Sitar Essay Format

For the Persian classical instrument, see Setar. For the village in Iran, see Sitar, Iran.

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The sitar (English: or ; सितार, Punjabi: ਸਿਤਾਰ, sitārapronounced [sɪˈtaːr]) is a plucked stringed instrument used in Hindustani classical music. The instrument is believed to have been derived from the veena, an ancient Indian instrument, which was modified by a Mughal court musician to conform with the tastes of his Mughal patrons and named after a Persian instrument called the setar (meaning three strings). The sitar flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries and arrived at its present form in 18th-century India. It derives its distinctive timbre and resonance from sympathetic strings, bridge design, a long hollow neck and a gourd-shaped resonance chamber. In appearance, the sitar is similar to the tanpura, except that it has frets.

Used widely throughout the Indian subcontinent, the sitar became popularly known in the wider world through the works of Ravi Shankar, beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s.[1] In the 1960s, a short-lived trend arose for the use of the sitar in Western popular music, with the instrument appearing on tracks by bands such as The Beatles, The Doors, The Rolling Stones and others.

Etymology and history[edit]

The word 'sitar' originally derived from Sanskrit words saptatantri veena (Sanskrit: seven stringed veena), which later was called as saat taar ('saat' is number seven in Hindi numerical system and taar stands for 'metal chord') which eventually became sitar.[2]

Another source might be from Persianseh + tar, literally meaning "three strings."[3]

The instrument is thought to have been a version of the Veena, another prominent instrument in Carnatic and Hindustani music, altered in order to conform with Mughal tastes. The sitar flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries and arrived at its present form in 18th century India, gaining prominence in the royal court of the Mughal Empire based in Northern India.

In his Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya, Lalmani Misra traces the instrument's development from the Tritantri veena through the nibaddh and anibaddh Tamburas[citation needed][when?] also called tanbur and later the jantra. Construction of the similar tanpura was described by Tansen.[citation needed][when?]

General layout[edit]

A sitar can have 18, 19, 20, or 21 strings. Six or seven of these are played strings which run over curved, raised frets, and the remainder are sympathetic strings (tarb, also known as taarif or tarafdaar) which run underneath the frets and resonate in sympathy with the played strings. The frets are movable, allowing fine tuning. The played strings run to tuning pegs on or near the head of the instrument, while the sympathetic strings, which are a variety of different lengths, pass through small holes in the fretboard to engage with the smaller tuning pegs that run down the instrument's neck.

The Gandhaar-pancham sitar (used by Vilayat Khan and his disciples) has six playable strings, whereas the Kharaj-pancham sitar, invented by legendary Sitar Ratna Ustad Rahimat Khan, founder of Dharwad Gharana of Sitar , later was used in the Maihar gharana, to which Ravi Shankar belonged, and other gharanas such as Bishnupur, has seven. Three of these (or four on a Ghandar-pancham sitar or "Vilayat Khan"-style, or Etawa gharana), called the chikaari, simply provide a drone; the rest are used to play the melody, though the first string (baajtaar) is most used.

The instrument has two bridges: the large bridge (badaa goraa) for the playing and drone strings and the small bridge (chota goraa) for the sympathetic strings. Its timbre results from the way the strings interact with the wide, sloping bridge. As a string reverberates its length changes slightly as its edge touches the bridge, promoting the creation of overtones and giving the sound its distinctive tone. The maintenance of this specific tone by shaping the bridge is called jawari. Many musicians rely on instrument makers to adjust this.

The bridges are fixed to the main resonating chamber, or kaddu, at the base of the instrument. Some sitars have a secondary resonator, the tumbaa, near the top of the hollow neck.

Materials used in construction include teak wood or tun wood (Cedrela toona), which is a variation of mahogany, for the neck and faceplate (tabli), and calabash gourds for the resonating chambers. The instrument's bridges are made of deer horn, ebony, or very occasionally from camel bone. Synthetic material is now common as well.

