The Culture of Sitar


Critically acclaimed sitar musician Alif Laila performed in Rooke Recital Hall this past Thursday as part of the Department of Music’s Gallery Series.  She was accompanied by Nabeel Riaz’s tabla, a form of traditional Indian percussion.  The pair played a three-piece set of classical Indian music. The performance was a culturally educational experience with program notes provided by Alif Laila herself about the musical styles and techniques specific to the sitar and classical Indian music in general.  The music was very focused on emotion and feeling and was intended to engage both the performer and the audience.  Each song represented a particular mood such as peace or romance and in this way, it seems that classical Indian music is concerned with not only sound but also the overall listening experience.

Laila took many breaks to explain her intricate performance preparations and the seemingly tedious process of tuning a sitar.  Her warm-up lasted approximately 20 minutes, which she attributed to the unpredictability of a sitar in cold winter temperatures.  Everything about her performance was very technically complex and required complete precision.  I was struck by the intense dedication required to master an instrument as complicated as the sitar.

While I really enjoyed and appreciated the performance, I realized that my understanding of the diverse variety of world music is somewhat limited.  My knowledge of sitar starts and ends with the quiet Beatle George Harrison’s sitar lessons with Ravi Shankar.  I loved having the opportunity to expand my musical tastes beyond genre to a completely foreign musical style.  Through different perspective and mindset, Indian musicians like Alif Laila express emotion in intriguingly effective ways.