The following text is taken from the book "Classical Musical Instruments" by Suneera Kasliwal, Delhi 2001.


At present the sitar is the most popular instrument in Hindustani music. The structure and tonal quality of the modern sitar is a result of several years of hard work and devotion put in by artists and craftsmen. Craftsmen of Calcutta need special mention 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. For centuries, the sitar has undergone a sea of transformation, and has improved beyond recognition. The twentieth century can be called the golden era of the sitar. Stalwarts like Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Nikhil Banerjee, Uma Shankar Misra, Abdul Haleem Jaffar Khan, Rais Khan and many others have carved a special niche for the instrument in the world of music. More than three hypotheses are prevalent among the musicologists regarding the origin of the sitar. Since none of these has been unanimously accepted, there has been a lot of confusion regarding its origin. Actually the subject needs thorough research, and before reaching any conclusion, all the points should be taken into consideration. The problem began when some people started giving credit of the sitar's 'invention' to the thirteenth century poet, Ameer Khusarau, of Allauddin Khilji's court. B.C. Deva says in one of his essays on organology, 'The problem is "acute" especially in the case of the sitar. No other lute has raised so much discussion with so little foundation. Perhaps the legend that the instrument was "invented" by Ameer Khusarau, was started by Captain Willard and Karam Imam. But recent studies have more than certainly established that Ameer Khusarau was not its "inventor". One wonders whether he was even aware of its existence?' It is a fact that Ameer Khusarau has not mentioned the name of sitar as a musical instrument in any of his works. Scholars and researchers unanimously support this point, but still this 'story' is so deep-rooted among the common folk that they would not believe otherwise. Some scholars who do not agree with the Khusarau hypothesis have tried to link it with the tritantriveena, which was called jantra by the common people, and was popular among the musicians of fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Tritantri means an instrument which has three strings (a variety of veena with three strings as described by Sharangadeva). Sehtar, in Persian also means an instrument with three strings (Seh = three and tar = strings). Prof. Lal Mani Misra proposes that when the Muslims came to India, they saw the tritantri veena and found it hard to pronounce tri. Thus they gave it a Persian name, sehtar, which gradually became sitar.

Mulism invasions in India starting from the early eighth century to fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, from the north- western front, exposed Indians to the music, literature and social customs of Turkish, Persian and central Asian cultures. Around this time the instrument called tambur or tanbur appeared on the Indian music scenario. Ameer Khusarau described the tambur as having four strings, two of silk and two of metal. InAin-i-Akbari, four tambur players are included among the thirty-six listed musicians of the court of Akbar. A variety of tanbur with three strings instead of four is termed as seh-tar.

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According to Allyn Miner the early tanbur or sehtar, as depicted in the Mughal paintings, has unique features which are quite uniformly painted from the twelfth to the sixteenth or even seventeenth century It was a small instrument with a pear-shaped resonator and a comparatively long, thin fingerboard with gut frets. The instrument was made of wood. It had a thin violin-type of bridge and it was played by a plectrum worn on the right hand. The instrument sehtar, prevalent in Iran till date, has more or less the same features. The Kashmir! setar's features also resemble these details, except that it has seven strings instead of three as suggested by its Persian name seh- tar or se-tar, and a flat wooden bridge.

The instrument and a number of varieties were developed. As Allyn Miner puts it, 'Paintings and drawings show that more than one version of the instrument already existed at the end of the eighteenth century. The shape of the bridge, the material of frets, the positions of the tuning pegs, the width of the neck, the position and tuning of the strings and the right hand position help us in determining sitar types and in tracing the progress of change.'

From the above description it is quite clear that till the time of Mohammed Karam Imam, the sitar was quite a developed instrument, especially in the hands of Jaipur Seniyas. But the elaborate alapchari of dhrupad anga, which was considered the epitome of been-baj, might not have been possible on the then existing sitar, and therefore, Jaipur Seniyas meanwhile introduced a new instrument called 'surbeen', which was a mixture of rudra veena and sitar. Another instrument called been-sitar is said to have three gourds and tarab strings. Whereas in eastern India, most probably in Lucknow in the mean time, another instrument with mixed features of the been and sitar emerged. This was named the surbahar.

