Age fails to dent spirit of Sitar player

USTAD Wahab Gul, 72, a resident of Swabi district, is the senior most and popular Chitrali sitar player in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He had launched his career in his early teens as an amateur artist but later he adopted playing Chitrali sitar as his profession. He remained affiliated with Radio Pakistan Peshawar and Pakistan Television, Peshawar centre, for more than three decades as an expert instrumentalist and represented Pakistan abroad being part of cultural troupe on many occasions. sitar2Wahab Gul was in his late teens when the soft sound of Chitrali sitar struck his ears and touched his heart. He vowed to learn playing the instrument from a perfect ustad (teacher) and after hectic efforts he caught up with Noorullah Khan Ustad. The old instrumentalist does not hail from a professional music family but his natural flair for singing and playing sitar forced him to adopt it as a career. “No one in my family has affiliation with singing or playing instrument. I was the only one to have had talent and feel proud although at the beginning I faced tough resistance from my family members but with the passage of time they reluctantly accepted my talent and even began to enjoy my company,” Wahab Gul recalls. The sitar player soon became the most sought after artist and he made his way to radio and PTV while gaining widespread popularity across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata. Attending wedding ceremonies and private musical concerts became his routine schedule. Ustad Wahab Gul could simultaneously sing and play sitar till eight years ago when he lost his velvety voice owing to chain smoking following a medical operation. He spent over Rs400,000 on treatment of his throat but could not regain his fascinating voice; even now he cannot talk properly. “I have never appealed to government for financial assistance. Playing sitar is my passion and gathering appreciation from the public is my real asset. How much would cultural department or any other institution give me? Why should I beg,” the self-made artist questions. Like Rabab, Chitrali sitar too has become an inevitable string instrument of Pashto music orchestra. It is still played in the tea houses of Chitral in accompaniment of beautiful Khowar poetry. The Chitrali sitar is a popular musical instrument not only in Chitral but also in Ghizar, Gilgit and Hunza regions and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Afghanistan. It is made out of mulberry wood with five steel strings arranged in three courses, the outer ones have double strings, tuned in unison, while the inner course is single. The performer plays the strings with the index finger of the right hand, generally using upward plucking strokes. Ustad Wahab Gul has played sitar in about 200 Pashto films and has flown to Russia, France, Indonesia, Malaysia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and more than 50 times to UAE. He has 200 albums of solo performances to his credit but unfortunately not for a single time his name has been nominated for national or regional award. “Award and fraud have become synonymous. Now at this stage and age I don’t need it anyway. It’s good my spirit is young and vibrant,” Wahab Gul proudly tells this scribe. Presently he has 12 apprentices to train in playing Chitrali sitar. Till now he has transferred his skill to more than 50 young artists. The 36-inch long necked lute could be mastered in three to four years. According to Wahab Gul the invention of Chitrali sitar could be dated back even prior to the times of Amir Khusro, the 14th century mystic poet to whom it is attributed. “The one invented by Ustad Khusro was sarod, not sitar. It is totally a different instrument in all respects. Unlike Rabab it is soft, delicate and can be tuned very easily and also can go in straight accompaniment with mungay (pitcher),” Wahab Gul explains. Anwar Ustad, a senior music director in Peshawar, while commenting on the structure and composition of string instrument, says that Chitrali sitar is about 4-foot long and has an oval sound box at the bottom. The body and sound box are made from two different pieces of wood delicately fixed so the joints are almost imperceptible. Another feature, he says, is in the fabrication of a Chitrali sitar. The wood used for the sound box must be of the mulberry variety because it contains no oil and suits the structure of the instrument, he adds. “Mulberry wood has long visible streaks, made up of small pores that facilitate the process of vibration of the key as to why a sitar produces sound. When the strings are strummed, the vacuum in the sound box takes air in through the pores, blowing it out to stabilise the process,” the expert musician says. Ustad Nazeer Gul, another senior music composer, says that Chitrali sitar occupies a significant position among all ancient string instruments for soft melody in sharp contrast to loud and harsh sound of Rabab. He adds that there is a great demand for inclusion of Chitrali sitar in the orchestra but perfect artists are fewer in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “Ustad Wahab Gul’s style is unique as he has complete grip over its strings,” he claims. There are a few makers of this wonderful instrument in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but its popularity never goes dwindle. Experts says that the exact inventor of the lute is not known but the name it earned — Chitrali sitar — perhaps points to someone in Chitral centuries ago. “There is blood and death scene everywhere these days but despite all this and in the twilight of my age I wish I could decorate smiles on the faces of my depressed people. What else a poor artiste can do,” Wahab Gul says with his choked throat. He says that he wishes he could have the power to play a tune on his sitar to drive away worries, soothe the bruised hearts and bring back peace to the city of flowers — Peshawar — and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at large.]]>

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