Construction styles[edit]

There are three popular modern styles of sitar offered in a variety of sub-styles and decorative patterns. The two popular styles are the "gayaki style" sitars (sometimes called "Vilayat Khan style sitars") and the full decorated "instrumental style" sitars (sometimes called "Ravi Shankar style sitars"). The gayaki style sitar is mostly of seasonedtoon wood, with very few or no carved decorations. It often has a dark polish. The inlay decorations are mostly of mother of pearl (imitation). The number of sympathetic strings is often limited to eleven but may extend to thirteen. Jawari (bridge) grinding styles are also different, as is the thickness of the "tabli" (soundboard).

The other type of sitar, the instrumental style, is most often made of seasoned toon wood, but sometimes made of (Burma) teak. It is often fitted with a second resonator, a small tumba (pumpkin or pumpkin-like wood replica) on the neck. This style is usually fully decorated, with floral or grape carvings and celluloid inlays with colored (often brown or red) and black floral or arabesque patterns. It typically has thirteen sympathetic strings. It is said that the best Burma teak sitars are made from teak that has been seasoned for generations. Therefore, instrument builders look for old Burma teak that was used in old colonial-style villas as whole trunk columns for their special sitar constructions. The sources of very old seasoned wood are a highly guarded trade secret and sometimes a mystery.

There are various additional sub styles and cross mixes of styles in sitars, according to customer preferences. Most importantly, there are some differences in preferences for the positioning of sympathetic (taraf) string pegs (see photo).

Amongst all sitar styles there are student styles, beginner models, semi-pro styles, pro-models, master models, and so on. Prices are often determined by the manufacturer's name and not by looks alone or materials used. Some sitars by certain manufacturers fetch very high collectible prices. Most notable are older Rikhi Ram (Delhi) and older Hiren Roy (Kolkata) sitars depending upon which master built the instrument.

Though not technically a sitar, the electric sitar is a guitar with a special bridge, known as the "buzz bridge", and sympathetic strings, to mimic the sitar. It has 6 strings, and lacks movable frets.


Tuning depends on the sitarist's school or style, tradition and each artist's personal preference. The main playing string is almost invariably tuned a perfect fourth above the tonic, the second string being tuned to the tonic. The tonic in the Indian solfège system is referred to as ṣaḍja, ṣaḍaj, or the shortened form sa, or khaṛaj, a dialectal variant of ṣaḍaj, not as vād, and the perfect fifth to which one or more of the drones strings are tuned is referred to as pañcam, not samvād.

The sympathetic strings are tuned to the notes of the raga being played: although there is slight stylistic variance as to the order of these, typically they are tuned:

  • I Sa= D
  • VII Ni= C#
  • I Sa= D
  • II Re= E
  • III Ga= F#
  • IV Ma= G
  • V Pa= A
  • VI Dha= B
  • I Sa= D
  • II Re= E
  • III Ga= F#

(the last three in the upper octave). The player should re-tune for each raga. Strings are tuned by tuning pegs, and the main playing strings can be fine-tuned by sliding a bead threaded on each string just below the bridge.

In one or more of the more common tunings (used by Ravi Shankar, among others, called "Kharaj Pancham" sitar) the playable strings are strung in this fashion:

  • Chikari strings: Sa (high), Sa (middle), and Pa.
  • Kharaj (bass) strings: Sa (low) and Pa (low).
  • Jod and baaj strings, Sa and Ma.

In a "Gandhar Pancham" (Imdadkhani, school of Vilayat Khan) sitar, the bass or kharaj strings are removed and are replaced by a fourth chikari which is tuned to Ga. By playing the chikari strings with this tuning, one produces a chord (Sa, Sa, Pa, Ga or Sa Sa Ma Ga or Sa, Sa, Dha, Gha depending on the raga).

