Nov. 16 2011 12:59 PM

Donkeys member offers insight into the revered Indian instrument

Jessie Gulati (right) with his teacher, Prashant Pradhan, in India in 2009.
Photo by Pritti Gulati

The Donkeys are a fairly standard guitars-keyboards-drums indie-rock combo. But on their 2011 album Born with Stripes, multi-instrumentalist Jessie Gulati throws a sitar into the mix on the hypnotic album closer, “East Coast Raga.” Gulati learned the sitar from seasoned players while visiting India in 2005 and 2009, so we asked him to offer first-timers some insight into the instrument:

Prepare to suffer: To play sitar, you sit in a cross-legged, yoga-like position. Veteran players can stay seated comfortably, but Gulati’s legs would go numb after 15 minutes when he first started out. Even worse, his fingers would be sore and sliced up after a session of working the sitar’s unforgiving bronze strings. “There’s a sense of pain, a feel-the-burn type feeling, when you first start playing the instrument,” he says.

Respect the instrument: Indian sitar players regard their talent as a gift and their instrument as their livelihood. Emphasizing clearness of body and mind, Gulati’s teachers made sure he took his shoes off, washed his hands and swabbed his sitar before he sat down to play. “It’s an extension of you,” he says of the instrument. “You need to respect it.”

Learn the traditions: Indian classical music is based on melodic modes called ragas, many of which date back hundreds of years. As tempting as it was to jam, Gulati’s teachers weren’t keen on him improvising on sacred tunes. “You don’t fuck with the structure,” he says. “You don’t fuck with the timing. You keep it all how it’s meant to be.”

Be patient: The instrument has a huge learning curve. Gulati says he sounded awful as a beginner, and even now, he adds, “I’m not really honestly that good at it.” But he’s dedicated: “I feel like it’s almost a lifelong thing to really understand and master the instrument.”

Jessie Gulati will play a solo sitar set at Bar Pink on Sunday, Nov. 20.