All these efforts indicate that though the sitar was developed and modified a great deal from its original form, it was still not perfectly suited to the execution of the type of music prevalent in those days. Surbeen and been-sitar could not gain much popularity but the surbahar did get popularised and musicians used to perform a full-fledged alapchari of been upon this instrument before playing gat toda upon the sitar. This practice continued for more than a century. Meanwhile, instrumentalists continued to modify the existing sitar. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, tarab strings were put into the sitar. With the Jaipur Seniyas, a sitar with two additional gourds (tumbas) was common. This was done, perhaps, to enhance the volume and add depth to the tonality of the instrument. In the changing process of the sitar, as time went by, one extra gourd was dropped and one, which was fixed at the upper portion, was retained. The changing process continued until each and every technique of the been and surbahar could be well executed upon the instrument.

Hundreds of artists and craftsmen have contributed to the process of the development of the sitar. Among them, Jaipur Seniyas, starting from Maseet Khan, Rahim Sen, Amrit Sen and Dulhe Khan, were the trendsetters. Highly talented sitar players Sahabdad Khan and his descendants Imdad Khan and Inayat Khan, Ghulam Raza Khan, Ali Raza Khan, Pannalal Bajpeyi of Purab gharana, etc., are well known for their immense contribution to the physical and technical enhancement of sitar. Sitar makers also contributed a great deal to its development. Among them Kanhailal and Hiren Roy of Calcutta, deserve special mention for their unparalleled skill and craftsmenship. Nodu Malick known as Nodu Babu did much research and experimentation and was insrtumental in standardising the various parts of the sitar.

Many artists of the twentieth century have contributed to the popularisation of the sitar, but two names merit special mention. One of them is Ravi Shankar, the world renowned sitarist and the worthy disciple of Allauddin Khan, and the other one is the descendant of Sahabdad Khan and Imdad Khan and the most melodious sitarist of modern times, Vilayat Khan. These two artists took sitar baj to new heights.

Nikhil Banerjee is another artist who needs special mention as he modified his sitar further with the help of Hiren Roy, taking it to an unimaginable level of depth and tonal quality. Uma Shankar Misra, Balram Pathak, Rais Khan, Abdul Haleem Jaffar Khan, Devavrit Chaudhuri, Manilal Nag, Imrat Khan, Kartik Kumar and Shamim Ahmed are a few names from the long list of sitar players of the twentieth century. Jaya Bisbas, Manju Mehta, Kalyani Roy and Krishna Chakravorty are among the women sitar players, who earned a name for themselves in this field. Among the younger generation of artists, Shahid Parvez, Buddhaditya Mukherjee and Shujaat Khan have already made a name for themselves. A number of budding artists such as Shubhendra Rao, Niladri Kumar, Gourav Majumdar, Prateek Chaudhuri and many others, assure a bright future for this instrument.

The sitar can be divided into two parts: the fingerboard and the resonator. The total length of the sitar is approximately four or four-and-a-quarter feet. The fingerboard is about three feet long, about three-and-a- quarter to three-and-a-half inches wide, and three-and-a- half inch in diameter. The fingerboard, called dand, is made preferably of tun wood, and is hollow from inside. However dand made of teak wood is also common. Pegs are fixed for the main strings on one end of the dand and the other end is fixed to the tumba or the resonator by means of a joint called gulu. The resonator made of gourd is hollow from inside and is covered with a wooden plate called tabli. The gourd, the wooden plank and the joint gulu are the most important parts of the instrument forming the main resonating chamber. The tabli acts as the soundboard upon which the two bridges, one for the main playing strings and the other, a smaller one, for sympathetic strings, are fixed.

