Written by Kanika Dabra
Customer Relations Manager, MBC
Kanika has trained in classical sitar since childhood. She is passionate about sharing her knowledge and love of Hindustani music
Published August 2022
Origin & Evolution of Sitar
A vital part of Hindustani Classical Music, the sitar is perhaps the most well-known musical instrument of India, with its sound immediately evoking thoughts and feelings of the subcontinent. While the origin of the instrument is disputed, it is mostly thought to have originated in the thirteenth century. Ameer Khusrow, a well renowned 13 century sufi singer and poet has been credited with inventing the first sitar., which was also known tri-tantri (Three strings) veena (string instrument). However, there are also claims of its existence in the sub-continent even earlier.
Interestingly, the sitar’s name is actually derived from the Persian words seh and tar, which mean “three strings” when translated to English. However, over time the sitar has now evolved into a 20 fret, 17 string instrument.
Although the sitar was originally mostly used as a background instrument for vocal music, it is now an integral part of Hindustani music and is played as a solo instrument. It is important to note that the sitar is different from the modern day veena and tanpura. Although they might look very similar, they have very different playing styles.
The sitar reached global fame in the 20th century when it came into fashion within the psychedelic rock and hippie scene. George Harrison, the lead guitarist of the Beatles studied the sitar and played the instrument on several songs including the famous track Norwegian Wood. Anoushka Shankar, daughter of the legendary Sitar player Ravi Shankar, also became a prominent sitar player in the 21st century. She joined with musicians from around the world to perform and record original music based on Hindustani principles.
The two modern schools of sitar playing in India are the Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan Schools. The two are schools are very different, with each having its own playing style, type of sitar and tuning system.
Anatomy of a Sitar
Typically measuring about 4 feet (1.2 meters) in length, the sitar has a deep pear-shaped gourd body, with a long, wide, hollow wooden neck. It has two sets of tuning pegs - one on the side of the instrument and one at the front - and 20 arched movable frets. Of its metal strings, there are usually five melody strings, one or two chikari (drone) strings used to accentuate the rhythm or pulse, and as many as 13 tarab (sympathetic) strings beneath the frets in the neck that are tuned to the notes of the raga (melodic framework of the performance).
The sitar’s neck and face are typically made of Indian mahogany, and its round backed body is from a dried pumpkin. It has two separate bridges; one upper and one lower. The upper bridge contains the playing string(s) and the chikari strings (bass strings used for rhythmic and drone accompaniment). The lower bridge usually has about twelve tarab (sympathetic) strings. These are very fine and are strings that are tuned to the notes of the raga (scale) being played. When tuned accurately, the tarab strings will resonate without being touched when a corresponding note is played on the upper main string, thus giving the sitar its iconic natural reverb effect, which is enhanced by the structure of the bridge.
The structure and tonal quality of the modern sitar is a result of hundreds of years of craftsmanship. In particular, the craftsmen of Calcutta are known for their contribution to the making of a structurally perfect instrument. The basic technical and physical principles of the sitar are just like those of the veena, but the sitar is easier to handle and is more portable.
The instruments convex metal frets are tied along the neck, which enables them to be moved as needed. The sitar often has a resonating gourd under the pegbox end of the neck; this balances the weight of the instrument and helps support it when it is not being played. Musicians hold the sitar at a 45° angle on their laps while seated. They pluck the strings with a wire plectrum worn on the right forefinger while the left hand manipulates the strings with subtle pressure on or between the frets and with sideways pulls of the strings.
Different forms of Sitar
Presently, there are two basic forms of the sitar: the kharaj pancham and gandhar pancham. The kharaj pancham sitar, played and popularized by Ravi Shankar, has a four octave range with five primary melody strings and two bass strings. The gandhar pancham sitar, modified and popularized by Vilayat Khan, has a range of three octaves and no bass strings. In addition to the melodic strings, there are 11 to 13 tarafs
(sympathetic strings). There are sitars that are a mix between the two as well.
Eminent sitar players and some personal favourites:
Some important sitar players who have contributed in the last 80 years are Mustaque Ali Khan, Lakhan Bhattacharya, Inayat Khan, Bhagwan Das, Gokul Nag, Ravi Shankar, Anoushka Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Halim Jaffar Khan, Imrat Khan, Balaram Pathak, Nikhil Banerjee, Rais Khan, Manilal Nag, and Kartick Kumar.
These are a few of my personal favourite tracks:
Vedabala, Samidha (2021-06-14). Sitar Music: The Dynamics of Structure and its playing Techniques. Wizard Publisher. ISBN 978-93-91013-13-4.