What is the Sitar?

The Sitar

Sitar is probably the best-known South Asian instrument in the West.

It is a Hindustani classical stringed instrument which utilizes sympathetic strings along with regular strings and a gourd resonating chamber to produce a very distinctive sound. The sitar has been ubiquitous in Hindustani classical music since the Middle Ages. It became popular in the West when The Beatles used it in many songs, including "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)", "Across the Universe", "Tomorrow Never Knows", and "Within You Without You". Beatles lead guitarist George Harrison was inspired by, and later taught by, famous sitar player Ravi Shankar.

Etymology and history

The name sitar comes from the Persian sehtar; seh meaning three and tar means string. A similar instrument is used to this day in Afghanistan, and the original Persian name is still used. Both instruments are most likely derived from the Turkish instrument, which is a long, lute-like instrument with no gourd resonating chamber. Both the tembar and sehtar were used in pre-Islamic Persia and also used in Turkey today. Alternatively, an older Indian instrument called the rudra veena resembles the sitar in some important respects, most notably in the use of gourd resonators. It is possible that the sitar is actually derived from this instrument, or that the modern sitar is an amalgamation of the two. Dr. Lalmani Misra in his book, Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya traced Sitar to ancient Tri-tantri Veena which came to be popularly known as Jantra during the medieval period.

Sitar mechanics

A distinctive feature of the sitar are the curved frets, which are movable (allowing fine variation in tuning) and raised (so that resonant, or sympathetic, strings can run underneath the frets, giving a very lush sound). A typical brother has 18, 19 or 20 strings (depending on the style) there are 6 (in the Vilayat Khan style) or 7 (in the Ravi Shankar style) playable strings on top. Three of these strings (called chikari) provide the drone and the rest are used to play the melody, though most of the notes of the melody are played on the first string (called the baj tar). The sitar also has 11, 12 or 13 sympathetic strings or tarbs (A.K.A. "tarif" or "tarifdar" ) running underneath the frets.

The instrument has 2 bridges; the main bridge (the bada goraj) for the playing and drone strings and a smaller, secondary bridge (the chota goraj) for the sympathetic strings that run beneath the main strings. The sitar may or may not have a secondary resonator, the tumba, near the top of its hollow neck. The sitar's distinctive sound is a result of the way the strings interact with the wide, sloping bridge. This is in contrast to the bridge on a guitar which resembles a knife edge. In a sitar, as a string vibrates, its length changes slightly as its edge touches the bridge, promoting the creation of overtones and giving the sound its distinctive, rich tone. The maintenance of this specific tone by shaping the bridge is called "jawari". Adjusting the jawari requires great skill. Many professional musicians will rely on professional instrumental makers to perform this task. For years Ravi Shankar toured the West with his sitar maker so that the tone of his sitar was always perfectly adjusted. Many professional sitarists also travel with 2 bridges - one for daily wear practising, and a fine tuned one for performing.

The materials used in construction include teak wood or tun wood (Cedrela tuna) for the neck and faceplate, and gourds for the kaddu (the main resonating chamber) and the aforementioned tumba. The instrument's bridges were formerly made of ivory, but today are made of camel bone or horn.

Tuning

The tuning of a sitar varies depending on sitarists school or style. Generally, the main playing string is tuned to C# or D or G, and the drone strings are tuned to the equivalent an open major or minor chord in Western music theory. The specific tuning for each raag is determined by tradition and each artist's personal preference. The sympathetic strings are tuned to the notes of the raag being played, although there is slight stylistic variance as to the order of these. The player will usually retune the sitar for each raag.

The strings are tuned by turning the pegs that hold the strings. The main playing strings are fine-tuned by sliding a bead fit around each string.

It may be rather difficult to tune a sitar. Not only because of the numerous strings (a typical electric guitar only has six strings) or the lack of geared mechanical tuners (sitar tuning pegs are wood cylinders that are chalked and tightened into a hole like traditional western classical music instruments such as the cello), but also because there are many different tunings, each based on the cadre of traditional and emerging tonal patterns or on the music of eminently influential sitar players.

In one or more of the more common tunings (used by Ravi Shankar among others) the strings are tuned in this fashion: The Chikari, Sa (high) Sa (middle) Pa. The Kharaj strings (bass strings) Sa (low) Pa. Then, Sa and Ma. When playing a Vilayat Khan Sitar (or "Gayaki" Sitar), the bass strings are removed and in their place is a 4th Chikari which is tuned to Ga, when playing the chikari you produce a chord (Sa, Sa, Pa, Ga). The sympathetic strings (tarif) are tuned depending on the raga, although for most purposes, they are tuned: Sa, Ni, Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa, Re, Ga, (last three in the upper range). If you were to tune it to rag Kafi for example you use tune as follows: Sa, ni (lower case denotes flat or, more properly, "komal") Sa, Re, ga, Ga (Shuddh ("natural"), considering that in Kafi you will come to Shuddh Ga when descending or "Avarohi"), ma, Pa, Dha, ni, Sa, Re, ga. Whereas, in ragini Yaman Kaylan you will tune the Tarifs to Sa, Ni, Sa, Re, Ga, ma (Yaman Kaylan asks for a sharp, or more properly, "tivra" Ma, but often will touch shuddh ma on the descent or "Avarohi"), Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa, Re, Ga. Again, however, there is a lot of stylistic variance to these tunings. An artist will develop a particular tuning for a particular piece and it may be totally idiosyncratic. There is no guarantee that other musicians will choose the same tuning even if they perform the same raga.

Learning to play

A sitar workshop in Islamabad, Pakistan Traditional approaches to learning the sitar involve a long period of apprenticeship under the tutelage of a master during which the apprentice would accompany the master with a tambura, providing a droning chord harmony for the sitar's melody. Nowadays it is possible to purchase books and videos to assist home learning.

Learning to play the sitar is a difficult process. The entire 3-octave range of the instrument is achieved by sliding the index finger of the left hand up and down the neck of the sitar over a single melody string, while the mezrab on the index finger of the right hand strikes the string. Thus it demands a very high degree of technical mastery to play even simple melodies with clarity and accuracy. It is also a rather painful process for the beginner until the hard calluses and black grooves on the tips of the index and middle finger, which typify the sitar player, begin to develop. A specialised technique called "Meend" involves pulling the main melody string down over the bottom portion of the sitar's curved frets, with which the sitarist can achieve a 7 semitone range of microtonal notes. Meend gives the sitar its characteristic fluid sound, but requires practice to achieve fluency and precision.

Playing

The dominant hand is used to pluck the string using a metallic plectrum called the mezrab. When playing sitar, the thumb of the plucking hand should stay anchored on the top of the fretboard just above the main gourd. The instrument should be balanced between the player's left foot and right knee. The hands should move freely without having to carry any of the instrument's weight. Generally only the index and middle fingers of the left are used for fingering although a few players (like Anoushka Shankar) occasionally use the third.

Indian classical instruments like the Sitar, the Vina, and the Sarod, are rooted in a tradition going back thousands of years and the very playing of them is regarded as a means to achieve union with the Divine.

In India, a musician doesn't step over the instrument or touch it with his feet other than when it's resting on the foot while playing. The instruments are treated as sacred and are not played while hands and clothes are dirty, etc.

Being that I am from the West and I am not a traditional trained Indian Classical musician above is some of the history from that perspective. I am very much a student of this instrument even though I have been exploring it for over a decade. It is a part of my spiritual practice, contemplation and ongoing musical education.

I am working on an electronic album which features my sitar explorations, and am hopeful to publish it in 2008. I will be adding MP3s of my SITAR playing in spring 2008.

Email Thomas here

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