String of India: Sitar

Pictured here in his late 20s, Ravi Shankar was hugely important in popularizing Indian classical music in Western pop music. He would have turned 100 years old today.

The sitar is a rich, reddish brown colour instrument that had laid foundation to the western music in the early 13th Century. Every Raga has its own set of rules which creates a unique amalgamation of music. The sitar which was invented in the medieval period in India is said to be predecessor of veena. Amir Khusrow, who is known for his poetry, sufi music and was the pioneer of Taranaya, Qawwali and Tarana is said to have invented the Sitar from Veena. It was used widely throughout the Indian subcontinent and gained recognition in 18th century.

What is a Sitar?

Sitar is a part of family of stringed instruments. It is a gourd-shaped instrument that has 7 strings, 11-13 sympathetic strings and 20 frets all in all. Different forms of melodies are played on the sitar giving birth to a symphony of Rag. The natural reverb sound that the sitar produces is one of the most prominent features of Sitar music. A sound resembling ‘buzz’ is produced at the background. The signature sound of the sitar is known as ‘jawari’ which is required to be maintained all through and which requires great skill and a proper shape of the bridge.

History: The Great Sitar Explosion

The sitar is a more modified version of Veena. It was invented by Amir Khusrow, who is a renowned sufi poet. The term sitar originates from Persian language Seh + Tar which means ‘three strings. The oldest model of sitar originated of the three things but now it can go up to having 21 strings.

After the contributions of Amir Khusrow, another renowned artist called Ravi Shankar propagated the mesmerising music of the sitar through his works. In 1950s Ravi Shankar accompanied with a famous tabla player called Alla Rakha, introduced Indian music world wide. By mid 1960s, Sitar was introduced in western music by famous bands such as The Beatles, The Doors. Metallica and many others. Though this trend was a short lived one but Sitar became a very popular instrument in the west during that phase.

A few famous songs namely, ‘Norwegian wood’, ‘Love you to’ and ‘within you without you’ was played by The Beatles using sitar by George Harrison. These songs were recorded between 1965 and 1967. The Beatles was one of the most famous western music band back then, their use of Sitar helped the instrument gain popularity along with the Indian classical music. Later at around 1966, when Ravi Shankar and Shambhu Das started teaching Harrison the techniques of playing a Sitar, it became one of the most famous musical instruments to be talked about. The very same year, B. Jones from the band named Rolling Stones used a Sitar to play the song “paint it black”. After this Sitar became a widely recognised instrument in the west. Ravi Shankar described this as ‘the great sitar explosion’.

The Electric Sitar

Indian music has been loved and appreciated in the west since the beginning of the time. Therefore, the attempt to modify musical instruments to suit themselves has always been a western, modern thing to do. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin after visiting to India shared ‘I came back from a tour with the Yardbirds in the late sixties just so I could hear the music firsthand. Let’s put it this way: I had a sitar before George Harrison got his. I wouldn’t say I played it as well as he did, though.’ Zeppelin is known to have created music tracks such as “Friends”, “Kashmir” are considered one of the most important influences to the rock western music. The Doors for most of the music that they created in that era used Indian, Eastern scales as their soundtracks. Today, Sitar is a symbol of music and culture in Northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

“Who’s Who”

We cannot start talking about Sitar and not mention Ravi Shankar just as we begin with the conversation. He was one of the most noted musician gave the instrument a global recognition with the help if his friend George Harrision. Here are a few more noted Sitar players who have gained respect and immense success in this field:

  1. Nikhil Banerjee : He is also known as the child prodigy of Ravi Shankar. He is most definitely one of the greatest 20th century traditional sitarists.
  2. Annapurna Devi: One of the most accomplished female sitarist and sitar instructor, she also was Ravi Shankar’s wife.
  3. Al Gromer Khan: A German Sitar player who plays ambient electronic music with sitar
  4. George Harrison: A devotee of Indian music and culture, lead guitarist with the beatles, brought Sitar revolution at the west.
  5. Reenat Fauzia: She is considered to be one of the best female sitarist. Along with which she also is a sitar instructer. She has also been a part of lots of critically hailed classical music.

The mesmerizing sound of Sitar has enchanted thousands of audiences from 13th century. It is favoured by many famous instructors. It takes persistence and practice to master the use of sitar however the reward to the hard work is priceless. An instrument whose evolution has been so beautiful and globally inclusive has originated from the sacred subcontinent of India and we should be proud and aware of being a part of such a beautiful trajectory.