The Kenwood Press
News: 10/01/2016

Fusion of old and new

Sitarist hopes to share the joy of a classic instrument with a new generation

Sarah C. Phelps

Sita Maiya Rajchal, a musician and professor visiting from Nepal, plays a sitar at the Yeti Restaurant in Glen Ellen. Photo by Sarah C. Phelps
Short, with broad shoulders and strong hands, Sita Maiya Rajchal is not much taller than the sitar she plays – standing, by the way, which is unusual for a sitarist. “No one performs the sitar standing,” she told someone, outside on the patio behind Yeti Restaurant in Glen Ellen. Rajchal, a Nepali musician and professor, has been playing sitar, which is also an unusual instrument in Nepal, for more than two decades. But unusual doesn’t seem to bother Rajchal, who hopes a modern twist on traditions can keep a classic instrument and its music relevant to a younger generation. “If people don’t come to learn, it won’t be alive in the future,” said Rajchal.

Rajchal has been visiting from Nepal for two months, a guest of Yeti owner Narayan Somname, himself from Nepal. The two met when she was playing in a café owned by a mutual acquaintance and Somname invited Rajchal to play in his restaurants in Glen Ellen and Santa Rosa, which she has been doing throughout September.

When she was a child growing up in Bhaktapur, Nepal, her father, who she describes as a “music aficionado” enrolled the family in vocal lessons and soon Rajchal began performing locally. After receiving a diploma in Formal Music from Tamrakar Music Training Center and a gold medal from then-queen Komal Shah for her competency, she began to learn to play music as well.

Rajchal plays what she calls “fusion music,” a blend of classic Nepali folk and modern music. “These days, I dedicate my life to add melodies of sitars to give music a new tone,” says the jacket on her second album, Talking Strings. In her recording sessions, she’s often accompanied by guitar, tabla, percussions and vocals. Rajchal hardly sings anymore. “Sitar has its own leading voice,” she said.

Her first CD, Parampara (The Tradition), took four years of composition and seven years total to produce. Journey on Frets, to be released later this year, has taken five years to compose. All of her CDs have been composed by Joogle Dangol, a popular figure in the Nepali music industry, whom she met when she began studying sitar.

Rajchal said she is still practicing, even after more than two decades. The sitar is complicated and difficult to learn, which is one of the reasons it’s not as popular with the younger generation as, say, the guitar. A sitar can have 18, 19, 20, or 21 strings. Six or seven of these are played strings, which run over curved, raised frets, and the remainder are resonance strings which run underneath the frets and resonate with the played strings. Normally, the sitar is balanced on the foot as it is played, but Rajchal wants to popularize its playing while standing. In her YouTube videos, you can see how this position makes it easier for her to blend with bands playing more modern instruments – very important for fusion music – and be more flexible about where she can play.

“It’s not necessary to play the sitar in the traditional posture anymore. One must have classical training, but it is equally important to try new things in order to captivate the new generation,” said Rajchal in a 2012 interview for The Kathmandu Post.

Rajchal plays in order to share the experience of sitar, but she also teaches. She is experimenting with a different way to teach sitar, which could shorten the time it takes to learn the instrument. “We will see how it goes. Everything in life is an experiment.”

Rajchal has two bachelor’s degrees – one in music from Tribhuvan University in Nepal and one from Rabindra Bharati University in Calcutta, India, where she received a scholarship from the Indian Embassy to study music. She returned to Nepal and continued to train on sitar with other well-known musicians and teachers, eventually receiving a master’s from Tribhuvan University in Nepal. In addition to studying sitar, Rajchal became involved in music therapy and extolls the benefits a few hours a day of music can bring to the body.

“Music is not only a medium of entertainment, but it can be like medicine. Can help for good health. As medicine, we can use this,” she said. Rajchal sites experiences with her own clients where just an hour of listening to music can alleviate headaches and body aches. By taking music into the heart, vibrations from the heart can extend out to the body said Rajchal.