There are seven main playing strings and eleven to thirteen sympathetic strings. These strings are tied with a nail-shaped string holder called langot at the lower end and that pass through the fingerboard. The five main strings go through another bridge called meru or aad at the upper end before being finally tied up to their respective pegs, whereas the sympathetic strings pass through the little holes drilled into the covering of the fingerboard to their respective pegs fixed on the right side of the sitar. The two chikari strings have their pegs fixed on the side portion of the fingerboard below the peg box and just before the sympathetic string pegs; these strings rest on two small pins made of bone or stag horn which act as the bridge for these chikari strings.

The main bridge of the sitar called ghurach is one of its vital parts. It is flat in shape, and its length, width and height are about eight centimetre, three and two centimetres respectively. The bridge used for sympathetic strings is rather small in size and fixed just before the main bridge. Both of these and the upper bridges (meru) are made of stag horn or camel bone. The point where the strings touch the main bridge is actually responsible for the tonal quality of the sitar, and thus, special care is taken to ensure that the surface does not get a mark or a groove because of the continuous pressure of the main playing strings. If this point gets abrased, the surface is filed. This filing is called javari setting, and it is a very skilled and technical task which can be performed only by an experienced person.

The sitar has nineteen to twenty frets tied with the silk or nylon thread on the fingerboard. However, the number of frets is not fixed and is variable. Three to four mankas (beads) for fine tuning are put into the strings. The second resonator is either made of a gourd or of wood, but in any case it is detachable.

Till the middle of the twentieth century sitar without tarabs was very popular, but lately this practice has become quite rare. Another type of sitar which was quite in vogue till the 1950s was the Kachhap sitar or Kachhua sitar. It was like an ordinary sitar, the only difference being that the resonator was flat instead of round in shape. This practice has now been discontinued.

Around 1940-45, the sitar was fairly standardised. Nowadays it is available in two models: one is the Ravi Shankar model and the other is the Vilayat Khan model. Both these models are suitable for the execution of their respective styles of sitar playing.

In the Ravi Shankar model sitar the total number of main strings is five, plus two chikari strings. In this sitar two thick strings, one each of lower pancham (ati mandra) and lower shadja (ati ati mandra) called laraj-kharaj-ke-taar, are fixed. These two thick strings producing the bass sound are not present in the Vilayat Khan model of sitar. In Ravi Shankar model sitar the dand is a bit wider in order to accommodate these two thick strings and the instrument is comparatively heavier, whereas Vilayat Khan model of sitar is small, without the heavy body, having six main and eleven sympathetic strings. However, it has a thicker soundboard (tabli) than the Ravi Shankar model sitar. In Ravi Shankar's model an extra gourd on the upper side is fixed. This extra gourd fixed in this type of sitar is to enhance the volume and clarity of the bass strings, and to provide a better balance to the player. This is detachable and can be taken off while travelling. Also, these sitars are decorated with fine inlay work and wood carvings, whereas the Vilayat Khan model does not have an extra resonator and is also very simply decorated. These features add to their tonality which differ quite a lot from each other.

The tuning and gauge of the strings, the setting of jawari and the shape of the frets are also different. Naturally, these two models are prepared keeping in mind the suitability for executing their respective styles, and, therefore, an artist who wants to buy a sitar has to give his or her specific preference as to which model of the sitar he/she requires.

Another model of Nikhil Banerjee style is also present, but it is not commonly used. It is a mixture of both the above discussed models. It also has an extra small bridge (jawari), fixed just below the upper nut for the bass strings.

The sitar is a very popular instrument and is highly in demand. It can be purchased from any musical instrument shop. However, Calcutta, Varanasi, Lucknow, Miraj and Delhi are well-known centres for making good sitars. Hiren Roy of Calcutta earned much fame as an extraordinary craftsman and made a number of excellent instruments. He died a few years ago, however, the sitars made by him are still in demand and artists prefer buying second hand sitars made by him to buying a new sitar. Rikhi Ram & Sons, Delhi, has also earned a name in making good quality sitars.

To strike the strings of sitar, a wire plectrum called mizrab is worn on the right hand forefinger. While playing, the player sits on the floor in a position called Ardha Gomukh Aasana.