Raga Kirwani

As part of the Ekalavya project, I’ll try and upload as many sarod bandishes/gats that I know of. The first post in this category is Raga Kirwani. It’s a popular raag which has the notes: S R g M P d N S (Caps= Shuddha, lowercase = komal, Bold= Upper Octave, Italics= Lower octave).

The reason it’s so popular is the melodious nature of the scale – it is identical to the harmonic minor scale of western music. In overseas settings, playing Kirwani is a safe bet, as the melody resonates with the audience.

Kirwani can be approached in a number of ways. Besides “strict” Kirwani, one approach is to bring in touches of  Jaunpuri and Darbari. A bit of musical license can be taken in bringing some of the moods of these ragas. In particular, I have adopted the Jaunpuri-ish ang in the phrase

R g M- P g M P g R

where a lot of sparsh/kampan etc can be used to evoke the emotion of pathos.

(note: I find written notations about ragas practically useless – these things are only explainable by playing or singing, which is why I’ve tried to keep notations only for the gat).

Anyway, here are some compositions that I’ve recorded raw on my Zoom H2 recorder at home: tabla sangat is by Mr. Taal Tarang of the digital gharana. I’ve played the basic gat, without too many embellishments and provided the notations.  Any mistakes/omissions/shortcomings are entirely mine.

1.Raag Kirwani: Vilambit Teental (Source: Ustad Amjad Ali Khan)

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I heard Ustadji play this on TV with Sukhwinder Singh Namdhari on the tabla when I was very young. I have not formally learnt this piece, and so, it is possible that I have changed the original composition.

The notations are (upper octave in Bold,lower octave italics, komal swaras in lowercase)

12    13      14   15  16        1      2     3      4         5       6        7       8          9     10      11

PPd S   RM RS Nd       P-    P-   P-   RgR    M    MP    GR   RdP      G-    R-      S-

2.Raag Kirwani: Madhyalaya Rupak Taal (Source: Ustad Amjad Ali Khan)

I consider this one of the best rupak gats on Kirwani -period. It really brings out the flavour of the raga

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6   7        1 2    3     4      5    6        7           1     2       3   4   5

Rg  Ni d  P- – –           g       S    SR    gPMP   g    g        S   R   S


6  7     1   2      3       4         5     6    7    1    2    3  4   5   6  7    1   2  3  4  5  6  7    1  2  3 4  5  6  7

Pd   S   S Ni      S –     NS  R N   N   d  P   –   – d     d d  –    P d  Pd N  d P  d P  –   R g

1   2   3  4  5  6  7   1 2  3   4  5    6    7

M M P g   R Rd P g g   R   g  Rg Ni d

3.Raag Kirwani: Drut Teental (Composer: Yours truly- Rahul Bhattacharya)

I was sitting on the lawn of my college trying to develop a “palta” which would exercise my fingers to breaking point. I hit upon this as initially as a palta, but then I turned it into a gat. This is not very emotionally satisfying – it is more of a benchmark test of how fast your left (or right) hand can move. The key challenge in this piece is to maintain the volume and clarity with string changes. I’m told that I used to play this piece better when I was younger. Anyway, here is the notation of the sthayi: I’ll have to spend some time getting the antara notation ready.

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5     6      7   8   9  10  11   12   13  14   15  16  1

Rg RS Rg MP dP Mg R-  R   S    R    g    d   P

4.Raga Kirwani:  Another composition in Drut/Madhyalaya Teentaal (Source: Unknown)

This is a common composition – I have fiddled with the antara somewhat

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12  13  14  15  16  1   2   3  4   5  6  7  8   9   10   11

d    P   g     –     S  R  –    –  R    –  g  M P  d    d     P

5.Raga Kirwani: Carnatic composition (Drut Teentaal) (Source: Shri VVS Murari)

In 2000, I played (possibly the first) sarod and violin Jugalbandi in Melbourne with visiting carnatic violinist VVS Murari (son of Shri V V Subramanyam). When we got together to decide the composition, Murari taught me this one:

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9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  1  2  3  4  5    6  7   8    9  10   11  12  13  14   15 16

R M   P   g    R   S    N   P R  –   –   –  – –  –   –     S S P    d  M    P  G

1 2 3 4 5 67 8   9  10  11  12 13  14  15 16

– dMP gR  SN d   P   M   –  g  R     S  N

1     2       3      4   5    6     7     8

dP Mg  PM   gR Mg RS gR SN

Finally, this is a very recent composition:

6.Raga Kirwani: Drut Ektaal (composer: Rahul Bhattacharya)

My goal has been to adapt the popular drut ektaal khayal piece: “Tora bina mohe chain na parat ” (Without you there is no peace…) sung in Kirwani.

