A new alloy: When a sitar leaves its comfort zone, and proves it’s metal – art and culture

The sitar is a lot more versatile than it seems, says Rishabh Seen. “Like the guitar, you can shred it, pick it, tap it.” Seen would know. He plays metal on it.

The 24-year-old musician from Jalandhar fronts a heavy metal band called, well, Sitar Metal. Its other members are Deeparshi Roy, 22, on guitar; Joel Rodrigues, 19, on drums; and Tushar Khurana, 24, on bass. In October last year, they released their first album, a six-track work called Sitar Metal.

Hit play and you’re met with a burst of musical energy headlined by the twang of the sitar, but backed by the scream of metal.

The compositions by Seen are, he says, reflective of his turbulent journey with music, his struggle to find his voice with his sitar, and to figure what kind of musician he wanted to be.

The band went on a launch tour in November and December 2019 that included Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata but also Kanpur, Patiala and Kochi. “This Indian independent metal scene may be small, but it’s very committed,” Seen says. Some of the videos, incidentally, have over 545,000 views on YouTube.

Seen is from a musical family — his grandfather played the tabla, his father Pandit Manu Kumar Seen, is a sitar maestro. Touring with his father, it seemed as though his destiny was sealed.

At 15, Seen fell in love with metal and grunge. “I would watch videos of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana going crazy on stage. Performing, singing, breaking guitars, yelling. Coming from a classical practice, I loved the idea of that form of freedom,” Seen says.

Studying music at Hindu College in Delhi, he decided to try and incorporate a guitar-playing style in his use of the sitar “to change people’s perception of it”.

In 2015, he started posting on YouTube covers of metal songs played on his sitar. Some of those videos got up to 50,000 views.

Over the next three years, Seen did more covers, released a sitar metal EP called Mute The Saint with three friends, dropped out of college and went on tour with the playback singer Arijit Singh.

Seen met his new band members Roy and Rodrigues on Facebook. Khurana is a childhood friend. Seen would send them the sitar parts of his compositions, and they would record their bits based on those.

“The sitar being the focal instrument was new. We had to make sure our parts complemented but didn’t overshadow it,” says Roy, a self-taught guitarist who comes from a family of engineers and doctors in Kolkata. “We’d talk a lot about what each song was about, which would help me visualise how Rishabh was seeing it.” They met face-to-face only about a month before the release of the album.

Rodrigues was a fan before he joined the band. He sent them his covers of their songs, which he practised in his jam room in Kolkata.

Sitar Metal the album is largely instrumental, features rapper Rider Shafique. Seen’s father recorded a track with the band too. “Even though I play metal, I have not changed the look or feel of the instrument, and I think he appreciates that,” Seen says.

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