Endless Road: the Continuing Evolution of the Sitar

Text by Dawoud Kringle

Not long ago, I had an interesting experience.

Some time ago I attended a performance at The Stone in New York City with Steve Gorn and Curtis Bahn. Gorn played flute, bansuri, and percussion, and Bahn played electronic sitar, esraj, and laptop. As I sat on the floor in the uncomfortably hot and humid room, I was enraptured by the multi-layered sounds of the two masters. Gorn is no stranger to listeners of Indian classical music. Additionally, he has a background in classical and non-classical western music; trained in jazz and electronic music. Bahn, a student of Ustad Shaheed Parvez Khan, and computer programmer, had commissioned the building of a completely different instrument that combined the sitar with new design technologies, and unprecedented electronics, including a computer interface. The instrument has WII controller – motion sensors / physical sensors, pitch sensor, accent sensor, etc. The bow of his esraj was outfitted with a motion sensor. These all ran through a laptop with a program he wrote. The duo made marvelous use of both acoustic and electronic sounds, blending them perfectly within their improvisations. Samples were looped, tabla tarang sounds held down intricate rhythms. The overall concert was astonishingly beautiful. It was a music that spoke of a timeless truth. I left the Stone with a refreshed outlook on everything; something the best musical performances should do for the audience.

Not long afterward, my friend Sohrab (who publishes this magazine) started bugging me for the article I promised him. Naturally, I said “Yeah, I’ll get right on it” (poor Sohrab; he hears that from me all too often.) But, after some rumination, I abandoned the idea of writing a review. There was something else happening here; evidence of something greater.

First, in order to look ahead, we must look back.


The sitar, arguably the most popular musical instrument in India, has a 700-plus year history, stemming from an unbroken musical tradition dating back 4000 years. It is believed that the sitar was invented 700 years ago by Amir Khusro (or so popular legend has it), and it came about when Persians and Indians started trading musical ideas with each other.

The evolution of the sitar was inevitable. The design of the instrument changed over the centuries. The addition of tarb (resonating strings), chikari (strings tuned an octave and two octaves above the tonic that are used as accents), and techniques such as meend (note bending) all evolved slowly over the centuries, becoming a firm part of the classical tradition.

It is impossible to mention the sitar without mentioning the recently departed Ravi Shankar. His role as musical ambassador to the West is well known. He also did some innovative musical things with sitar (including combining elements of surbahar [bass sitar] with sitar); but always within the limits of traditional Indian music. While Shankar succeeded in introducing raga to the west, he also created some other cultural phenomenon he doubtless had not foreseen. The hordes of burned out hippies who turned the sitar into a fad aside, he caused the combination of east and west, and all their traits, ideas, cultural contours, etc. to begin to blend in a way that formed something very different from the sum of their parts. The genie was out of the bottle.

The first significant breaks from the traditional use of the sitar came with Ananda Shankar and Collin Wallcott.

Ananda Shankar was born in Almora in Uttar Pradesh, India. Shankar was the son of Amala and Uday Shankar, popular dancers, and also the nephew of renowned sitarist Ravi Shankar. Shankar studied sitar with Lalmani Misra at Banaras Hindu University. In the 1960s, he moved to Los Angele, and in addition to continuing his work with classical raga, he played with many contemporary musicians (including Jimi Hendrix). He released an album on Reprise Records that featured sitar based arrangements of “Light my Fire” and “Jumping Jack Flash.” This, and his follow up release, which featured both eastern and western instruments, was unprecedented: unlike Ravi Shankar, whose blend of east and west stayed within the confines of classical music, Ananda placed the sitar at the center of the popular music world in a way that westerners at the time were unqualified to do. After a period of performing in India, his later work revisited the blending of east and west. These would explore the sitar’s interaction with breakbeat and hip hop; including collaborations with DJ State of Bengal and others. He also pioneered the use of signal processing effects on the sitar, running his instrument through delays, phase shifters, and other devices. His final recording, Walking n was released after his death in 1999.

Collin Walcott was perhaps the first sitarist to play jazz on the instrument in a way that explored extended harmony and chromatics on the instrument. Beginning as a student at Indiana University, he later studied sitar with Ravi Shankar, and tabla with Allah Rakha. After working with Tony Scott and Tim Hardin, he joined the Paul Winter Consort. Later, in 1971, he, along with Ralph Towner, Paul McCandless, and Glen Moore formed Oregon. Walcott also worked with Miles Davis, Don Cherry, and Nana Vasconcelos, and released recordings as a leader on ECM; including the ground breaking Cloud Dance. His use of the sitar was the first successful attempt to extend the instrument into the realm of harmony; this, with no model to work from but his own imagination. He died in a car accident in 1984 while on tour with Oregon in East Germany.

