A Sitar’s American Holiday

A blog written by Ms. Gayathri Nair, after speaking with Mrs. Rachana Bhama, a super mom and doctor.

“Sir, can you teach me how to play the Sitar?!”

“Yes, I can teach you.”

“When can we start?”

“As soon as you get a Sitar!”

This charming exchange during the Little Khayal Series Interview between Dhruv Bhama and the revered sitarist- Pt. Sugato Nag, is what began Dhruv’s wholesome journey with the majestic Sitar. 

Rachana Bhama- Dhruv’s mother, said that he had been drawn to the Sitar almost instantly during ShrotaHouse’s Storyship Series– a 7 day workshop introducing tots to Hindustani Sangeet. 

“For the final activity of this workshop, he had immediately chosen the Sitar to draw and shoot a video with!”, she exclaimed as she explained how this sudden Sitar-driven passion had emerged. 

Pt. Sugato Nag had no hesitation promising that he would teach Dhruv and his brother- Ved- the Sitar online. During the pandemic, online learning had been questioned and debated about a lot. Is it efficient for our kids? Is it just going to distract them more? A lot of parents had to take a backseat from their professional lives in order to homeschool their preschoolers. The very same concerns washed over Rachana Bhama. Would her children really be able to learn such a large instrument online

And they did!

Within months, they had already gotten a grip on the Sitar; so when they had to go to the USA for the summer holidays, Mrs Bhama was firm that she didn’t want anything to loosen this newfound grip. The children agreed and were keen on the same.

Now here’s a dilemma that one rarely comes across, but– How can you carry a Sitar to a whole other continent safely? Not to mention, luggage is handled like dodgeballs at airports.

Being an avid travelling musician himself, Pt. Sugato Nag taught them how to pack appropriately, and it was checked in. As soon as they arrived at the airport in the States however, the outer packing and case had been damaged. When they finally pulled out the Sitar, a few strings were wonky!

Yet, Dhruv and Ved tuned and fixed the strings themselves!

“All this happened just by the online instructions given by Sugato Sir. We don’t have any musicians at home, you know, we were new to this.”, Mrs Bhama elaborated.

The kids wasted no time getting back to their regular practices and Saturday classes!

As they travelled around USA, many people would come up to them- “Wait– what’s this instrument?!”, they’d ask in wonder as a majestic guitar-like structure stared them in their face. On the other hand, there were a lot of people who already knew about the Sitar- like in Colorado, where the Bhamas were with a family that was astounded that Dhruv and Ved were able to play the sitar without any music or tune. 

Colorado brought along its own story when two of the frets in the children’s sitar- the lower Ni and lower Pa- were compressed, and hence faulty. They were in the outskirts of Colorado, away from the city, so Sugato Nag Sir took class over a Whatsapp Voice Call that day. Over this voice call, he taught the two children a new Raag- Raag Rageshri. This Raag didn’t use lower Ni and lower Pa.

He could even correct the children’s mistakes just by ear- even through the unstable internet of the city’s outskirts.

“And the kids were able to respond to it! And that, in itself, was surprising to me. I kept asking them- How are you even understanding like this?”, Mrs Bhama pointed out how children were so quick and receptive to learning.

Phoenix was apparently more aware of the stream of Indian classical music, and it even has its own prominent Pheonix Gharana. Close relatives to the Bhamas were quite tied to this Gharana too. Mrs Bhama’s cousin- also associated with the Gharana- had a hobby of building stages. He had a studio-like stage, where Dhruv and Ved got to play the Sitar for him. In this moment, they all felt a shared experience and emotion- it was a sort of equal love and appreciation for an art that can’t be differentiated by any international borders.

Did you know that if you rub some chalk onto the pegs of the sitar, they fit in amazingly (and shockingly) well, and do not fall out? That was another tip that Pt. Sugato Nag had for the Bhamas while they were in the USA. But where would they find any chalk there? It was only children that used chalk to draw on the streets and pathways there.  It was only children that used chalk to draw on the streets and pathways there. And so, they did indeed pick up a few random chalk pieces from various parks and paths. Eventually though, they found better chalk at home and made use of that instead.

Towards the end of their journey, while heading back to India, the sitar case refused to close and the lock was broken. How do we carry the Sitar?, this thought had now become a normal occurrence for them during the trip. When they approached the Airline Staff and confronted them about the situation, the instrument had to be entirely shrink-wrapped, and then it was safely checked-in back to Mumbai. “Every journey, one part of that outer case was just popping out!”, Mrs Bhama summarized the entire experience.

She laughed as she recalled Pt. Sugato Nag’s advice to her.

“Don’t worry about the case, it will break! But the Sitar will be completely fine.”

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