A Complete Guide to the Sitar
What do The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Ravi Shankar, Rolling Stones, Metallica, Anouska Shankar and Shujaat Khan have in common? Of course, they are all great artists. But what really sets them apart from the rest while making them similar to one another is their love for Sitar!
A popular Indian musical instrument, sitar has been used for jazz and film music for years. But the musical instrumental is popular with American pop-artists as well!
The classical Indian stringed instrument is loved by the Western World, which experiments with the incorporation of sitar and its compositions into modern music. That’s what makes it such a widely popular musical instrument.
Known for South Asian Lutes, Sitar has influenced jazz and rock performers from all over the world. While Ravi Shankar has been the most prominent player of sitar and is credited with bringing the tunes to the west, there are other players as well. This includes George Harrison, lead guitarist of The Beatles, Shujaat Khan and Vilayat Khan.
Artists that play the sitar usually belong to a particular Gharana, or a system of social organization of musicians.
The Strings of Sitar – An Introduction
It’s like a guitar from the parallel universe. A part of the lute family of stringed instruments, Sitar is a classical Indian music instrument that can be used for traditional, South Asian, rock and jazz tunes.
The soft, harmonious and lively tunes that stem out from a sitar are melodious, enchanting and relaxing. Derived from the Veena, an ancient Indian instrument, Sitar is long necked and features an interesting construction.
A sitar features seven strings, 11-13 resonating strings with 20 frets. The long, broad and fretted neck is shaped beautifully for easier fine tuning. The best part about the sitar is that it is complementing in nature, so while some notes are played, the sympathetic strings react to the sounds along with it, creating a ‘natural reverb’.
In appearance, the sitar is quite similar to another long-necked, plucked string instrument called the Tambura. What differentiates the two is the fact that sitar has frets.
Popular across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Indian sub-continent in general, the Sitar measures about 4 feet in length and includes a deep pear-shaped gourd body.
The wooden neck is long, wide and hollow. Both front and side have tuning pegs, with 20 arched movable frets, and strings are made from metal. The sitar features five melody strings. For accentuating the rhythm, it features drone strings, which produces a sustained tone in low pitch, providing sonorous foundation for the melody strings at higher pitch.
The sitar features 13 sympathetic strings as well, which are tuned to the notes of raga. Raga is a melodic framework that improvises a composition and determines set of notes, their typical order and melodies with musical motifs used for playing the instrument.
The pluck of strings with wire plectrum creates music, whereas the manipulation of strings between or on the frets helps in maintaining the right rhythm.
Journey From ‘Sehtar’ to Sitar
The western world correlates Sitar with India, and while the musical instrument is given a unique importance in the country, it didn’t actually originate in India. The sitar finds its roots in the Persian instrument ‘Sehtar,’ which used three strings. It was bought to India during the Mughal Period, when a court musician decided to combine Sehtar with another ancient instrument called ‘Veena.’ Veena is a seven stringed instrument, which eventually led to the development of ‘Sitar.’
The history behind the development of Sitar is nothing less than a beautiful story. It is suggested that the sitar was invented by Amir Khusru, an artist. He is the one who popularized Hindustani Classical Sangeet and made the first attempts at modifying Veena to design the present day Sitar.
- The inspiration for modern day versions didn’t exist till 16th century, when a Mughal court musician decided to combine Persian instrument Sehtar with Veena. This was done to appease Mughal Patrons.
- The sitar flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries. Minor adjustments and other changes lead to the development of its present form in the 18th century.
- During the 18th century, it derived its distinct resonance, thanks to the use of sympathetic strings. Experiments on the design led to the development of its gourd shaped resonance chamber as well. Further developments helped in creating its bridge design and the long-hollow neck.
However, it took almost two centuries before the world became familiar with sitar. The credit is given to Ravi Shankar, who popularized it among the masses. The maestro musician played it around the world in 1950s and 1960s, letting the world know about the depth of this beautiful Indian instrument.
Apart from Shankar, several western performers influenced the popularity of Sitar as well. This includes The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. In fact, George Harrison, guitarist from The Beatles learned how to play the Sitar from Shankar for the band’s second movie, ‘Help.’ Later, Rolling Stones’ guitarist, Brian Jones played it for ‘Paint It, Black,’ Jones was so mesmerized by the soft, rhythmic sounds that he taught himself to play the instrument after visiting friend George Harrison.
Today, Sitar can be used as a solo instrument or with Tablas in ensembles. It is primarily featured in Indian and western music, and used for complementing several Indian dance forms as well. For instance, sitar can be used for Kathak performances.
Over the years, Sitar has been used in several genres, from jazz to pop and rock. From Anouska Shankar to Metallica, most popular music artists have used this instrument to provide a deeper meaning to their artistic creations.
The Anatomy of a Sitar
Sitars have evolved over the years. However, the basic anatomy is the same.
- A usual sitar can have anywhere from 18-21 strings. Some of these strings run over curved raised frets. Fret basically refers to the raised element on the stringed instruments neck, instead into the fingerboard.
- Rest of the strings are called sympathetic strings, running underneath the frets. These strings are auxiliary strings, which aren’t usually played by the performer and are rather played indirectly through the main strings.
- The frets are designed to be movable, allowing fine tuning. Strings that can be played are on the tuning pegs or near the head of the instrument, whereas the sympathetic strings pass through holes in the fretboard, allowing for finer tuning and adjustments.
- Sitar has two bridges as well; the large bridge for playing drone string and the small bridge for sympathetic strings. Music is created through the interaction of these strings with the wide, sloping bridge.
- Overtones and distinctive sound tones are created when a string reverberates its lengths and touches the edge of the bridge.
- The main resonating chamber has bridges fixed to it. A secondary resonator may be added to the top of the hollow neck.
