Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Published: Tuesday August 30, 2016



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Published: Wednesday July 23, 2014



The News & Observer: 

  • The Chapel Hill News June 28, 2010

The language of the sitar
Musician dedicates himself to learning the Indian instrument

  • The Durham News June 30, 2010

A man and his sitar
Michael Griska says he had no idea what he was getting into


On Friday and Saturday evenings at Sitar Indian Cuisine on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard near South Square, a young man plays an instrument that looks sort of like a guitar.

Michael Griska, 30, is actually playing a sitar, an instrument of India that usually has about 20 strings. Made from a gourd (like a pumpkin), the sitar is durable yet fragile. Its sound is familiar from popular songs such as the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and Beck’s “Loser.”

However, you likely won’t hear Griska playing pop songs as the sitar is a classical instrument. And unlike songs on the radio that may be three to five minutes, sitar players often play songs lasting an hour, or even more. At the restaurant, he usually does “short” songs of around 20 minutes.

With a sitar, there is no sheet music per se. “It is very improvised but with strict ‘grammar,'” he said. “You learn to speak the language.”

Trip to India

Griska grew up in Pittsburgh in a working-class family. He does not think he even met an Indian until he started learning how to play the instrument. Around five years ago, his then-girlfriend was on a trip in India, saw a sitar and thought Griska might want it. He asked her to buy it even though he knew little about the instrument.

“I had no clue what I was getting myself into,” he said.

At the time he was working in a print shop and playing bass in local bands. Interestingly, even then he liked long songs, writing some that were 15 minutes long.

Griska started learning as much as he could about the instrument. But there was only so much he could learn by reading and listening. He had to find a teacher.

Griska found what he thinks had to be the only sitar teacher in Pittsburgh. While there are some sitar players in the Triangle, there were hardly any in Pittsburgh. His teacher there was also a biology professor and could only show him so much. He needed to find a “guru” to take him to the next level.

Trip to Carrboro

Griska’s friend in Pittsburgh, Jonathan Kubacka, had heard of a sitar player named K. Sridhar. In 2007 he decided to take a trip to Carrboro to see him perform at the ArtsCenter and invited Griska to come.

“We were both extremely impressed with Sridhar’s playing and the following day, Michael and I went to Sridhar’s home to visit with him and pay our respects,” said Kubacka. “We stayed for a few hours and left knowing that we both met someone special.”

Shortly after the trip, Kubacka decided to move to Chapel Hill and study with Sridhar. Griska remained in Pittsburgh but stayed in touch.

“Michael was always hearing positive feedback from me about being with Sridhar,” said Kubacka. “At some point last year, he made the resolve to come and learn seriously.”

In September 2009, Griska moved to Chapel Hill and became roommates with Kubacka and started working with Sridhar.

Most of Griska’s time is spent at the guru’s house in Chapel Hill improving his playing, often between eight and 12 hours a day. It is physically demanding and can hurt his hands and muscles. Sitar players sit on the floor to perform so they need to know how to sit correctly.

“Michael has a truly admirable sense of determination and energy to do hours and hours of practice,” said Kubacka. “In the time he has been in Chapel Hill with Sridhar, he has now begun to develop a sense of guru-bhakti, meaning a loving sense of devotion to a true teacher and the teachings being passed on. With this comes virtues such as humility, discipline, and devotion, without which one can never truly absorb the essence of India’s classical music.”

Sridhar knows how to play both northern and southern Indian styles of sitar which is rare. He was the one who set Griska up at the restaurant, where he has been since December.

In addition to the restaurant, Griska has played at weddings and yoga studios.

For someone who has basically devoted the last five years of his life (and at least the immediate future), Griska has an unusual answer when asked why.

“I really don’t know why I do it,” he said. “Intuition says to do it.”


Indian musician blends improvisation, tradtion

By Zhai Yun Tan | The Daily Tar Heel

Updated: 09/30/13 1:38am

Indian classical musician K. Sridhar said he doesn’t want anyone to come in with set expectations for his concert in Chapel Hill’s The Barn at Valhalla on Saturday.

“Come with an open heart. Don’t expect anything. Then you’ll go with something unexpected,” he said.

This concert will be a warm-up event for his upcoming performance at the Smithsonian Institution next month, where he will be presenting his music and lecturing about yoga, which is, he said, an essential element of Indian music.

“The essence of Indian music is in how you elevate yourself to a higher state of listening, where you forget yourself, where you listen from the heart and not from the head,” Sridhar said. “You have to feel the music, rather than study it.”

Sridhar said the greatest reward from performing is making his audience forget themselves and surrender fully to the music. He said Indian music is like a meditation that brings people into the inner world; it does not have a script — every performance is an improvisation.

“It’s like painting — you just grab a board and start drawing. Something will come up,” he said.

“Improvisation all the time: that is Indian music — we don’t prepare. If you prepare, then it becomes very boring, mechanical, dry — no spice.”

Born and raised in India, he started learning the sarod, a traditional instrument, when he was 4 years old. His inspiration comes from listening to the masters of Indian classical music, especially that of his mentor, the legendary Ravi Shankar.

