The Strings that tie the Mystics of the Indian Subcontinent

by Ali Hammad

Not just the strings of commonality of ideas but strings of the musical instruments of the Indian subcontinent tie its mystics, be they Sufi, Yogi, Buddhist, or Sikh.

Sufis found arts—poetry, music, dance—conducive to a mystic state of mind, a path to God. They defended, promoted, developed, and in some cases pioneered these arts in this region. They also played a key role in the development of many, now familiar, musical instruments, including stringed instruments.

In one of our previous posts (A Life of Purpose), we had featured some Sufi poetry set to guitar music. Tagtraumer, a fellow blogger, commented that the guitar in the video was a Martin Backpacker guitar. This led to a discussion (see Comments on that post) that led to this post

Please consider this only a 101 on the stringed instruments of the Indian subcontinent; I am only a consumer of music, not a creator. Also, the following is not a complete list.

Sarangi

A body carved out of a single piece of wood, a skin stretched over the body, 3 playing strings, approximately 35 sympathetic strings, the tuning and the exact number of strings individual to each school (gharana) is what constitutes a Sarangi, played with a bow that is quite different from that of a violin.

Sarod

A lute-like but fretless instrument that may have up to 25 strings, with about 5 playing strings, a couple of drone strings, and the rest making up the sympathetic strings. Again, the master of each particular school (gharana) determines the exact number and tension of the strings. Strings are played with a pick.

Sitar

The word sitar is derived from the Persian word sehtar (“three-stringed”). It is the most well known of the stringed instruments of the Subcontinent. A long neck, a pear-shaped gourd body, front and side tuning pegs, 20 movable frets, 5 melody strings, 2 drone strings, and up to 13 sympathetic strings make up a sitar. It may also have a resonating gourd under the pegbox end of the neck. The strings are plucked with a wire plectrum worn on the right forefinger.

Tanpura

This long-necked lute, also called tambura, superficially resembles a sitar, but is fretless and has four metal strings. It provides a drone accompaniment for the classical and folk music of South Asia. It is seen and heard in the sample of sarod music above.

I believe that no discussion of stringed instruments should conclude without the word “peace.” So, Peace in English, Salaam in Urdu, Shanti in Hindi.

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