The sitar is a plucked bowl-lute chordophone most strongly associated with Hindustani (North Indian classical) music but is also played across South Asia from India to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Nepal. It likely took on its current physical form and musical style in the classical chamber music practices of the Muslim and Hindu courts of the late-Mughal empire (1707-1858 CE). Modern performance contexts have expanded to include large music festivals (sangit sammelan), urban concert halls, and radio broadcasts, in all of which the sitar is typically accompanied by tabla and tambura. Several stylistic schools (gharanas) of sitar playing exist in which performance knowledge is closely guarded and transmitted through the traditional hierarchical master-disciple (ustad-sagird amongst Muslim musicians) relationship. The sitar has become popular in drama, film, and other forms of media within India and across the globe in popular music and world music, in part due to the ambassadorial efforts by sitar players Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan beginning in the second half of the 20th century. The sitar can now be considered an icon of Indian culture.
The structure of the sitar body is complex. The resonator section of the lute is constructed from three components: a large bottleneck gourd the top third (its neck and shoulders) of which is removed and then about another third of the resulting open bowl is removed with a vertical cut; a new shoulder of wood is carved that roughly mimics the shape and thickness of the shoulder of the gourd that was removed but which is truncated with a vertical cut that matches the second cut to the original gourd; and a slightly convex, teardrop-shaped board carved from a thin plank of wood. The wood shoulder is glued to the top of the cut-down gourd, and then the teardrop-shaped board, which will function as the resonator’s soundboard, is attached with glue to the open face of the gourd/shoulder unit, resulting in a hollow resonating chamber that is similar in shape to a gourd but which has one nearly flat side. The second main component of the sitar body is the long neck/pegbox unit, the lower end of which is securely connected to the terminus of the resonator’s shoulder/soundboard with a tenon joint and nails. The neck/pegbox is itself hollow and constructed from three pieces of wood: one long U-shaped trough of consistent width and thickness, closed at its top end, that is carved from a single piece of wood; a short and flat rectangular board that covers the top quarter of the trough; and a long concave rectangular board that covers the lower three-quarters of the trough. An arched string-guider and a slightly higher nut, both of bone, mark the boundary between the fingerboard and pegbox sections of the neck. A second gourd, as much for balance and decoration as for resonance, is screwed to the backside of the neck. Five large wooden friction tuning pegs penetrate the pegbox, two from the top and three from the side. Near the top end of the fingerboard two more large side-mounted tuning pegs are found, and then along the remaining length of the fingerboard are located eleven smaller side-mounted friction pegs. Nineteen arched moveable frets made from brass rods are attached to the fingerboard section of the neck with strands of silk that run around the back of the neck (see detail photo). Two broad platform bridges with wood bases and deep and contoured tops made of bone are glued to the face of the soundboard. A wood and bone string holder with seven stubs is securely attached to the bottom of the resonator. This composite body serves as the carrier for eighteen wire strings of varying gauges. The strings wound around the five large tuning pegs in the pegbox pass through the string-guider, over the nut, ride slightly above the frets, pass over the larger bridge, and are attached with nooses to studs on the string holder. The strings wound around the two large pegs on the side of the fingerboard each pass over a post attached to the neck before passing over the large bridge and being looped around a stud on the string holder. The remaining eleven very fine wire strings are wound around the ends of the small side-mounted pegs that are inside the neck; they emerge through small holes in the concave face of the fingerboard and then pass over the smaller bridge, beneath the larger bridge, and are finally looped around a single bone stub on the string holder.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The sitar is played while seated cross-legged on the floor with the resonator resting on the floor with the neck tilted upward at approximately a 45-degree angle. The soundboard and fingerboard face away from the performer and the side-mounted tuning pegs are pointed upwards. The player rests his or her right forearm on the gourd and uses a wire plectrum on the tip of the right index finger to pluck the strings. The first three fingers of the left hand are used to stop the strings against the raised frets of the fingerboard. Only the seven strings that pass over the larger bridge are plucked: the three top ones, called chikari strings, are not stopped by the left hand and are used for rhythmic punctuation; the four lower strings are for melodic play and are stopped against the fingerboard frets to change their acoustical lengths. The eleven strings that run over the lower bridge are called taraf strings and are not plucked directly but respond sympathetically to the energy emitting from the main strings (occasionally the player slides the plectrum across the sympathetic strings, adding a lush accent to the performance). Using C4 as the tonal center or 'sa' of the rag (mode) being performed (the frequency of 'sa' is not standardized), one standard tuning of the sitar is: for the upper bridge strings, top to bottom, C5 - C4 - G3 (for the chikari strings) and C2 - G2 - C3 - F3 (for the melody strings). The taraf strings are tuned to the scale of the particular rag being performed, mostly in the C4 - C5 octave. The potential melodic range of the sitar pictured here is from C2 - E5. The frets are positioned to produce a chromatic scale with one or a few gaps per octave over a range of just under two octaves on each string. Therefore, a player will typically need to adjust only a few of the fret positions when switching from one rag to another. The design of the fingerboard and frets makes possible the most distinctive feature of the sitar playing style, called khic, where, while pressing down hard between frets, the player also slides the string sideways to the left to create a wide portamento called mir.
Precursors of the sitar, such as the Persian setar (meaning 'three string'), were introduced into North Indian court culture as early as the 13th century. However, the name 'sitar' does not seem to be clearly established until the beginning of the 18th century, at which time it referred to a three-string long-neck lute. Modifications came to be made over time in terms of the number of melody strings and frets found on a sitar. In the mid-19th century the chikari strings were introduced and only at the end of that century were the taraf strings added, resulting in an instrument that resembles closely the sitar used at the present time.
Basu, Pushba. 2011. “Sitar.” In The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Music of India. ed. Nikhil Ghosh. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, v.3: 982-986.
Dick, Alastair. 1984. “Sitar.” NGDMI v.3: 392-400.
Miner, Allyn. 2000. "Musical Instruments: Northern Area." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 5. South Asia. ed. Alison Arnold. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., pp. 331-349.
Slawek, Stephen. 2000. "Hindustani Instrumental Music." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 5. South Asia. ed. Alison Arnold. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., pp. 188-208.Wade, Bonnie. 1979. Music in India: The Classical Traditions. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Region: South Asia
Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)321.321 chordophone--necked bowl lute: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck
Design and Playing Features
String carrier design: lute - joined
Resonator design, chordophone: bowl with wood soundboard
String courses: single
Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut/s and to fingerboard hole/s
String tension control: friction peg
Method of sounding: plucking (direct) and sympathetically (through air)
Pitches per string course: one and multiple (by pressure stopping against fretted fingerboard)
50.4 in. length
Roger Vetter, Toby Austin