To tune the sympathetic strings to raga Kafi for example: I Sa, vii ni (lower case denotes flat (komal) I Sa, II Re, iii ga, III Ga (Shuddh or natural, in Kafi the third is different ascending and descending), iv ma, V Pa, VI Dha, vii ni, I Sa, II Re, iii ga.

There is a lot of stylistic variance within these tunings and like most Indian stringed instruments, there is no default tuning. Mostly, tunings vary by schools of teaching (gharana) and the piece that is meant to be played.


The instrument is balanced between the player's left foot and right knee. The hands move freely without having to carry any of the instrument's weight.[citation needed] The player plucks the string using a metallic pick or plectrum called a mizraab. The thumb stays anchored on the top of the fretboard just above the main gourd. Generally only the index and middle fingers are used for fingering although a few players occasionally use the third. A specialized technique called "meend" involves pulling the main melody string down over the bottom portion of the sitar's curved frets, with which the sitarist can achieve a seven semitone range of microtonal notes (however, because of the sitar's movable frets, sometimes a fret may be set to a microtone already, and no bending would be required). Adept players bring in charisma through use of special techniques like Kan, Krintan, Murki, Zamzama etc. They also use special Mizrab Bol-s, as in Misrabani[4] and create Chhand-s even in odd-numbered Tal-s like Jhoomra.[clarification needed]

World music influence[edit]

Vilayat Khan had been touring outside India off and on for more than 50 years, and was the first Indian musician to play in England after India's independence (1951) and to introduce the sitar to world audiences.[citation needed] In the late 1950s and early 1960s Ravi Shankar, along with his tabla player, Alla Rakha, began a further introduction of Indian classical music to Western culture.

The sitar saw use in Western popular music when, guided by David Crosby's championing of Shankar,[5]George Harrison played it on the Beatles' songs "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)", "Love You To" and "Within You Without You", recorded between 1965 and 1967. The Beatles' association with the instrument helped popularise Indian classical music among Western youth,[6][7] particularly once Harrison began receiving tutelage from Shankar and the latter's protégé Shambhu Das in 1966.[8] That same year, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones used a sitar on "Paint It Black", while another English guitarist, Dave Mason, played it on Traffic's 1967 hits "Paper Sun" and "Hole in My Shoe".[9] These and other examples marked a trend of featuring the instrument in pop songs which Shankar later described as "the great sitar explosion".[10][11] Speaking to KRLA Beat in July 1967, he said: "Many people, especially young people, have started listening to sitar since George Harrison, one of the Beatles, became my disciple … It is now the 'in' thing."[12]

Before any of these examples, however, the Kinks' 1965 single "See My Friends" featured a low-tuned drone guitar that was widely mistaken to be a sitar.[1] Crosby's band, the Byrds, had similarly incorporated elements of Indian music,[5] using only Western instrumentation, on their songs "Eight Miles High" and "Why" in 1965.[13]

Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page talked about his love of Indian music, saying: "I went to India after I came back from a tour with the Yardbirds in the late sixties just so I could hear the music firsthand. Let's put it this way: I had a sitar before George Harrison got his. I wouldn't say I played it as well as he did, though …"[14] The East Indian scales used on the track "Friends" (Led Zep III) "Kashmir" (Physical Graffiti) are considered[by whom?] fine examples of the influence of the sitar in rock music.[citation needed]The Doors extensively used Indian and near eastern scales in their psychedelic soundscapes.[citation needed]Robbie Krieger's guitar part on "The End" was heavily influenced by Indian ragas and features melodic and rhythmic qualities that suggest a sitar or veena.[15]Fleetwood Mac's Gold Dust Woman features the instrument, as well. Many pop performances actually involve the Electric Sitar, a solid body guitar-like instrument quite different from the traditional acoustic Indian instrument.

Progressive metal band The HAARP Machine uses sitar in the background of some of their songs.

