Silence of the Sitars

Nader Khan reports from Peshawar on why the sitar is going out of vogue in Pashto music

Silence of the Sitars
Once popular in the Hujra style of music in the Pashto language cultural sphere, the age-old stringed instrument Sitar has been disappearing from the stage. Instead, it has been widely replaced with another stringed musical instrument, the Rabab.

This long-necked stringed musical instrument is made of mulberry wood. The body is carved from a single block with a thin wooden table and a very low bridge about the height of a long stick. The strings pass over this bridge and are often fixed to a metal eye at the bottom of the body. The mulberry wood neck of the instrument is fixed to the body and there is a mulberry nut at the top leading to wooden winders for the strings.

Like the Rabab, the Sitar was a vital stringed instrument of Pashto Hujra music. It was played in the tea houses of Chitral to the accompaniment of beautiful poetry. The Chitrali sitar was a popular musical instrument, not only in Chitral itself but also in the Ghizar, Gilgit and Hunza regions, and more broadly in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Afghanistan.

Though it is still popular in Chitral’s musical shows, the sitar is now rarely, if ever, used in the music enjoyed by Pakhtuns at gatherings today.

Zainullah, one of the prominent Sitar players of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Charsadda district – one of the last few to be found playing this instrument – tells me a possible reason why most music-lovers have now switched over to the Rabab. “It is because the Rabab produces around double the sound when compared to the more subtle Sitar. Those who still love the Sitar now exist in various rural areas.”

The Rabab has greatly outstripped the Sitar in terms of popularity amongst audiences in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa

He continues: “There was a time when, without the Sitar, Hujra music was simply considered incomplete. But with the passage of time, as the Rabab began to take over from Sitar, experts of the latter have either passed away and or simply disappeared from the scene.” He goes on to name musicians like Wahab Gul of district Swabi and Shad Mohammad Ustad of district Mardan as having been among the more prominent Sitar players. In particular, Shad Muhammad Ustad was a big name in this field. Unfortunately much of his work has been lost. It was not preserved by the relevant cultural departments. Pakistan Television Peshawar station and Radio Pakistan are among those who ought to be considered responsible for that loss – it seems nobody cared enough to preserve his style of sitar-playing.”

Zainullah further tells me that the Deputy Director of the Culture Department had assured him that he would open an academy for him but so far no steps had been taken for the preservation of this musical instrument and that was the reason that it was dying in Pashtun cultural music.

Kirran Khan, a renowned Pashto singer, while commenting on the downward trend of Sitar in contemporary Pakhtun music, offers another reason for the decline of the sitar: “Experts with the Sitar are demanding high rewards. Such costs force singers to record their songs without the sounds of a Sitar. We have still some good Sitar players, like Gohar Jan, Waqar Attal, Zainullah and some others. But people have little interest in the music of Sitar now, and that is why it is disappearing from musical shows.”

Waqar is another Sitar expert, who is also running his own Academy. He says that he can teach both Sitar and Rabab, but most of his students are interested in the Rabab. This observation, of course, fits in with the general trends mentioned earlier. “For our part, we are struggling to revive this old stringed musical instrument alongside the Rabab. We do try to include it in every show but audiences have very clear preferences – and those are not in favour of the Sitar anymore!”

Project Director for Revival of Indigenous Cultural Heritage Arshad Hussain expresses his disappointment with such trends.

“We have a lot of talent when it comes to Sitar players and there are older people who still remember the golden age of the Sitar.”

He says that the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Culture Department has taken a number of steps when it comes to promotion of indigenous culture. His department has allocated some Rs. 100 million to arrange events in various parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa where expert players of the Sitar would be duly encouraged to revive the old glory of this instrument.
"Experts with the Sitar are demanding high rewards. Such costs force singers to record their songs without the sounds of a Sitar"

He goes so far as to say that together the Sitar and the Rabab are the soul of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. He also says that it is the topmost priority of the government to promote both the Sitar and Rabab in Olassi Tang Takoor programs and to set up an academy to help train a younger generation of musicians.

In this context, he refers to the RICH project – which, according to the the Cultural Department, was aimed at exploring local talent with the Sitar.

We are also told that the Cultural Department would arrange some 1,600 activities in 25 districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in which Olassi Music would be a major theme. For this purpose, tasks have been handed out to over 33 cultural organisations.