Instrument History

The Sitar Situation: Instrument History

Hailing from Northern India, the sitar is a member of the lute family. For thousands of years, the sitar has been charming and serenading discriminating audiences. But did you know that this stringed instrument’s history is as fascinating as the very sounds it produces?

But what exactly is a sitar?

Traditionally, the sitar is considered the main musical instrument among Hindustani cultures.

The term “Hindustani” refers to various dialects and art forms native to northern India and Pakistan. As the leading stringed instrument of pre-Islamic India, the sitar was a common element of religious festivals. Over time, the sitar became the go-to instrument for the women who sang and danced for visiting diplomats and other important guests.

It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th Centuries that the sitar was accepted as a solo classical instrument. History was made, and this instrument has become a part of the world musical scene. Today, the sitar has become a popular feature in the entertainment world, especially in India (or “Bollywood,” as it’s commonly referred to). With its light, delicate sound, the sitar is used to accompany dancing and other happy scenes.

A Blend of Instrument History and Culture

Most musical instrument historians agree that the sitar’s origin lies with other stringed instruments. One of these, the Veena, was a fretted stringed instrument popular in ancient India. The Veena was said to have been played by Saraswati, the Indian Goddess of Music and Learning.
The sitar may also be an off-shoot of another stringed instrument, the “tanbur.” This long-necked lute played a crucial role in Medieval Muslim cultures. The sitar’s other musical influence was likely the “vina” (or “bin”), a type of narrow and complex Indian zither. Oh, and by the way, the guitar is thought to be a direct descendant of the sitar.

The Sitar in Profile

Typically, sitars feature five melody strings; these are tuned to Ma (F), Sa (C), Pa (G), Sa (C), and Pa (G). Sitars also sport two Chikari strings for rhythm. In addition, they sport five or six drone strings, which are used to accentuate the rhythm or pulse. Sitars have hollow necks (usually made of Indian mahogany, known as “tun”), which include convex frets housing 9-13 sympathetic strings. The sitar’s neck tapers off to a dried gourd, or gourd-shaped container, which is covered by a pegbox (the container that anchors the strings).

Much like other stringed instruments, sitar enthusiasts can learn to play on their own. However, most sitarists have found it very difficult to accurately master this instrument, often more than a decade! For that reason, many up-and-coming (and even accomplished) sitar musicians find it much more effective to study at the feet of master musicians. These sitar “apprentices” are then able to learn all that they can. This could include the instrument’s history, construction, and especially ways to bring out their true musical potential.

Musicians and fans have long appreciated the lush, complex harmonies of this instrument. Historically, this unique sound is due to the instrument’s two sets of strings. Of these, sitars usually feature six or seven playable strings; up to 13 sympathetic strings are located beneath curved, movable frets.

Like all plucked instruments (guitar, bass, banjo, harp, lyre, etc.), the sitar requires a pick (known as a “mizrab”). Traditionally, sitarists’ use their left hands to slide over the five melody strings, and their right hands for the pick. Other sitarists take advantage of another playing technique, the “Meend.” With this technique, the sitarist pulls the string down over the curved frets; this produces the sitar’s unique “singing” sound.

Now that you know the instrument’s history and make-up, why not take in some beautiful music? Click here to listen to the instrument!