Ravi Shankar Manual

Ilkka after returning from India in 1994

Ilkka after returning from India in 1994

Right before Christmas 2012 we heard a sad piece of news. The great Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar had died at the high age of 92. This brings a memory to my mind. I once had a chance to travel around a bit in India. That was in 1994. Well, I ended up purchasing a sitar. Some days after the deal I began contemplating on how to play it – were there any similarities to the guitar or not. I was in the Goa region and started looking for a book store. After a while I went inside one and asked for a “Sitar manual”. The clerk was somewhat surprised, and judging by her expression it was not an everyday request. She asked me to wait for a moment, lit incense for our convenience and disappeared behind a back door.

After a while she came back – not alone but with a guru holding a sitar. I was amazed! He looked very much like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the famous guru of The Beatles during their Indian days. He rolled a carpet for me and asked me to sit down. Then he took his sitar and set down to a half-lotusposition [1]. Then he started playing. Neither one of us said anything. I noticed that he played with only one string, leaving the 17 other strings unattended [2]. After a while I broke the silence – just to establish conversation – asking whether this was some sort of song or if he just playing around or tuning up – improvising.

He was silent for a moment before answering. Then he told me that he had just played a morning raga [3]  – their classical music – which I later recognized as being something that corresponds to our “Finlandia hymn” here in Finland. I was later ashamed at my ignorance as a westerner of their rich musical heritage. Then, he passed the sitar over to me. This was the first time I really held the instrument. He gave a Mizrab, a finger pick for the sitar, to put onto my finger. Then he corrected my posture into a proper position. Now I was ready to pick the first note!

I had the intention of amazing him from the very beginning. Secretly, back in Finland, I had learnt how to play “Norwegian Wood” by The Beatles on a single string. I picked the first note, second and started playing. I felt reassured for a while until something happened. I noticed that the fret that I needed wasn’t there. I began bending the note to the proper pitch. I got confused and quickly gave up as I noticed that Indian intervals didn’t quite correspond to ours.

This was my first lesson on the rich heritage of the musical world. There is a lot of music out there beyond our diatonic music which can nicely be played with piano and put in western score notation. Finally, I purchased the book by Ravi Shankar – “My Music, My Life” as a complete manual on how to play the sitar. From the book I also found a new approach. Two thirds of the book was simply a kind of spiritual introduction to the proper mental state for starting the long path to becoming a sitarist – 20 years, 8 hours every day and so on. Not my cup of tea I decided, the hasty western youngster  I was then 😉

The sitarist told me that he played only on the first string of the sitar as he hadn’t reached the proper level of “knowledge” yet. He also told me that Ravi Shankar – my hero, (“sankari” in Finnish) – had reached the highest level to be able to play with the whole repertoire of strings on the sitar.

Cover of Ravi Shankar Sitar Manual

Cover of Ravi Shankar Sitar Manual

Understandable pages for a Western reader

Understandable pages for a Western reader

Typical exercise page

Typical exercise page


[1] Standard sitar playing position, not always so easy for western players
[2] Sitar usually has 18 to 20 strings, where 7 of them are “playing strings” as the rest are resonating strings, or “Sympathetic strings”
[3] Raga – the melodic basis of Indian classical music on which the musicians improvise. Each raga has definite melodic qualities that distinguish it from all other ragas. It is assumed that ragas create an emotional impact on the listener

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