Sridhar has toured the world entertaining audiences from Taiwan to Australia. He is internationally known and critically acclaimed.

Yet despite all of his life’s glamour, he has chosen to reside in Chapel Hill. But he still retains a busy schedule of traveling to Europe and India frequently to perform and teach.

Michael Griska, his sitar disciple of four years, said he finds Indian classical music to be the best genre of all. It is, he said, one of the only genres that sees the portrayal of emotions and feelings as the basis of the discipline.

Originally from Pennsylvania, he traveled all the way to Chapel Hill to attend Sridhar’s concert one day and was captivated.

He became Sridhar’s disciple after a 10-day interview and has since been committed to the discipline of learning the music full time.

“I think it would be like going to an art gallery, but instead of painting for your eyes, it’s sound for your ears,” said Griska about Sridhar’s concerts.

“Music in that sense isn’t so exclusive because it’s so based on improvisation and feeling. So you know you’re going to see a painting by him, but you don’t know what he is going to paint for you. It’s temporary, so the painting would only last for the audience to remember, and once the concert is over then the painting disappears.”

Sridhar’s musical magic has certainly enchanted many souls, including that of his publicist, Munsie Davis, who has been with him for 13 years now.

“For many years, I had been wanting to find an art form that would bring people together for a kind of experience of awe that would cut across cultural boundaries in a very sort of deep and profound way,” she said about her first Sridhar concert.

“So when I heard his music, I felt like I had finally found something I have been searching for … I have been searching for it in theater but because words were not involved — it cut across all of that.”

Davis said Sridhar’s allure is how he is capable of connecting to the audience through his music — that’s how he gained a loyal and consistent audience in this area that appreciates the essence of his music.

She said this quality is rare among musicians, and Sridhar has embraced the love from the audience and responded with amazing sounds.

Audience members should come to the concert with an open mind, Davis said.

“Just come with an open heart, open mind. Especially if you’re a student, it’s so easy to get wound up in the head,” she said.

“Just drop it all at the door, like you take your shoes off when you go into a temple. Just drop all that school book stuff at the door and come in, ready to go on a journey. It’s an experience.”


Life: It’s True, He Lived in a Cave

By Tom Griffin/tagriffen on September 29, 2013

I spent last night trying to locate a beat. Something I could tap my foot or bob my head to. Every time I thought I had managed to find a repeating rhythm it would suddenly change and I’d be moving to a song that existed only in my head. I was at an intimate performance by classical Indian musician, K. Sridhar, at Duffy’s Barn Chapel Hill. Classical Indian ragas are not familiar to western ears. We are used to catchy hooks and repeating riffs. Any other sort of music seems like something else entirely. Though I had seen Sridhar play before and listened to his CD’s countless times, my body still fruitlessly searched for something audibly familiar in the meditative vibrations of his sarod performance. I grew restless.

Thanks to my lovely friend Katherine, I had the wonderful opportunity to have dinner with Sridhar (and his student Michael) last week. He’s an interesting fellow, to say the least. I have no idea how old he is but given all he’s done in his lifetime he should be like 150 or so. I know for a fact that he comes from a long line of classical musicians – 15 generations is what he told me. Also, he practiced yoga for more than 35 years before his teachers told him that he was ready to teach others – a far cry from most yoga teacher trainings in the US that let one teach after a mere 200-hour certification. I asked Sridhar how his teachers knew he was ready. He said they could ‘feel’ it.

Sridhar also is THE person who was asked by Ravi Shankar to help teach George Harrison how to play the sitar. I asked Sridhar what sort of student George was and he said, “The best, my best ever.” As he said this I looked to his current student, Michael, for any signs of resentment but he was too busy enjoying his south Indian thali to be distracted. Fact is that Sridhar insists that all of his students live their lives as servants to their craft. Not a moment goes by during which they aren’t training somehow. Sridhar said that 16-hours per day of practice is normal, the rest of the day being for prepping to practice and for some sleep too. Michael has stuck with him for longer than most and is an amazing musician. Like Sridhar, Michael agrees that Indian classical music isn’t for entertainment, it’s for healing.

At our dinner I finally confirmed that Sridhar did, in fact, live in a cave for 20 years. And yes, it was an actual cave in the middle of nowhere. For 3-4 months at a time he would sequester himself to meditate and practice his sitar and sarod. His guru would show up once and a while to check in with him and guide him. But ultimately he was there for a few months without human contact. After these long stints he’d go home for a week or so then quickly return to the cave to continue his practice. I asked him what he remembers most about this time of his life and he said the 5-hour walks to the nearest town to buy some milk – and also how good he became at starting small fires to keep his hands warm. Sridhar told me that he struggled a lot in solitude. Yet he continues to look back on this time as vital. “It was hard, but it was very good.”

I thought of these things as I sat and listened to him play. It took a few tries, but eventually I managed to consciously eliminate my need for something to make musical sense. I purged my quest for a beat. When I finally let go, I fully took in the sounds of his sarod and the accompanying tabla drums, getting lost in the waves while noticing thoughts and feelings that began flowing. Acceptance. Love. A connection to all things. Maybe this is part of healing.