Sonic Saturday

Watch: Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha teach the basics of playing sitar and tabla

The maestros played a pioneering role in popularising Hindustani music across the world.

Lecture demonstrations, workshops and master classes or group lessons for students at a basic level, are very much part of tour schedules that are planned for practitioners of Hindustani music wishing to travel overseas. They are either organised by departments of music or ethnomusicology in universities, by private schools of music or by organisations run by expatriate Indians. While they are considered a regular feature today, it is difficult to imagine the manner in which they were conducted several decades ago when fewer Indian musicians travelled overseas and when Hindustani music was not as well-recognised as it is today. The role of non-Indian scholars and musicians in popularising Hindustani music through such platforms cannot be underestimated. But sitar maestro Ravi Shankar’s early work in this direction was pioneering.

Today, we look at a recording of a sitar class conducted by the maestro in Italy. Though this recording is from the 1980s, a few decades after he had already been travelling overseas, and the audio and video quality has deteriorated over the passage of time, it is a valuable document of the manner in which he conducted his classes. He shows great patience as he systematically takes the group through the basics of sitar playing. To begin with, he describes the preferred posture, tuning, and technique, and then moves on to elementary exercises that involve coordination between the two hands. He chooses Yaman, also called Kalyan, a raag that is often employed at the early stages of learning, to not only teach basic exercises but to also teach embellishments like meend or glides between notes, gamak or rapid oscillations on single notes, krintan or a combination of plucking and hammering, and zam zama or repeated krintan. Shankar incorporates elements of the lecture-demonstration format as he describes the compositional form with its segments like sthayi and antara.

Shankar is joined by tabla maestro Alla Rakha, who explains the basic alphabet of the tabla, the technique of playing various strokes and phrases, and method of counting and recitation. He then revises a composition that he has taught the students previously.

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