Al Gromer Khan was born in Bavaria in 1948. His childhood was spent traveling in England, Morocco and India, where his father worked in the Foreign Office. He rejected the academic or diplomatic careers his parents expected him to take up, and pursued music. In the 1960s found a twenty-something Al Gromer in London where he took part in a number of creative experiments which were to have a lasting influence on him. At this time, Prince Tiane Na Champassak of Laos introduced him to tantric art. Pop star Marc Bolan invited him to join in the all-night jam sessions he hosted. He explored psycho-acoustic phenomena with film director Mike Figgis, and saxophonist Ronnie Scott of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz club, who introduced Khan to Ben WebsterMax RoachMiles Davis, and Cat Stevens. During a trip to India in 1968, at a recital by sitarist Ustad Vilayat Khan, Khan was so moved by the performance that he instantly decided to devote his life to the study of the sitar. He remained in India, where he studied with Ustad Imrat Khan. Gromer Khan remained in India for the next three years, and returned to Bavaria in 1971, an accomplished sitarist. Gromer Khan spent the next 10 years studying with Imrat Khan in Europe and India. In 1975, Khan became the first non-Indian to be accepted initiatied into the Khan-I-Gharana lineage of sitarists. This was when he appended “Khan” to his name. Concurrently, he explored experimental electronic music, and blended his sitar work with electronics. Since 1974, Khan has released nearly 40 albums.

There are many others, such as Hungarian composer / instrumentalist Laszlo Hortobagyi, who are extending the sitar beyond the limits of classical form.

It is interesting that the overwhelming majority of those sitarists who explore the instrument’s potential beyond the classical realm (the above being a small sample) are westerners. Despite a thriving underground music scene in Mumbai, and other places,

Indian musicians often find experimentation or improvisation outside the paradigms of classical raga unfathomable.

However, there are some masters from the Indian subcontinent, such as Shakir Khan and Ravi Chari, who are exploring the possibilities of the sitar that the eastern mindset had difficulty imagining. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention  Anoushka Shankar (daughter of Ravi Shankar) who has produced many successful musical fusions; such as her work with DJ / producer / tabla master Karsh Kale, and her recent union of raga and Spanish flamenco.

Many fine Indian masters have played raga on western instruments – and have even modified the instruments to suit their own needs. Now, it’s our turn. Granted the idea is in its infancy. But it is necessary. No culture or art remains “pure” with the passage of time. For my own part (for I am a sitar player), I am not interested in confining myself to preserving Indian culture (and am content in letting those better qualified than I do so). I am interested only in the effects of music, and in laying the groundwork for a future music that is neither east nor west. I cannot overemphasize the importance of raga in accomplishing this. There is simply nothing like it. But it is not exclusive to the act of musical expression.

Consider this; in jazz, a great deal of emphasis is placed on individual expression. This is, to be sure, not alien to raga. But jazz employs both melodic and harmonic means of expression. And who can deny the great musical and artistic possibilities so far demonstrated and yet to be exploited? The European classical tradition, despite improvisation having become foreign to it (thanks to bizarre ideas imposed by the Church: which western civilization is still recovering from), has accomplished many marvelous things.

And there are many eastern forms of music that have many other things to offer. Arabic and Persian maqam, the countless genres of African music, etc. The list is endless.

We live in a time when east and west are getting closer together. This is due in part to “globalization”: a phenomenon I oppose (and this is the subject for a different article). But when cultures meet, there is at first a backlash; then their components find a means of unifying in to a new form. This is happening with music now. Forces have been set in motion that cannot be stopped.

Some time ago, I was looking at a documentary of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” period. One of the commentaries, wherein a famous jazz critic was hurling invective against Miles for what he did at that time, reminded me of a discussion / argument with an acquaintance about acoustic vs. electronic musical instruments. One of the things he tried telling me is that amplified acoustic instruments are like reproductions of masterpieces of great art (we invoked Rembrandt and Dali as an example). I tried to illustrate the symbiosis between an acoustic instrument and the technology needed to amplify it.

I’m no physicist or mathematician, but here’s an analogy. Basic chaos theory has a simple equation: X2+C=X. X2 being any event, C being an infinitesimal variant, in this case, imposed upon X, and the final X being the original event returned to itself with a subtle variant, that feeds back into the beginning of the equation: X becomes X2. In other words, it is a feedback loop; but it never returns to its original state; it returns changed. It’s not a circle; its a spiral – and nature is filled with spirals! This feedback loop repeats itself ad infinitum, until the original X is no longer recognizable as what it was.


This is something that is built into the very fabric of creation. Consider this: in Bach’s day, equal temperament did not dominate music like it does now. The instruments were designed and tempered differently. The environment and perhaps even the psychological makeup of the musicians and audience were different. Yet, all the modern variants, changes in instrument design, cultural perspective, environment, ambient sound, presence of building materials that did not exist in Bach’s day, even the economics of our dark age, etc., will all affect these “reproductions” of Bach’s music, and transform it into something noticeably different from the original. It is arguable that we never heard Bach’s music. And at this point, we never will.

Not even recorded music is exempt from this.

Now, getting back to the symbiosis between an acoustic instrument and the amplification technology. Using the analogy of the chaos theory equation, X2 would be the music played on any acoustic instrument. C would be the equipment, the acoustic properties of the venue, the presence and influence of the audience, and a million other seemingly irrelevant things. Inevitably, X would not equal a reproduction, but a transformed manifestation of the original acoustic music. This would be true if we removed the factor of the amplification. This holds true with recordings as well; because recordings introduce a million other factors.