Psychedelic music bands often used new recording techniques and effects and drew on non-Western sources such as the ragas and drones of Indian music. The Electric Prunes appeared in early ads for the VoxWah wah pedal, which touted the effect's ability to make an electric guitar sound like a sitar.[16]

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sitars.
Close-up of the pen work on a "Ravi Shankar style" sitar
Preferences of taraf string & peg positioning and their total number
A black ebony wood Jawari
  1. ^ abJulien Temple (2011-07-18). "BBC Four – Dave Davies: Kinkdom Come". Retrieved 2012-06-15. 
  2. ^Allyn Miner (April 2004). Sitar and Sarod in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. pp. 24–. ISBN 978-81-208-1493-6. 
  3. ^Sitar – Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2012-08-31). Retrieved on 2013-07-17.
  4. ^Ragini Trivedi, Sitar Compositions in Ome Swarlipi, ISBN 978-0-557-70596-2, 2010.
  5. ^ abGallo, Phil (12 December 2012). "Ravi Shankar's Impact on Pop Music: An Appreciation". Retrieved 22 August 2015. 
  6. ^Lavezzoli, Peter (2006). The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. New York, NY: Continuum. pp. 172–73, 180. ISBN 0-8264-2819-3. 
  7. ^World Music: The Rough Guide (Volume 2: Latin and North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific) (2000). London: Rough Guides/Penguin. p. 109. ISBN 1-85828-636-0.
  8. ^Everett, Walter (1999). The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver Through the Anthology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 71. ISBN 0-19-512941-5. 
  9. ^Lavezzoli, Peter (2006). The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. New York, NY: Continuum. pp. 174–75, 180. ISBN 0-8264-2819-3. 
  10. ^Shankar, Ravi (2007). My Music, My Life. San Rafael, CA: Mandala Publishing. p. 100. ISBN 978-1-60109-005-8. 
  11. ^Lavezzoli, Peter (2006). The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. New York, NY: Continuum. p. 65. ISBN 0-8264-2819-3. 
  12. ^KRLA staff (29 July 1967). "'My Music Not For Addicts' – Shankar"(PDF). KRLA Beat. p. 18. Retrieved 19 August 2015. 
  13. ^Lavezzoli, Peter (2006). The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. New York, NY: Continuum. pp. 155–56. ISBN 0-8264-2819-3. 
  14. ^Tolinski, Brad (2012). Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page. New York, NY: Broadway Books. p. 84. ISBN 978-0-307-98575-0. 
  15. ^Lavezzoli, Peter (2006). The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. New York, NY: Continuum. p. 158. ISBN 0-8264-2819-3. 
  16. ^"The Electric Prunes – Vox Wah Wah Commercial". 

The music of the Indian subcontinent is usually divided into two major traditions of classical music: Hindustani music of North India and Karnatak music of South India, although many regions of India also have their own musical traditions that are independent of these.

Both Hindustani and Karnatak music use the system of ragas—sets of pitches and small motives for melody construction—and tala for rhythm. Ragas form a set of rules and patterns around which a musician can create his or her unique performance. Likewise, tala is a system of rhythmic structures based on the combination of stressed and unstressed beats. Within these rhythmic structures, musicians (1996.100.1) can create their own rhythmic patterns building off the compositional styles of others.

One of the main differences between North Indian and South Indian music is the increased influence of Persian music and musical instruments in the north. From the late twelfth century through the rise of British occupation, North India was under the control of a Muslim minority that was never able to extend its sphere of influence to South India. During this time, the music of North India began to acquire and adapt to the presence of Persian language, music, and musical instruments, such as the setar, from which the sitar got its name; the kamanche (1998.72) and santur, which became popular in Kashmir; and the rabab (alternately known as rebab and rubab), which preceded the sarod. New instruments were introduced, including the tabla and sitar (1999.399), which soon became the most famous Indian musical instruments worldwide. Legend has it that the tabla was formed by splitting a pakhavaj drum in half, with the larger side becoming the bayan and the smaller side the dahini. The barrel-shaped pakhavaj drum, which was the ancestor of both the tabla and the mrdangam, has been depicted in countless paintings and prints. New genres of music were formed as well, such as khyal and qawwali, that combine elements of both Hindu and Muslim musical practice.

