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About sitars

Sitar is perhaps the most popular stringed instrument in India. Sitar has also become synonymous with India and Indian culture throughout the world. Interestingly, the word "Sitar" is Persian (Iranian) in origin, meaning three strings (seh - three and tar - string). The Persian setar, similar to the Turkish saz, is a long thin-necked lute with a small wooden body.

The origin of the sitar is shrouded in controversy. Oral tradition states that Amir Khusrau, a poet in the court of Allaudin Khilji (1296-1315), was the inventor of the instrument. It is possible that Amir Khusrau is confused with another eighteenth-century figure with a similar name, Khusrau Khan, who is associated with the sitar. While Khusrau Khan may have helped introduce sitar in Delhi and significantly contributed to spreading its performance repertory, it is doubtful that he was the inventor of the instrument. In the twentieth century, Sourindro Mohun Tagore has confused matters further by attempting to trace the name of the modern sitar to vedic times. Iconographic images of instruments similar to the modern sitar appeared only around 1800. There is abundant proof that the instrument had taken on its present form by the mid-nineteenth century. Several additional innovations during the turn of the twentieth century have been made to the instrument since then, giving form to the current "standard" sitar. In short, sitar is probably a hybrid of Persian and Indian lutes, and is less than three centuries old. It is also said that the sitar may have been developed from the Kachappi Veena.

In its contemporary form, the sitar is constructed of wood (teak) mahogany or (tun)), gourd, metal, and bone. The wooden neck is around 35 inches long, 3.5 inches wide, and slightly troughed, terminating at one large resonating chamber made of gourd. It is not uncommon for a second resonating gourd to be attached at the other end of the neck on the dorsal side. On the neck rest about twenty scalloped, movable, metal frets tied by silk or nylon string. Sitars with fixed frets are less popular in present times.

The sitar consists of two layers of strings made of steel, brass, and copper. The bottom layer of approximately 13 steel strings are referred to as taraf (Persian for excitement or joy) and rest on a small one inch long bone bridge, which is a fraction of an inch high. These strings are tuned to the notes of the raag being performed and resonate when the strings on the main (top) bridge are plucked. The top layer of seven strings, used to create the melody and drone, rest between three bridges on one end of the neck and a main bridge that rests on the gourd section. Two of these three bridges anchor two of the three chikari (drone) strings that serve to extend notes and/or punctuate the rhythm. The remaining five strings lie on a bridge that spans the width of the neck. All seven strings converge, in a parallel manner, on the main bridge that sits on the gourd section. The main bridge is about three inches long, and one inch in both height and width. Made of antelope horn (and optionally a layer of wood on the surface), the bridge's slightly curved shape contributes to the tonal quality of the instrument, including the distinctive buzzing sound. Over time, the melodic strings cut into the bridge and require it to be reshaped. Sometimes two hooks are attached to the frets to lower the height of two bass strings of the instrument so that they do not undermine the playing of jhala or other fast passages.

Coarse tuning of sitar strings is achieved by using 13 small wooden pegs for the tarafs and seven large pegs for the melody and drone/chikari strings. Fine-tuning of the melody strings is accomplished by using small beads. High-quality sitars are hand-crafted by a few well reputed instrument makers and rarely do two instruments feel or sound exactly the same. These instruments are usually ordered and customized (color, ornamentation, size, shape of the bridge, wood used in the construction, gap between the strings, etc.) according to the preferences of the performer. Instruments are usually made in pairs, by several specialized artisans, and take from six months to a year to build. Generally, only "paired" sitars will sound alike so sometimes musicians purchase both of a pair so they then have a sitar held in reserve in case one becomes damaged or otherwise inavailable.

The resonating chamber, which is made of gourd, serves as a foundation for the right hand to balance the instrument. The thumb of the right hand rests at the side of the neck joining the gourd. A wire plectrum called a mizrab (derived from the Arabic word zarb meaning strike), is worn on the right index finger to pluck the top layers of strings using inward and outward motions. Sonic artists use a second plectrum on the middle finger as well. The nail of the little finger also strums the taraf and chikari strings. By plucking and strumming, the right hand controls the rhythmic techniques of the performance.

The left hand is used to control the melody. The thumb helps to anchor the fingers and guide the movement of the hand on the neck. The tips of the index and middle fingers control the pitch, employing techniques such as sliding fingers over the frets, pulling a string across a fret (sometimes covering a range of five notes), and using two fingers to hammer the string on a fret. The ring finger may be utilized during extremely fast passages.

The small finger may also strum tile taraf strings in order to accentuate the rhythm.

Most of the performance takes place on one string (covering 2 octaves), but some artists (and stylistic schools) explore the whole range of the instrument (three and a half octaves) on four strings on the main bridge. It is not uncommon for artists to customize the instrument to suit their personal tastes. Tuning of the instrument varies slightly according to the school and/or artist as well as the raag being performed.

The surbahar is an instrument that is very closely related to the sitar. The main resonating gourd is much larger than that of a sitar and the instrument is tuned to a lower pitch. Both factors combine to produce a much deeper tone and sustain the notes longer. As a result, the instrument comes close to sounding like a north Indian teen. Although the instrument is used to play only alalap, jor, and jhala, in the austere style of dhrupad most artists seem to treat the instrument as a sitar.

North Indian instrumental music, including the sitar, has been heavily influenced by the vocal genres of dhrupad and khyal, the percussion repertoire, as well as teen (the Indian lute) and rabab techniques. The style (manner of ornamentation notes, fingering techniques, stroking techniques), performance structure of playing (raag exposition foundation taal) and tonal quality of the instrument can vary considerably from one artist to another. With all these factors, personal preferences on judging the "best sitarist" take on almost religious overtones. Listening to several performances of an artist usually reveals the distinctive stamp of the performer, resulting from a combination of their stylistic school, the style of their teacher(s), and their personal touch. Balram Pathak, Enayat Khan, Imdad Khan, Imrat Khan, Manilal Nag, Nikhil Bannerjee, Rais Khan, Ravi Shankar, and Vilayat Khan are some prominent sitar-ists of previous generations. In addition to Budhaditya Mukherjee, Debu Choudhury, Deepak Choudhury Irshad Khan, Krishna Bhaft, Nishat Khan, Shahid Parvez, and Shujat Khan are some of the distinguished performers that have emerged in the past few decades.

Best regards,
Peter Cutchey, Owner, Buckingham Music, Inc..

Please direct all inquiries to Paula and on e-mail paula@buckinghammusic.com or

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Copyright 1997, N. P. Cutchey, USA. 254-771-2899. All prices and specifications are subject to change without notice.