had made significant contributions to this subject. Shockingly, he could not find any detailed scholarly effort on solo sitar music in Pakistan. This sad state existed even though Pakistan was fortunate enough to have at least five sitar maestros, each representing a unique style, who were second to none in the world.

“It was mind boggling. I just could not believe the disconnect between what Pakistan could offer to the world, and the research that had been done on sitar playing in Pakistan”, Ali Ayub said when we met him for the first time in his studio in Lahore. “I resolved to try to remedy this imbalance by taking the initiative of documenting the histories and styles of the five major sitar gharanas of Pakistan for my final year research paper”. After a year of hard work, which included meticulous field research across the country and carefully compiling, cross-checking and analyzing his work, he finally produced his exceptional thesis, which has been described by eminent musicologist and classical singer Mrs. Sarah Zaman as “absolutely unique on this side of the Indo-Pak border”.

In the video below Mrs. Sarah Zaman introduces “The Sitar Gharanas of Pakistan” and shares her hopes of how the project could improve society’s views about music.

We also had the opportunity to interview Dr. Lybarger, the current director of the Music Lab at the Arkansas Tech University, who has spent extensive time in Pakistan conducting research and teaching at NCA Lahore (the National College of Arts). A tabla player who was a student of the legendary Ustad Shaukat Hussain, he is also an exemplary music scholar. It was during his time as a part of NCA’s visiting faculty that he met (and taught) Ali Ayub. Outside the classroom, Dr. Lybarger mentored him and taught him how to interview and interact with classical musicians, alongside playing an integral role in encouraging him to work on Pakistan’s sitar gharanas for his thesis. Here’s an excerpt from our interview with him and Ali Ayub.

We will be releasing an article on each of these gharanas in the upcoming weeks, so stay tuned for our series, “The Sitar in Pakistan”, an unparalleled journey across the five sitar gharanas found in present-day Pakistan!

Pakistan’s Sitar GharanasMain Exponent
KapurthalaNafees Khan
IndoreRais Khan
DelhiImdad Khan
PounchSharif Khan
Jaipur SeniaKabir Khan

P.S. You might also want to read “Uncovering Pakistan’s Sitar Story“, our interview with Ali Ayub in which he explains the backstory and context of his thesis.


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