I had difficulty adapting it to the instrument – sounded a bit empty. So, I came up with this one:

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1   2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12  1

P –   d Pg R Mg R S  R   g   P


1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12

P P d  S   –  S   SR S    –   S

1   2  3   4  5  6  7  8  9  10   11   12

N N  R  N  –  d  N  – d  P     –     P

1  2  3  4   5  6  7      8       9    10   11   12

d –  d   d   –  d  RR  MM RR  N   –      N

1  2   3   4   5   6   7   8 9  10   11   12

gP MP    –  GG    M    g R  S     R   g

I know a couple of other Ustadji’s gats, but haven’t put them here. You can find them on Youtube while I get their notation ready.



What they don’t tell you in most overseas sarod schools: The agony and ecstasy of “Palta Practice”

Swept up by the magnificent sound of the instrument, inspired by maestros like Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and feeling elevated by thinking about the deep and rich history of the sarod, we finally get an instrument, a guru and begin to take our first steps.

The first few days are spent in agony. The instrument sounds like someone’s scraping their nails against a blackboard and everything sounds terrible. (if you think you don’t sound terrible after your first attempt on the sarod, you must be the re-incarnation of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan). We bravely fight on, with encouragement from our guru and persevere. We learn to play Sa Re Ga Ma, focussing constantly by looking at the fretboard (although there’s not much to see there at all). In desperation, we might even put some marks on it to position our fingers accurately.  Then we are taught a raga (Yaman is a good choice) and away we go. Between maintaining the dara-diri regime, nail problems, pitch issues, sitting on the floor, plectrum technique – it’s a total disaster ! But we persevere….

The above describes the typical path of the adult overseas sarod student. Of all the students of sarod and sitar that I’ve met over the years, one crucial element of training seems to be missing – scale or “palta” practice. This is the secret sauce of all sarod training.

Palta practice, is simply, scale practice – it’s the mechanical repetition of the notes of the scale in various combinations. For example, Sa Re, Re Ga, Ga Ma and so on. Then in threes (Sa Re Ga, Re Ga Ma .. ) or fours (Sa Re Ga Ma, Re Ga Ma Pa, ….) upto the upper Sa and then back again. This needs to be done with the tabla – e.g Dadra for threes, Teentaal for fours etc, at varying speeds. Once comfortable at a certain speed, the speed needs to be increased. If you are playing da strokes, try dara strokes. Like exercising in a gym, the moment you’re comfortable, raise the bar by changing the level of difficulty.

It is also very boring.

However, the key issue is that without palta practice, you will never get the right fingering, stroke play and accuracy that is required for playing the sarod. Palta practice is like learning the basic vocabulary. If you don’t do any palta practice, you will not have the confident sound that is required on the sarod. You will continue to timidly approach notes, probably reducing the volume as you’re not quite sure where you should stop. In short, it’s highly unlikely that you will get onto the concert stage without the skills derived from Palta practice.

Why is Palta practice so effective? For starters, it gives you a good feel of where the notes are, and locks in the sound. Secondly, playing with the tabla gets your brain used to the taal cycle to the point where you don’t have to think about where the tabla is within the rhythm cycle – your brain subconsciously  knows this. Thirdly, it builds up confidence in your playing through improved accuracy.

Even the great Ustad Amjad Ali Khan practices paltas in his riyaaz sessions. This is perhaps the most accurate sarod player in the history of the instrument, whose crystal clear sound is unmatched by maestros past and present.

Try this exercise if you doubt the effectiveness of palta playing: Play your favourite gat in any raga without palta practice. Record it. Next, practice paltas for 30 minutes. Then play the gat again. Record it this time. Listen to the two recordings – and see the marked improvement in your accuracy even after 30 mins of palta practice. I’ve done this experiment with several people and it always has the same outcome.

I’m puzzled by why gurus do not prescribe rigorous palta practice to their overseas students. It could be that they realise that these “amateurs” are not upto the rigours of this exercise and may actually quit if told that 75% of their initial time should be spent on palta. Going on to raagas is inherently more appealing to the student, as they feel they are now really getting into the instrument. The problem is, almost all of them are hideously besura (the most common form can be seen on the sitar when they try to reach a note by pulling the string – and landing almost anywhere but the note. Then they compound the problem by repeating the pattern of pulling indiscriminately, thinking that they’re getting the “Indian” sound). At this point, the guru should intervene and ask them to stop pulling the string until they are sure of the note. In fact, if the student doesn’t realise that they are going besura, that’s an even bigger problem. This lack of accuracy will stay with them for the rest of their lives. (And on a humorous note, I like to think that incalculable damage is done to the health of the guru by this attack of the besura notes – you can see some gurus wince as the off key note hits them)

So while you may have great visions of the divine music that you are learning, it’s far less exciting than that. Sa Re Ga Ma, Re Ga Ma Pa — 100 times, 1000 times, slow, fast, double – is the “gym” training that we must do.

