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SITAR INFORMATION PAGE
From stringing to jawari, sitar fret tying, etc. This page under construction but over the next year look for tuning, string changing, etc. videos to help make your life a little easier! Also we will be developing basic short video lessons for beginners that purchase a sitar from us.
Click on each link to view!!
Please feel free to save each clip to your hard drive, commercial use or hotlinking not allowed please!
My good friend Peter Cutchey (R.I.P.) who founded Buckingham music and I used to joke about this, he was dealing in instruments from India and I was moonlighting at it at a time when sources for good instruments were still quite rare. About the only place for 'good' instruments was Ali Akbar Music college, where I had bought my first sitar some 25+ years ago. Things had obviously changed later but generally the stuff offered everywhere else was mass-produced glorified firewood, usually somewhat unplayable, offered by dealers with no interest or experience with Indian instruments waiting for their next "meal of fool"....
What is it exactly that makes a good instrument? Descriptions abound everywhere and funny enough almost all instruments seem to be PROFESSIONAL QUALITY. Well, "professional quality" is so over-used that I'm refusing to use it for the most part except for the tablas. The fact is, professional players generally have a personal rapport with a few makers in India such as Hiren Roy, Sanjay or Ajay Sharma, etc. Some of them, most notably those playing Vilayat Khan style sitars will use a lesser known maker and take off the name tag so as to not unduly promote them. Unless, of course, there's a kickback...but that's another subject for some other time. Often touring musicians will bring several instruments and play the jawari out of them and then flog them on admiring wishful students who willingly participate. A good way to get a good sitar sometimes.....
Most sitars, (not all though) start their life as a blank or "white instrument", or "body", whatever you wish to call it. The majority of sitar bodies are made in West Bengal on the outskirts of Kolkata by the thousands and most are of dubious quality (a nice word for crappy). A sitar 'maker' is actually more of a 'fitter' these days. He of course knows in theory how to make the entire instrument usually but it makes more sense to buy the body outright. The better makers often have more involvement in selecting the body, wood can be selected or given ahead of time or in the absence of a good selection they'll make their own if need be. The maker receives the sitar in unfinished state, no holes for pegs, no frets or bridge. This is where the art of making is most important....the Tabli or soundboard will be taken off and reshaped according to the type of tone needed. Markings for the peg holes are measured, etc. The very best makers will string up the instrument then with a bridge with rough jawari and then let the instrument sit for a week or two as the neck will bend slightly (it's OK). This is so it settles in before the sympathetic peg holes are drilled to ensure that the fret setting will be correct. Proper selection of wood and a masters touch is needed which drives up the price. You are absolutely not going to get this in a cheap sitar that you find on ebay, it'll never happen.
If you have a cheap sitar and find that to change the scale causes your fret to run up against the peg then you are the proud owner of a pre-drilled sitar. These leave various unknown craftsman's shop at lumberyards, etc. in varying degrees of finish. More often than not, they're completely done before getting to various shops. A top maker will not use these, or at least on his best offerings he won't. A quality maker will fit the pegs, frets, and bridge himself. Hiren Roy and Srishti for example will string up the main strings with a bridge on and let it sit for a few weeks as a slight curve will develop in the neck which is normal. After a period of time when the wood has settled, the frets are put on and then the pegs drilled and installed.
In the old days, the 'legendary' makers had craftsmen in the shop and everything was built right on location. This resulted in a lower quantity of production and varying quality also as there was less to choose from. Having a lot of bodies to choose from is better, a form of outsourcing actually! Another feature of a good Kolkatta sitar is that the construction is more solid. The wood used for necks and tablis is thicker which is the correct way to build them because as the instrument is played over a long period of time the wood becomes more resonant without losing stability or cracking, warping. etc. Many owners of ultra expensive famous brand (fill in the blank) sitar have learned this the hard way as their instrument constantly goes out of tune due to aged thin wood flexing too much. The sacrifice with a thicker sitar is that they're sometimes not as loud when new, but the payoff is worth it in the long run.
There are exceptions to the Kolkata method though as is seen in Miraj, India. There are a number of shops that still make their own instruments, some of them quite beautiful in appearance. Miraj is known for its Tanpuras which are very resonant due to the thinner construction of the instrument. Unfortunately for us manic sitar-snobs, they've carried over this technique on their sitars which often results in a lack of sound balance and most likely a shorter life of the instrument in some cases. Loud and resonant at the start, especially in the mid-range, the majority of sitars from Miraj don't stand up to the rigorous practice schedule of a serious sitarist. RA Sitarmaker and Bashir are somewhat of an exception and for this reason we only carry their sitars from Miraj although they are still quite thin. For the majority of people in the West though this shouldn't be problem to be quite honest...from my experience only 1 out of 100 ever takes up the instrument with a serious intent to put in the time necessary to excel at it and consequently wear out their sitar. Appearance is often the leading factor in purchasing an instrument for us on this side of the world, in India appearance is secondary...the sound and playability is primary which is why sitars from Kolkata are usually preferred. If you bought your sitar from another part of India (assuming it's higher quality), the odds are it had its beginnings in Kolkata also.
So if you have the notion of your instrument being made in a cave at the source of the Ganges by a mystical sitar maker wearing nothing but a dhoti and chanting mantras, it's time to put it aside!! The mass-produced instruments are big business in India, the sitar is quite popular throughout the world. Sadly, there are few great makers left. The most famous and capable now is Barun Roy of Hiren Roy. They produce exceptional instruments. The instruments from Srishti are a close second and one can often find a good one from Radhey Sharma in Benares and Mohan Lal Sharma or a few other obscure makers. My personal feeling is that eventually the day will come when all you'll be able to get will be mediocre sitars from India, it's almost that way now. Get a good one while you can, regardless of where you buy it!! Hopefully young talented people will emerge to continue the tradition and I expect we'll see a few very good instruments in the US from folks like Scott Hackleman who has already been producing excellent tanpuras. Rumor has it Tony Karasek will try his hand at building sitars in the US and we'll eagerly await and see.
To be continued.....