The sitar (Hindi/Sanskrit: सितार, Urdu: ستار) is a plucked stringed instrument. It uses sympathetic strings along with a long hollow neck and a gourd resonating chamber to produce a very rich sound with complex harmonic resonance. Predominantly used in Hindustani classical, sitar has been ubiquitous in Hindustani classical music since the Middle Ages. This instrument is used throughout the Indian subcontinent.
Etymology and history
The Sitar is derived from the Veena family of Indian musical instruments. Its name most probably came from the Persian instrument called "Setar", which is from the saz family of instruments. An older Indian instrument called the Rudra Veena resembles the sitar in some important respects, most notably in the use of gourd resonators. Dr. Lalmani Misra in his book, Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya traced Sitar to Tri-tantri Veena which came to be popularly known as Jantra during the medieval period.
The Persian Setar and Indian Sitar are similar in name only, the former being of the "saz" family and resembling the Tambar, and the latter being of the "Veena" family. The styles of playing, as well as the music, are completely different. One is based on the "makams" or middle eastern modes of which there are approx 1,200 known and the other is based on the "ragas" of which about 2,000 known. These two instruments should not be confused.
The sitar first became popular in the Western world when Beatles lead guitarist George Harrison used it in a few Beatles songs, including "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," "Love You To," and "Within You Without You." Harrison was inspired, and later taught, by sitar player Ravi Shankar. The Rolling Stones also made the sitar popular by its use in the song "Paint It, Black". More recently, Ry Cooder has played sitar on recordings with John Hiatt.
A distinctive feature of the sitar are the curved frets, which are movable (allowing fine variation in tuning) and raised (so that resonant strings can run underneath the frets). A typical sitar has 21, 22 or 23 strings (depending on the style) — of which 6 (in the Vilayat Khan style), 9 (in the Ravi Shankar style), or 8 (as in the case of the great Pandit Nikhil Bannerjee's style) are playable strings, which are situated over the frets (It should be noted that both Ravi Shankar and Nikhil Bannerjee were both taught by the same Guru (or teacher)--Baba Alludin khan of the Senia Beenkar Gharana. Three (or four) 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 11-16 sympathetic strings or tarbs (A.K.A. "tarif" or "tarifdar" ) running underneath the frets.
The instrument has 4 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 reverberates, 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 instrument 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.
The materials used in construction include teak wood or tun wood (Cedrela tuna), which is similar to mahogony, for the neck and faceplate, and gourds for the kaddu (the main resonating chamber). The instrument's bridges are made of deer horn, ebony, or very occasionally from camel bone or elephant ivory.
The dominant hand is used to pluck the string using a metallic pick or plectrum called the mezrab. When playing sitar, the thumb of the plucking hand should stay anchored on the top part 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 occasionally use the third.