Six Strings

Beenish Ahmed in The Morning News:

Growing up in Ohio, far from the homeland of her parents, a girl puzzles over her identity, until the strings of a sitar create a connection.

Six-stringsA stack of weathered National Geographics sat inviolably on the bookshelves of my childhood home. I don’t think my parents ever subscribed, and, anyway, the set was strikingly incomplete: It included only issues featuring places that bordered Pakistan, the country of their birth, and its neighbors. I remember clearly one with a photo of the Rajasthani boy tending his camel, and of course the beguiling image of the Afghan girl draped in a tattered burgundy shawl, her eyes hollowly aglow. We even kept an issue featuring Sita, a Bengal tiger, for its views of India’s jungles, women in saris squatting amid the shrubs. But I was most captivated by a cover showing a woman like a Mughal miniature brought to life, a cascade of pearls and gems hanging over her thick black hair to match the hues of her silken dress, seated amidst the sandstone columns of a palace court in Lahore. Tahira Syed sings elegiac melodies in a voice that shared the desperate and delicate dance of a butterfly caught in a jar. She is Pakistan’s most famous sitarist, but even before I heard her music, I saw her on the cover of that tattered magazine which had existed for longer than I had. I revered that single image of her the way most girls did Disney princesses.

It would be years before I discovered Syed’s voice, and many more before I could begin to understand what she was singing about. Somewhere in between, my brother began to play the tabla, a set of hand drums that sets the harmony for musical styles across South Asia. I joked with him about learning to play sitar so that we might travel the world as a brother-sister duo. It was sometime after that when I actually began to listen to the sitar and hear its range of emotions: the sounds as sultry as silk that slowly transitioned into lovers’ moans, the soft whimpering that turned into a frenzy of self-loathing. Some exposure to the sitar was natural enough, at least as the background of melodies that floated through backseat brawls on road trips, or bid sleeping passengers to wake up on flights to Pakistan. I can’t say that the instrument was the strange and seductive curiosity to me that it is to many other people. It’s music itself that has always been a little foreign to me―a language I could understand but never speak.

More here.