- The way a sitar is constructed is affected by the Gharana or the social organization of musicians where it is played. For instance, The Gandhaar Gharana has six playable strings, whereas Maihar Gharana has seven. The former one has four Chikaari, which provide a drone while the others are used to play melody. Drone is a harmonic effect when a chord is sounded throughout a piece.
- Construction of a sitar is done using teak wood, a variation of mahogany. Gourds are used for resonating chambers. Sitar’s bridges are made using ebony, deer horn and sometimes the camel bone. Some artists may use sitars made from synthetic material.
Primarily, two sitar styles are used. The first is Vilayat Khan Style sitars and the second is the Ravi Shankar Style sitars.
- Vilayat Khan’s style is known as the Gayaki Style Sitar. Made of seasoned toon wood, this type of sitar has a dark polish. It doesn’t usually have any carved decorations. Inlay decorations are made from mother of pearl imitation. Sympathetic strings are 11-13 in number. Bridge grinding styles are remarkably different and so is the thickness of the soundboard or Tabli.
- Ravi Shankar’s style is known as the Instrumental Style Sitar. Made from toon or Burma Teak, this type of sitar is different than the others because it has a second resonator, a tumba on the neck. Fully decorated, the sitar has floral and grape carvings. It also features coloured or black floral patterns. With 13 sympathetic strings, this kind of sitar is usually designed to be used by generations of players.
- The popularity of sitars has led to development of several sub-styles and types as well. This includes different designs that feature customized number of sympathetic strings, different positioning of the strings and string pegs.
- Other types and variations are designed for professional models, students’ models, beginners and masters’ models among other.
- Another variety is the Bass Sitar, which is a larger type of sitar, which has thick strings and a wider neck. It has a wider fret board as well. With a deeper tonal quality, it is used by players who want to experiment with something different. It is difficult to play and mostly used by professionals.
- It must be noted that electric sitar isn’t a variety of sitar. Rather, it is a guitar, which has a special bridge and sympathetic strings, similar to the sitar. It doesn’t have movable frets either.
Sitar in the Indian Culture
Sitar may be one of the prime instruments for the entertainment world, but it is still a reflection of the Indian culture.
The fact that it’s partially derived by the Veena and has been enjoyed by kings and emperors from India makes it an important part of the country’s culture. Veena, the instrument played by Goddess Sarswati makes Sitar an important expression of learning and music in the country.
Inspirational Sitar Players
India has produced some remarkable geniuses when it comes to Sitar. Some of them are mentioned below.
Pandit Ravi Shankar is the prime Indian musician and composer who’s credited with the popularity of the sitar. He is the best-known exponent of the musical instrument. Born in a Bengali Family during the reign of the British, Ravi Shankar went on to become a composer, achieving acclaim for his work in Apu Trilogy by Satyajit Ray.
He then began to tour Europe, and during the 50s & 60s, he popularized the musical instrument by teaching it as well as performing it. His association with George Harrison and violinist Yehudi Menuhin influenced the increase in the use of sitar for popular music. From 1986-1992, he served in Rajya Sabha. In 1999, he was awarded with the Bharat Ratna.
Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan’s influence on Sitar cannot be understated. Khan is a major proponent of sitar and considered an Ustad or the expert in the field. A pioneer of Indian Classical Music in the west, Khan had been playing sitar since the age of 8 and continued doing so till his death.
Khan had been awarded Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, which he refused to accept, stating that a political committee wasn’t competent enough to judge his works. It is also believed that Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar harboured an animosity for one another. However, during calmer moments, Khan claimed that there was nothing to it.
A sitar and surbahar player, Imrat is an Indian composer who belongs to the family of musicians. He is the younger brother of Vilayat Khan. Imrat has a solo career that’s extensively developed on both instruments. He has travelled America, Europe, South and East Asia, spending years concerting and teaching sitar students. He received a Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1988.
The daughter of Ravi Shankar and half-sister of American singer Norah Jonas, Anouska is a pioneer in Indian classical and crossover genres. Born in London, Anouska has performed in concerts with her deceased father and is well known for performing at fund raising events. A supporter of animal rights, Anoushka has been awarded with the Woman of the Year award besides winning several Grammy nominations in her kitty.
An Indian sitar player and Hindustani Classical Music Composer, Shujaat Khan has recorded over 60 albums and has been nominated for Grammy Award as well. He sings and performs Gayaki style of sitar playing, which imitates human voice.
His performing career has involved travelling around the world. Khan has performed in Asia, Africa North America and Europe. His approach is usually considered spontaneous and fresh, with an added twist to classical Indian Music.
A premier Indian sitar player, Nishat Khan is the son of Imrat Khan and is a part of the 400 year old Indian musical family. While he primarily plays sitar, Nishat is also known for his mastery of diverse realms such as western classical music, Flamenco, Gregorian chant and abstract jazz.
Nishat has composed with performers like Evelyn Glennie, John McLaughlin, Paco Pena and Django Bates. He currently lives in California and is a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Mizrab – A handmade plectrum that’s used for playing sitar. Made of continuous stand of iron and worn over a finger.
Storage Case- A case for holding sitar in a sturdy, safe manner.
Records In Sitar
Longest Sitar Playing Marathon: One of the most prominent records in sitar Playing belongs to India. Listed in the Guinness World Records, the longest sitar playing marathon lasted for 25 hours. The record was achieved by Renuka Punwani from India. She played at the Pancham Academy of Indian Music, Ahmedabad in Gujarat. When the record was set, Renuka was 76 years and showed no sign of her stamina fading.
Largest Number of Sitar Players Performing: Another record involves largest number of sitar players performing together on stage. This grand symphony of 1200 musicians playing sitar is nothing less than a feat. The record was achieved by Art of Living.
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