Musical Instruments Are Not Cruelty-Free. How I Found The Solution As A Vegan Musician

December 11, 2020

As a vegan who is also a musician I have always struggled with finding instruments that were cruelty-free. I started my journey into music about 20 years ago and my vegan path 10 years ago. If you’re vegan, you know that as you walk further down your vegan path you find along the way more and more things in your life things that are not vegan—not just the food we eat. That toothpaste has what in it? They tested that shampoo on who?! Good bye, leather shoes and silk tea bag sachets! Every vegan usually has a lot of decisions to make regarding minimizing suffering as much as possible in a world that structurally promotes it. I was able to successfully make the jump from vegetarian to vegan 10 years ago in the food I ate, clothing I wore and the personal products I use. However, finding vegan instruments was another endeavor.

Over time I started to realize the bow used to play my standup bass was made of horsehair. The bridge and nut of my guitars and bass guitars were made of bone. The fancy and shiny inlays in the fretboard of these instruments were in some cases made of pearl, although that seems to be a fading trend in a move over to synthetic material. I studied jazz in college and often got comments on how if I would just restring my standup bass to those traditional gut strings I would really get the tone I was after. I learned dried animal hide was firmly stretched over the congas I once owned. Suddenly, years of music that I thought was made in the light was slightly shadowed for me by the undeniable cruelty and exploitation toward animals it took. I did the only thing I could think to do and swapped out instruments as well as made modifications to my guitars and bass guitars to ensure they were all indeed free of animal parts.

And then there was my beloved sitar—it was covered in bone. Yes, the instrument that most people in the West associate with The Beatles, the 60s and Ravi Shankar. What most people aren’t aware that it’s an instrument prominent in Hinduism and Islam. It is closely related to religious and/or other spiritual practice where the goal is to bring the musician and the listener higher to god, the light, or whatever you name you want to call it. It has roots that carry as far back to the Vedic Period in India. The sitar takes tremendous discipline to learn, and great strength and stamina to perform. Musicians on this path usually have deep respect for tradition, reverence for God, the spirit, and ethics in general. It is a form of yoga; Nada Yoga (Sound Yoga) that comes from Nada Brahma (Sound of God). Yet interestingly, some of them eat meat and some are vegetarians. I have only met a few vegan Hindustani Classical musicians in my time.

If you are a vegetarian or vegan and play the sitar you basically are out of luck. The bridges and other pieces of the instrument are made from deer horn, ebony, or camel bone. I have found some synthetic material but it is costly. Someone to do the project is hard to find, if not impossible and even more costly than the synthetic material itself. For years I lived my vegan life and sat in partial lotus position while playing my sitar which projected sound from its bone bridges. Over time I was not able to sit with this idea anymore. Suddenly all at once it seemed I was not able to understand how a music that should enhance one’s spirituality made musical instruments that exploited and caused suffering to animals. Even worse—I was now a part of it as a vegan.

This promoted my research mind to the internet and my search began. First, I searched for “vegan sitar no bone” which yielded a lot of restaurant results. Nothing there. However, one link result stuck out: “News! Vegan sitars! Sharda Music Centre proudly presents the VEGAN SITAR!”

Yes! I hit the link and it took me to a page with a picture of a sitar that read: “All pieces that traditionally have been made of bone are instead made from hard black wood… Our first item that, very successfully, has been made this way was a travel sitar. But we can now also offer full size sitars for any player that doesn’t like animal parts in their sitar… Right now our workers are preparing more vegan sitar parts so the instruments will take no more time to get ready than normal orders… Tanpura and surbahar is also possible in this vegan style!”

This seemed great but almost too good to be true to me. Someone is actually making a vegan sitar geared towards vegans with sparing the animals in mind? I checked out some reviews and the prices. Those were excellent. My next move was to contact the maker of these instruments.

Tinku Bhattacharya is the one in charge of creating these wonderful works of art. She hails from the Varanasi-based Bhattacharya family, which has made and sold Indian classical instruments since the 1960s with specialization in sitar, tanpura, and surbahar. Their workshop Sharda Music Centre is situated in the family house of Bhattacharya, in central Varanasi, India. They also take orders online or via telephone and arrange safe shipping of the instruments. Over the years they have provided high quality sitars and other instruments for many satisfied customers from all over the world.

I emailed Mrs. Bhattacharya (who I refer to as Tinku now) late in September of this year. She promptly responded. Since I live in the United States, and Tinku in India, we decided to use the free app WhatsApp to look at different models of sitars she makes. She kept me posted on the stages of creation my handmade instrument went through, with pictures of the work being done, as well as videos of the sitar being played in her shop before sending. We were able to hold phone conversations about the specialties of the order. Within a month I had a custom vegan sitar in my home with no hiccups along the way and only the finest experience.

Tinku is a great instrument maker. Just take a look at the intricate carving detail on her instruments or listen to/play one of her sitars to hear how warm, melodious and beautiful they sound. Now that I have an instrument in line with my veganism I now feel a sense of peace when making music on my vegan sitar. This is a tremendously large stride for veganism and the music of India as well. Our actions as vegans should be in line with our beliefs and thoughts. This opportunity allowed me to align my knowledge and action. For vegans that often is more than half the battle for various reasons.

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Photo: Zach Ferrara

Zach Ferrara
Zach is a vegan guitarist, bassist, and sitarist living in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. He is an educator, composer and performer. You can follow his work on his website.

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