At most times, Hindustani music lovers listening to instrumental music are captivated by the exquisite melodies that seem to be produced by the performer’s hand that slides over the strings stretched across the fret-board or the neck of the instrument. But such melodies are in fact created by the superb coordination between the two hands.
In the case of most plucked instruments played by right-handed musicians, the right hand uses a plectrum to strike the strings simultaneously with the left hand choosing the melodic line. The contrary is the case with left-handed musicians. Changes in dynamics, texture, timbre, and rhythm are controlled primarily by the strokes of the plectrum. Seemingly minimal, these strokes or bols have developed into a vocabulary for instrumental compositions. The bols include syllables like da, ra, diri, dra, and a permutation and combination of these. They enable virtuosic instrumentalists to weave intricate rhythmic patterns as an important element in the musical elaboration.
A fact that may elude many music lovers is the significance of the plectrum in this entire creative process. Sitar players use the mizrab on their index finger as the plectrum. It appears to be a rudimentary tool, but its efficacy is proven when maestros put it to good use. But it is of utmost importance for performers to find the ideal mizrab suited for their fingers. Many sitar players keep spare mizrabs ready at hand, but they always have their favourite.
Interestingly, short videos about mizrabs are available online:
We end this week’s episode with two tracks of iconic sitar players. I would urge listeners to focus on the manner in which both maestros use the mizrab and the patterns that they create from the strokes.
The first video features maestro Ravi Shankar accompanied on the tabla by the illustrious tabla exponent Alla Rakha. It captures the myriad rhythmic possibilities that the right hand stroke patterns can explore.
The audio track that follows is an extract of a longer rendition by sitar maestro Vilayat Khan. It amply demonstrates his command over the coordination of both hands, as he launches into a series of extremely fast taans.