The Jakarta Post
For Asrie Tresnady, 30, the sitar is more than a traditional Indian musical instrument. It's a means of learning ' and a medium for discussion.
'This instrument has survived for nine centuries,' said Asrie at the end of a workshop at Galeri Malang Bernyanyi in Malang, East Java, last month.
The doctoral student at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda, Gujarat, western India, says that he appreciates the philosophy underscoring the sitar, which was first devised sometime in the 12th century.
'It's a matter of a few months to gain skill playing the sitar, but there's a lot more than just playing,' Asrie, who said that it took him eight years to get a feel for the instrument while studying on scholarship in India, said.
His lecturer and advisor, Ahmad Raza Khan Pathan, became a mentor. Gradually, Asrie became interested in Pathan's collection of sitars, learning how to play until finally he traded an electric guitar with his mentor for one of the venerable instruments.
The sitar Asrie received, ostensibly worth Rp 4 million, once belonged to the professor's grandfather. 'I consider this sitar priceless because of its historic significance,' he says.
Under the guidance of Pathan, Asrie began to understand the sitar. 'Many things are inherent in sitar playing, from the sitting posture to string plucking,' said the man from Bandung, West Java.
While playing, one assumes the pranayama meditation position: sitting erect with the right foot placed above the left and supporting the sitar, which weighs about 12 kilograms. The position makes breathing easier.
Asrie said that the carvings on a typical sitar and its dome shaped body reflect two cultural influences in India: Hinduism and Islam.
The sitar, whose sound mimics the vocal style of Indian singers, has evolved from its original incarnation, Asrie says. 'There's no problem with modifications. What matters is when a traditional musical instrument goes extinct.'
However, in India, the sitar is a well preserved cultural asset. Sitar makers and music thrive, thanks to help from local governments, which back festivals and partially sponsor music studios.
After the late Beatle George Harrison became a protege of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, the traditional instrument rose to worldwide fame.
Famous Beatles songs, such as 'The Inner Light', 'Norwegian Wood' and 'Within You Without You' are well-known for Harrison's unique sitar accompaniment.
Asrie said that he returns to Indonesia at least three times a year to see family in Malang, while also touring to introduce the sitar to local audiences and has performed in Bali, Bandung, Malang and Yogyakarta.
He has performed at Artmoschestra, which combined traditional instruments and computerized digital technology and is a member of the Folk Mataraman Institute, a Yogyakarta-based artists' community.
Asrie, who says that he has eight sitars, has released two albums, Song for Bhagwan and Chant Of India.
In Yogyakarta he is preparing an album combining the sitar and Javanese drums that he expects to finish by mid-year.
Frequently lecturing and giving workshops on the sitar, Asrie is excited about the shared cultural influences of India and Indonesia.
He cites dangdut (Hindi-tinged Indonesian pop music) as an example, saying that about 100 songs penned dating from the Raj Kapoor era of the 1940s to the Shah Rukh Khan period of the 1990s have been transmogrified into dangdut or Melayu songs.
'Their singers were hit makers like Mansyur S., Elvy Sukaesih and Rhoma Irama,' said the writer of the upcoming volume Dangdut vs Mahabharata, which will be published in India.
Fazal Dath, a senior dangdut songwriter and singer, is one of the few local artists who can play the sitar, according to Asrie.
Asrie plans to play at the Nusantara String Festival in Malang in early June. 'It will be very interesting if all traditional and modern string instruments from Indonesia and other countries like the guitar, violin, rebab [vertical viola], kecapi [zither], harp and sitar can be presented in an event,' he said.