George Harrison of The Beatles playing the sitar

Do you know what The Beatles and The Rolling Stones have in common? Besides being the biggest and legendary bands of the world, of course. Would you be surprised if I told you that the common link between these musical wonders is the sitar? Yes, our indigenous musical instrument which was used in Indian film music, started to gain attention in the western music world as well.

While bands like The Kinks and the Yardbirds recorded songs with an Indian influence using the sitar, it was only in 1965 when The Beatles released Norwegian Wood (The Bird Has Flown) from their album Rubber Soul, that the sitar made its deserving debut on the western circuit. This made George Harrison the first western musician to play an Indian instrument for a commercial album. He also went on to become a disciple of renowned sitar exponent Pt. Ravi Shankar.

The following year, The Rolling Stones guitarist, Brian Jones, played the sitar for their track Paint It Black, a chartbuster on the Billboard Hot 100 and UK Singles charts. They repeated the magic on the sitar on tracks of their successive albums Between The Buttons (1967) and Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967). Their collaboration with American rock guitarist, singer and songwriter, Jimi Hendrix, again featured the sitar. 1968 saw the tambora entering The Rolling Stones’ music along with the sitar, for their most political single Street Fighting Man.

After GhanVadya (idiophones) — solid instruments which do not need tuning, folk instruments and AvanaddhVadya (membranophones ) — percussion instruments, I bring to you the most versatile and popular category of Indian instruments — Tat Vadya and Vitata Vadya. While both refer to stringed instruments, the diversification comes into the picture due to the style in which they are played. While Tat Vadya refers to plucked string instruments, Vitata Vadya include bowed string instruments. In ancient times, all string instruments were called the Veena. Some examples of the Tat Vadya would be the sitar, sarod, tanpura, while the violin, esraj, sarangi fall into the Vitat Vadya group. The santoor perhaps is the only string instrument that is neither plucked nor played with a bow. Rather the strings are struck to produce sound.

Late former President APJ Abdul Kalam playing the Rudra Veena

Let us acquaint you with some of these chordophones. Since I began this article with the sitar, I will continue to enlighten you with some trivia on this instrument. Known to the Indian subcontinent for roughly 400 years, the sitar derives its name from the Persian words seh and tar, which means three strings. Modified in the Mughal era, the sitar was created drawing inspiration from the veena, an ancient music instrument. Today, the sitar is a popular and prominent instrument in Hindustani classical music. Exponents like Pt. Ravi Shankar expanded the horizons of the sitar.

Talking about the original stringed instrument, the veena, two of the varieties that are used in Indian Classical Music (ICM) are the Rudra Veena and Vichatra Veena. An intimidating instrument, the Rudra Veena is said to have existed from the Vedic era and can be seen sketched in 6th century art. The king of instruments saw a decline over the years with the invention of other string instruments. The Vichatra Veena lives up to its name. A distinctive string instrument, styled like the Rudra Veena, has no frets. It is played with a slide like the Hawaiian Steel Guitar or the Carnatic Gottuvadhyam.

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Ashwini Narayangaonkar-Kamath
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Ashwini Narayangaonkar-Kamath

Ashwini Narayangaonkar-Kamath is the eleventh generation of her family to be dedicated to the ancient art form of Indian classical music. She has performed in India and abroad, has music albums to her credit and successfully runs her classical music academy all over Mumbai.