So before you rush headlong into a raag, give palta practice a good go. You’ll need it for the rest of your sarod playing days.

Accuracy of notes is the fundamental bedrock of all classical music. We cannot accept any compromise with that. When I frequented Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s house, that was the one takeaway I took – never, ever tolerate besura notes at any cost. (A later post on the whole note accuracy business). And the only way we are going to retain note accuracy is through palta practice.



Sarod Sitting Posture, Finger Positioning and related topics

Some of the most frequently asked questions about the sarod relates to posture and holding the instrument: how do I sit with the instrument? Should I sit on the floor all the time? Where should I keep my arm? How should I place my nails on the fretboard? This post attempts to answer some of these questions.

Firstly, sarod posture and finger positioning are all related – one influences the other. Secondly, students tend to copy the sitting position of the teacher from who they receive instruction, often subconsciously (I know I do). Thirdly, the shape of the instrument will impact the way you hold it and your fingering on the fretboard.

The key rule to keep in mind is that you need to be comfortable with your sarod. Everything else is secondary. If you are not used to sitting on the floor, sit on a chair to start off. Practice sitting on the floor over time. If you can’t sit with your legs crossed in the traditional position (I am one of these people), sit in a position that feels comfortable. Try 10 mins, then 15 mins and so on. Sit on a cushion if that helps (I sit on a cushion all the time).

In the Amjad Ali Khan style, the basic rules of sarod posture are:

– back straight

-horizontal sarod, with the plane of the fretboard  perpendicular to the floor – do not bend the sarod so that the fretboard is inclined towards you.

– fingering hand loosely grasping the neck like a guitar. If you are a guitarist, this will come to you naturally. See a photo below taken of my sarod.

Sarod finger position

How to hold the sarod









Note that if you are holding the sarod correctly, you should not be able to see the fretboard’s plane, as it will be perpendicular to you. The fingers should be relaxed.

I have noticed other styles of holding the sarod such as:

– fretboard turned up towards the artist (primarily because the sarod is too big for them, perhaps?)

– sarod held  at an angle to the ground with the neck up higher than the base.

-entire body draped around the instrument with the back bent

-left hand under the fretboard – almost in front of the strings

While I have no experience in the merits/demerits of such techniques, the Amjad Ali Khan style lends itself to a lot of complex left hand movements. Therefore a compact sarod and relaxed grip is used. Coming from a guitar background, it feels quite natural to hold the instrument in this way.


Now this is another topic of great controversy and debate. Two fingers or three? How are the fingers placed on the fretboard? Which finger should be used on upper octave notes? If I grip the sarod in the Amjad Ali style, what happens to my thumb as I go higher up the scale?

Firstly, the Amjad Ali style uses only two fingers. (I’ve never needed the third). This is not to say that the third should not be used – if you feel it helps, go for it.

Secondly, traditionally, the only two notes played with the first finger are the Re on the Sa string and the Pa on the Ma string. The other notes are played with the middle finger. However, this is more of a guideline, as there are situations where the first finger must continue  up (e.g a long meend – or glide). My view is that the rule should be kept in mind for practice purposes, but given a performance, the fingering that produces the best sound should be used.

In the Amjad Ali style, as you go up the octave, the thumb starts disappearing under the sarod. At notes like the upper Re or Ga, the thumb and palm of the hand is gliding along the body of the sarod.

Holding the Plectrum (Java)

In the Amjad Ali style, the plectrum is held at the sweet spot between the bridge and the beginning of the instrument. This is done to minimise the sound of pluck attack as well as to get maximum volume. You will often find a black patch on the skin underneath where the plectrum is placed. In case you are wondering how come Ustad Amjad Ali’s sarod doesn’t have this, that’s because he gets his skin replaced far often than you or me.

Again, the rules are simple. The plectrum is to be held firmly like a guitar plectrum. See some pictures of me on the site where you can see how the plectrum is held. Some other gharanas use the thumb across plectrum to push it down on a folded first finger, whereas in the Amjad Ali Khan style, the plectrum is pushed down on two fingers by the thumb.

Nylon and other plectrums (java)

Personally, I don’t care much about using non coconut plectrums. However, if you feel it helps your sound, go for it.