Hindustani classical music is known largely for its instrumentalists, while Karnatak classical music is renowned for its virtuosic singing practices. Instruments most commonly used in Hindustani classical music are the sitar, sarod, tambura, sahnai, sarangi, and tabla; while instruments commonly used in Karnatak classical music include the vina, mrdangam, kanjira, and violin. The use of bamboo flutes, such as the murali, is common to both traditions as well as many other genres of Indian music. In fact, many of these instruments are often used in both North and South India, and there are many clear relationships between the instruments of both regions. Furthermore, often instruments that are slightly different in construction will be identified by the same name in both the south and the north, though they might be used differently.

Throughout its history, the peoples of India have developed numerous systems for classifying musical instruments, many of which were based on morphological characteristics. The ancient Hindu system divided instruments into four categories: stretched (strings; 2008.141.2a,b), covered (drums; 89.4.165), hollow (wind; 1986.12), and solid (bells; 89.4.154). This system is widely known to be the inspiration for the Western system of instrument classification put forth by Mahillon in 1880, which renames these groups—chordophones, membranophones, aerophones, and idiophones—basing the distinction on the way in which sound is created and not exclusively on construction.


A note on spelling: All terms used for Indian musical instruments and musical concepts are common transliterations of the original terms. Subsequently, there are numerous possible methods of rendering the same term in English and inevitable discrepancies in spelling. The spellings adopted here are the ones used by The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2001).

Kanjira (Khanjari)
The kanjira is a frame drum of South India. It consists of a skin (usually iguana) stretched and pasted on a circular wooden frame. There are often three or four slots in the side of the frame, in which bell-metal jingle-disks are suspended from metal crossbars. The name kanjira is related to the khanjari and kanjani of North and East India and Nepal. The kanjira is tuned to various pitches by wetting the skin. It is held at the bottom of the frame by the left hand, which also varies the tension of the skin, and is beaten with the fingers of the right hand.

The kamanche is one of the world’s earliest known bowed instruments. It has been altered and changed as it has traveled to other parts of the world (1998.72). Some argue that the kamanche is the predecessor of many other stringed instruments such as the rabab, the sarangi, and the Chinese erhu.

The mrdangam is an elongated barrel-shaped drum found predominantly in South India (1986.467.18). It is derived from the pakhavaj and is used as the primary rhythmic accompaniment in Karnatak music as well as in religious Kirtan music. In the east (Bengal, Odisha), this barrel-shaped drum is known as the khol.

The murali is a transverse flute made of bamboo. It is used in a variety of musical genres and is often associated with the Hindu deity Krishna.

The pakhavaj is a barrel-shaped drum with two heads, each of which contains tuning paste, or siyahi. The history of the pakhavaj is unknown, yet as the predecessor of both the Hindustani tabla drums and the mrdangam of Karnatak music, it served as the primary accompaniment for much of Indian classical music. It appears in the musical iconography of Hindu religious painting and in the artworks of the royal Muslim courts of the Mughal empire.

The rabab is a stringed instrument with a skin-covered resonator that can be bowed or plucked depending on performance tradition. It is found in various forms throughout North Africa, the Near East, South Asia, and Central Asia. Similar to the way the setar and the vina were adapted to eventually become what is known today as the sitar, the rabab was adapted to become the sarod. However, there are many musicians in India today who still play the rabab, and it is quite popular in several music genres.

Sahnai (Shenai)
The sahnai is a double reed instrument of North India and Nepal. In South India, a double reed instrument called the nagasvaram is used. Both instruments have seven equidistant fingerholes and no thumbhole. Frequently, the instrument’s flared open end is made of metal while its body is made of wood or bamboo; however, they are not exclusively made in this fashion.

