SITAR is probably India’s best-known musical export to the West. The stringed instrument is said to have originated sometime in the 18th century and has evolved over the years. It was introduced to the West in the modern era, initially through the efforts of Vilayat Khan, but most notably by Ravi Shankar and other doyens of the era.
Shankar, in fact, performed at concerts regularly in the 1950s to popularize the sitar and even collaborated with some of the big names in the music world.
His 1967 album with violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin, aptly titled “West Meets East,” even scooped a Grammy. But it was his time spent with Beatles’ George Harrison that earned him legendary status among Western music aficionados, although he was already a revered name back home.
The English rock band used the sitar to huge success with hit numbers like “Norwegian Wood,” “Love You Too” and “Within You, Without You.” The Rolling Stones, Jethro Tull and even heavy metal bands like Metallica dared to include the sweet-sounding notes in their mainstream repertoires.
Interestingly, the sitar was refashioned and tweaked time and time again with musicians keen to experiment with both form and style, and keeping their changing audience in mind.
Among them is the younger generation of sitarist is Niladri Kumar, who has been credited for creating zitar — a combination of guitar and sitar.
Kumar, who will be performing in Shanghai on Saturday, has won accolades for fashioning a new genre that fuses the best of the classical with the modern.
The new instrument that he created has five strings that resonates more like an electric sitar rather than the soft, melodious notes of the instrument that we are used to. It has won him fans among the young adults, who are more in tune with the best and the latest of the Eastern and the Western worlds unlike their peers.
“The instrument has given me more choices than I had in the past,” Kumar told an Indian publication. “Now, the sound of my instrument does not drown out if I perform with other louder instruments.”
Kumar is a 5th-generation sitarist in a family of musicians. He got his early training from his father, Pandit Kartick Kumar, himself a musician of repute, and gave his first public performance at the age of six. His first album was with his father at the age of 15.
As his talent came to the fore, he picked up several awards, including the Global Fusion Hall of Fame Award and the Grammy-winning album “Global Drum Project,” but none probably more satisfying than enjoying a sizeable fan following among the youth of India. His rapport with the young generation prompted him to experiment with his music and chart a path few others dared to venture before him.
“I have had only two sitars. Sitars are like wands described in ‘Harry Potter.’ You have to mutually select each other, and only once you warm up enough does the musical spell start to grow, and only after that does some magic start to begin,” he has been quoted as saying.
Kumar told Shanghai Daily that he didn’t have much of a choice in choosing an instrument to learn. It was always going to be sitar.
“My father chose the instrument since we hail from a family of sitar-playing musicians. So even before I realized the meaning of the word ‘choice,’ I was already playing the sitar,” he said.
Kumar said he was performing in Shanghai to showcase the sitar’s heritage.
“Hence, whatever I play in China, I already have a special and sincere feeling in my heart in doing that,” he said. “I actually don’t plan much in advance. If it is a predominantly Indian audience then there is not much need for introducing the music and the instruments, or at least I hope so … With others, the only way to interact is music and sound.
The evening will also include a classical Indian dance performance by Beijing native Jin Shanshan.
Jin’s fascination with India began when she joined Peking University in 1994 when a cultural exchange program took her to India. It was there that she got hooked on to the subcontinent’s dance tradition and began her journey in Bharatnatyam, a classical southern Indian dance form.
She trained at the famed Kalakshetra dance school, whose director Leela Samson gave her the English name Eesha.
It was the beginning of a whole new world for her.
Bharatanatyam is believed to be the oldest classical dance, and purists regard it as the mother of many other Indian classical dance forms. It relies heavily on expressive gestures and immaculate footwork and inspired other art forms including paintings and sculptures.
The melodious sitar “ragas” and the measured thumping of dance steps is the perfect summer night that we wait with impatience.
Date: May 20, 4pm
Venue: Shanghai Centre Theater,
1376 Nanjing Rd W.
Tickets: 100-300 yuan