In other words, the idea of amplified acoustic music being a reproduction of anything is erroneous. It is the result of an aggregate of factors, all influencing each other and changing each other. And this imposes upon the musician the responsibility of not only understanding these changes, but acting upon them.

My regular readers will have noticed I am a rabid Jimi Hendrix fan. I learned a lot from him. Consider some of the things I learned:

1. The recording studio and / or the amplification used in a live concert are just as much a part of the electric guitar as the strings.

2. All of the components must be played as skillfully as the strings themselves. I.e. the harmonics produced by the amps, the acoustic properties of the venue, the microphones in the studio, the tape (or hard disc) that the sound is being recorded on, the mixing console, any signal processing, etc. Even the playback medium: i.e. the stereo or ipod that the audience listens to the recording.

3. All of these factors are to be improvised upon as much as the actual notes.

4. All of the elements have the same potential to speak to the heart of the listener. It’s all dependent upon the musician in whose hands these tools lay, and the ears that ultimately hear and deliver this message to the listener. To see them as separate is a mistake.

All technology, from a stone axe to the Hubble Telescope, is a prosthetic of human consciousness. In the end, its all the same. All of time is compressed into a single moment of an aggregate of non-simultaneous events – but NOW is very important.

Now, getting back to Rembrandt and Dali…

Surely, Rembrandt and Dali have different approaches: Rembrandt was realistic and Dali was surrealistic (and mad as a hatter). Yet, when I look at a Rembrandt, I see an aggregate of a reproduction of his mind’s imagery, the materials of his time, his own technique, the cultural and religious psychology of his time, and his own spirit and motivation as an artist. The same holds true with Dali. Sure, he had the technique to paint just as “realistic” as Rembrandt (even though they would, inevitably, be very different). And one must admit he was quite brilliant with his use of all the “realistic” techniques: perspective, proportion, shading, color, etc. But with Dali, his very direct feeling and spirit manifested as those surrealist images of melting clocks and whatever else. Despite the strange subject, there was no inferiority or superiority present in regards to technique. Only in method and content. Dali’s imagery was “more direct than direct”. It reached deeper than the surface image we would see. His work tapped into the root of psychological archetype.

Rembrandt did this too, I believe: but his effect was more subtle than Dali. In fact, a nice middle ground between them may be found in Bosch. He was just as “realistic” as Rembrandt and just as “surrealistic” as Dali. In fact, I heard that Bosch belonged to a sect of Christian heretics call the Adamites.

(I’m leaving Picasso out of this because, despite his brilliance, he was battling too many demons. We all have them. But Picasso’s demons ate him alive. Rembrandt took refuge in Christianity. Dali made pets of them.)

Ask yourself: would Rembrandt have painted just as surrealistically as Dali had he been born in this time? Would he have pioneered computer art? Would he have even been an artist? Perhaps he would have been an architect, a gourmet chef, or a used car salesman. This is all academic fancy, of course. But it raises some interesting considerations that lead us to the inevitable conclusion that no event can be isolated from the event of the whole universe.

Which brings me to another point. Both Rembrandt and Dali were brilliant technicians. Their medium was to manipulate paint of several different colors across a flat surface to create the illusion of a three dimensional image – and to use that image to convey an idea and produce a psychological effect. What is more “real and direct” in this experience; the idea, the medium that conveys it, or our experience of perceiving the painting?

Now, paintings such as, say “The Night Watch” and “Swans Reflecting Elephants” are equally illusions. With both, we are seeing these images and ideas as filtered through and reflected from the mind of the artist, through the tools and materials available to them. Not one of them is “real” in the sense of it being the thing that it symbolically represents. And this leads inevitably to the conclusion that they are both analogous to electronic and / or recorded music in that we are not experiencing anything directly from either of them. It’s all second hand information.

But it all creates an effect on those who perceive the art. This is the most important consideration.

This, of course brings me full circle back to Indian music, and its most famous instrument, the sitar.

A raga is often erroneously thought of by westerners as a mode or a scale. This is not correct. A raga is a construct from a scale / mode matrix that provides a template for a composition or improvisation. But it does not end there. Each raga is designed to create a specific effect; emotional or otherwise. In fact, the master of raga can create effects beyond the emotional. The legendary Indian musician Tan Sen was reputed to have been able to cause rain or ignite fire simply by singing. There are many legends of musicians from other ancient cultures who were able to perform such miracles – and some are still among us.

It makes one wonder what we have lost: and how do we get it back. And by “get it back,” I do not mean retrogression into a slavish imitation of classical form. I mean reaching deep within the primordial essence of music as a microcosm of the essence of the universe itself, and creating the next phase in this development.

When this happens, and it has already begun, I believe the next stage in the development of the sitar (with it accepting gifts from the east and the west) will be instrumental in realizing this. I doubt it can be otherwise.