A sarangi is a bowed stringed instrument with a skin-covered resonator (89.4.200). The typical sarangi is made by hand, usually from a single block of tun wood about 66 to 69 centimeters long (46.34.43). The three playing strings are made of goat gut, and the sympathetic strings (usually as many as thirty-six, though the number varies) of brass and/or steel. However, the design of sarangis varies from region to region (1982.143.2). For example, the Nepalese sarangi is generally much smaller than its Indian counterpart, and not all sarangis have sympathetic strings.

The sarod is a relatively new instrument to South Asia, having been around for less than 200 years. The sarod is a plucked stringed instrument with a skin-covered resonator and sympathetic strings. Like the sitar, it is primarily used in Hindustani music and is accompanied by the tabla.

The word setar means “three strings.” Other instruments in this family include the two-stringed dutar and the single-stringed ektar. As Indian musicians adopted the setar, they added more and more strings. Early sitars, which evolved from the setar, have six strings, while more contemporary ones include six playing strings and thirteen sympathetic strings. A Persian setar in the Museum’s collection is a miniature that was made primarily for the purpose of decoration. Many such instruments exist in India.

The sitar is easily India’s most famous musical instrument overseas, having been popularized in the West by George Harrison of the Beatles, who studied with Ravi Shankar, one of the greatest sitarists of the twentieth century. The sitar has its roots in both the Persian setar as well as in the vina. Like many stringed instruments used in classical Indian music, the modern sitar (1999.399) has sympathetic strings that sound only when one of the primary strings is struck on the same note. These strings, which are never played by the performer, resound in sympathy with the playing strings, creating a polyphonic timber that many have come to associate with India through the popularity of this instrument. It is interesting to note, however, that the addition of the sympathetic strings is a relatively recent development in Indian music starting in the late nineteenth century (89.4.1586). The use of sympathetic strings is known to have existed in other parts of the world prior to their initial use in India.

The tabla is actually two drums played by the same performer. Both drums have compound skins onto which a tuning paste, or siyahi, is added to help generate the wide variety of tones these drums can produce. The bayan is the larger of the two drums and is generally made of metal or pottery. The siyahi on the bayan is off-center, which allows the performer to add variable pressure on the skin, changing the pitch of the instrument with the palm of his or her hand while striking it with the fingertips. The smaller drum is called the dahini, or sometimes referred to as the tabla. Dahini are usually made of heavy lathe-turned rosewood and provide much higher pitch sounds than does the bayan.

The tambura is a long, stringed instrument made of light hollow wood, with either a wooden or a gourd resonator. It is typically used in accompaniment with other instruments, providing a drone pitch. Some of the tamburas in the Museum’s collection are not full-sized instruments, but rather miniatures created for their aesthetic appearance. The artistic craftsmanship on the inlay in these objects is beautiful. India has a long history of creating musical instruments as decorative objects, and that tradition is represented in the Museum’s collection.

Along with the pakhavaj, the vina is one of the most commonly depicted instruments in Indian iconography. The vina has taken many forms in both South and North India. In North India, it was called the bin or the rudravina, and was the predecessor of the sitar. It was often built of two large gourd resonators connected by a piece of bamboo, with frets held on with wax. Most of the vinas depicted in iconography are rudravinas. In the South, the vina—or saraswati vina—continues to be the most popular stringed instrument in classical music. In its basic shape, the vina is a hollow wooden stringed instrument with two gourd resonators (though there can often be more than two or sometimes only one gourd resonator). The gottuvadyam, or chitravina, is another important instrument in Karnatak music. Unlike the rudravina and the saraswati vina, the gottuvadyam has no frets and is played with a slide using a method similar to that of the Hawaiian slide guitar.

Allen Roda
Independent Scholar

March 2009

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