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Playing Technique

Sitar and surbahar are played whilst sitting on the ground with the pumpkin sound box resting on the foot of the musician. The instrument is held in such a way that the neck runs diagonally upwards in front of the player's body. The playing strings which run over the big bridge are plucked with a wire plectrum (mizrab) positioned on the right index finger. The sympathetic strings are not plucked but caused to vibrate by playing the melody strings. The left hand plays the melody on the frets. A peculiarity in this respect is that the strings are not only pressed down onto the frets but can be pulled sideways simultaneously, allowing the articulation of subtle ornaments and microintervals which are so very important to Indian Music.


Left hand fingering
Pulling the string
Left hand thumb position
Right hand plucking

(Text, concept and demonstration: Yogendra; pictures: Norbert Klippstein)


a. Ideal posture

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Left leg bent on the floor in front of the body, right leg across it, sound box rests on the sole of the left foot, rightr forearm rests on the sound box, right thumb rests at the highest fret: This keeps the sitar stable, the neck in a 45 degrees angle and face of the instrument vertical to the ground. The left arm and the fingers of the right hand can move freely. The player sits with erect spine, has a little distance towards the instrument and faces the back of the neck.

b. Alternative posture

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Description of disadvantages from left to right:

1. right shoulder too low, spine distorted
2.-4. right shoulder too high, neck of sitar comes too far up, sound box has weak support from below


a. Ideal basic position of left hand


Stopping the string on a fret with the index finger without pulling: index finger is parallel to the frets and vertical to the string, presses the string down directly behind the fret with the fingertip - the finger remains rounded, not extruded. All other fingers remain relaxed.

The hand is an extension of the forearm, the wrist is not bent. The left shoulder hangs loosely.

b. Awkward finger positions

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Description of problems from left to right:

Top row:
1. middle-, ring- & little finger rolled inside
2. index finger not parallel to the frets
3. index finger extruded; middle-, ring- & little finger rolled inside

Bottom row:
1. index finger extruded; middle-, ring- & little finger cramped; hand too close to the neck
2. index finger not parallel to the frets; middle-, ring- & little finger cramped; hand twisted & too close to the neck
3. middle-, ring- & little finger strutted

c. Ideal stopping the string on the fret for the last note of an upward movement

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Description of pictures from left to right:

1. small interval with index & middle finger
2. wide interval with index & middle finger
3. wide interval with index & ring finger

The last note of an upward movement is usually played with the middle finger while the index finger stays in contact with the string; all other notes are played with the index finger. The ring finger can be used for for the last upward note in wide interval, thus avoiding tension in the hand.

d. Awkward positions while playing the last upward note

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Description of pictures from left to right:

1. index finger is lifted off the string
2. ring- & little finger are rolled inside
3. ring- & little finger are strutted


a. Slight pulling of the string


Ideal movement - finger are bent inside in a gripping movement, wrist remains straight, pull is directed parallel to the frets, vertical to the string.     

Awkward movement - hand too close to the neck

b. Wide pulling of the string

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Ideal movement

Description of pictures from left to right:

1. index & middle finger on one fret
2. index & middle finger on two neighbouring frets
?Awkward movement

Description of pictures from left to right:

1. pull diagonal to the stringn instead of vertical
2. thumb too far around the neck, hand too close to the neck


a. Ideal thumb position for stopping the string and pulling


Thumb position left hand

Thumb rest loosely at the back of the neck, index finger and thumb remain opposite of one another at the front and back side of the neck in all movements, thumb is used as a kind of anchor for the hand in wide pulling. The thumb always stays in light contact with the neck - it is never taken off completely.

b. Awkward thumb positions while stopping the string and pulling

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Description of pictures from left to right:

1. thumb cramped and bent, hand too close to the neck
2. thumb too far at the edge of the neck, wrist bent inside, hand too far away from the neck
3. thumb fast parallel zum Hals, wrist bent outside, hand too close to the neck
4. thumb zu weit um den Hals gefasst, hand too close to the neck


Mizrab tight on the index finger with the tip running across the finger nail. The mizrab is supposed to move as little as possible on the finger while playing, especially not sideways. When the size of the mizrab is basically right, it should still be bent to fit the finger as perfectly as possible. The strings are struck only with the mizrab, but all four fingers always move together.

a. Basic position of right hand before up-stroke "da"


Thumb firmly positioned on the neck at the highest fret in a 45 degrees angle to the neck - never change this thumb position. Wrist pushed forward across the edge of the soundboard so you can see the bridge through the gap.

The hand hangs relaxed with the thumb fixed to the neck while all fingers stay loosely together and are slightly runded. To execute the stroke"da" pull all four fingers boldly up and in as if forming a fist - and hit the first string in this movement (you will most likely touch the 2nd string as well if you do it properly).

b. Hand position before down-stroke "ra"

The hand is is slightly raised from the wrist, all four fingers are rolled inside like a fist - this is the final position after up-stroke"da" and as well the starting position for the down-stroke stroke"ra ". To execute the "ra" move all four fingers boldly down and out back into the basic position (see above) - and hit the first string in this movement

In all plucking the forearm remains still. Power and momentum are generated mainly by the finger movement and partly also by a subtle movement of the the wrist. The basic principle is similarly to hitting a ball in tennis: a large movement is executed boldly and hits a small object (ball / string) at a certain point in course of its way.

c. Chikari stroke

The pictures show the hand position before and after the chikari stroke.

The chikari strings are usually played with a "ra" stroke: the wrist moves the hand a little up from the basic position (see above) and turns slightly sideways (without moving the forearm!), the finger are rolled in and slip quickly forward to hit the strings.

b. Awkward right hand position

Description of pictures from left to right:

1. index finger is moved separately, other fingers are strutted
2. hand is extruded inwards
3. thumb does not rest on the neck
4. hand ist twisted
5. thumb is parallel to the neck, hand is too far back