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David Russell Watson

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Here are the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments articles on Sitar and Surbahar, which I hope some will find, if not enlightening, then at least entertaining ¦:·)

(Strictly for educational purposes, fair use, blah, blah, blah... )


pg. 392

Sitar (Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati sitār; Bengali setār; Marathi satār). Large, fretted long-necked lute, a prominent instrument of the classical music of the northern and central regions of the South Asian subcontinent (the area of New Indo-Aryan modern speeches), including modern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and with extensions into Afghanistan and Nepal. Though played by some itinerant rural performers (in Rajasthan) and in modern film and radio orchestras, the sitar is found mainly in traditional chamber music as formerly practised at the Muslim and Hindu courts and now on the public concert stage and through urban media. Such music, rendered by the voice, the sitar and other instruments, is often termed ‘classical’ in the subcontinent (the Sanskritic śāstrīya saṅgīt, ‘canonical music’, is an equivalent), but more traditional terms denote the essential repertory (rāg-saṅgīt; Urdu rāgdār mūsiqī: ‘music which has raga’) or its specialist performers (Persian-Urdu ustādī saṅgīt: ‘music of the maestros’). The music is based on aural tradition.

        The sitar is a leading instrument of the Indo-Muslim style of Hindustani music developed from the 17th and 18th centuries. It is an alternative to the voice and has provided, to varying extents, a model of raga form for such instruments as the sarod (lute), the sāraṅgī, esrāj and dilrubā (fiddles), the vicitrā vīṇā (stick zither), the santūr (dulcimer), the bā~surī (flute), the śahnāī (oboe) and the imported violin, Hawaiian guitar and harmonium. The sitar is normally accompanied by the tablā (drum) and, often, by the tambūrā (drone lute).

1. History and traditions. 2. Modern structure, tuning and types. 3. Techniques and notation. 4. Repertory and performing practice.

1. HISTORY AND TRADITIONS. The name ‘sitār’ is an Urdu transcription of Persian sihtār (‘three-stringed’; see SETĀR), Persian being the court language of north India from the 13th century to the 19th. It did not become standard in India until the instrument began to reach its present form in the 18th century, and we must look to other Perso-turkish names for long-necked lutes -- tanbūr, tanbūrah, to which sihtār may first have been an adjective -- for early forms of the Hindustani sitar, as well as of the tambūrā, which is of fundamentally similar construction. A common modern view that in the Middle Ages invading Muslims simply changed into Persian the name of an existing Hindu instrument (Sanskrit tritantirikā vīṇā: ‘three-stringed chordophone’, see Tagore, 1872) has no historical or musical foundation, as the plucked chordophones of that period were not lutes but stick zithers (see VĪṆĀ, §4).

(i) The Delhi Sultanate (1192--1526). The history of the Hindustani sitar begins with the Muslim Delhi Sul-

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tanate in 1192, when Muslim rule began in north India as a whole. The Turkish Ghorid clan, successors to the Ghaznavids in Afghanistan, Transoxania and the Panjab, conquered the Hindu kingdom of Delhi, and their followers took most of the Ganges valley within a decade and the greater part of the subcontinent within a century. The immigrant Turks and Persians brought their music and instruments with them: in the works of the Indo-Turkish court poet Amīr Khusrav (c1253--1325) the tanbūr is recorded together with other Islamic types such as the cang, rabāb, ‘ūd, śahnāī, ḍuhūl and ḍaph. The precise type of the Sultanate tanbūr cannot yet be specified; given the multi-national character of the Sultanate armies there may have been more than one. Its general nature can safely be inferred from surviving Perso-Turkish long-necked lutes -- slender instruments with an ovoid or pear-shaped wooden shell, frontal or right unilateral pegs (or both) inserted directly into the neck (without a separate pegbox), wooden soundtable and gut or fibre strings. They may have included both the fretted forms (with simple tied gut, like the modern west-central Asian tanbūr, dutār and setār) and unfretted (like the Central Asian dambura). A Muslim tradition in South Asia credits the invention of the sitar (and often also of the drum tablā and the song form khayāl) to Amīr Khusrav himself, although these names are not mentioned in his works. Amīr Khusrav was certainly closely involved with the Sufi sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi, who defended music to the sultan against the more orthodox Muslim divines. A strong tradition persisting to the present links the sitar to sufiānā rang (Sufi ecstatic music and dance), and may well date back to the tanbūr of these times. The tanbūr continues to be mentioned at the courts throughout this period: Sultan Sikandar Lodi, an Afghan (reigned 1489--1517), had ‘four boy slaves, skilled in chang, rabāb, tanbūr and bīṇ’ the last-named showing the Muslim interest in indigenous music at this time).

(i) The early Mughal empire (1526--1707). The early Mughal emperors and their tribesmen (known as ‘Mongols’, Persian: mughal), were in fact Chaghatai Uzbek Turks from the Timurid capital Samarkand. They not only brought fresh Central Asian influence to India, but also, especially Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan who ruled consecutively 1556--1658), great patrons of the arts -- Persian, Transoxanian and Indian. The lone-necked iute is recorded as tanbūrah at this time, and in Abu’l Faẓl’s contemporary account (c1590) of Akbar’s chief court musicians four players (more than for any other instrument) are named, all Muslim and two from Khorasan, a Timurid province in the previous century.

        The Hindustani sitar appears to have more in common with the large Uzbek dutār than with the Persian setār. The former has a shell (sometimes found also on the latter) which is also composite, with a shoulder and about ten carvel-built ribs, corresponding, to the gourd of the sitar, and often with small wooden triangles, recalling the sitar’s leaves, projecting from the shoulder. The Uzbek type is seen in paintings of the period, the ribs of the shell clearly visible through the use of alternating light and dark woods; a stylistic vestige of this is still found on the southern tambūrā and sarasvatī vīṇā. In in example of about 1640 (during the reign of Shah Jahan) it is shown played open-stringed over the performer’s right shoulder to accompany his singing (like a tambūrā but with frets) and the deep bridge of the modern sitar and tambūrā has clearly been developed (fig. 1). Among the tanbūrah players at this court were one Shauqi (‘well-versed in Persian and Hindi melodies’) and his pupil Tara Chand, titled Kalavant (a high Hindu musician caste); clearly the instrument was being adopted by Hindu musicians and for Hindu music. Further links with the Uzbek dutār are found in the technique used for plucking and in the early three-string tuning, well established in the following century when the name sitār became current. Willard (1834) gives the three-string tuning as two brass strings tuned in unison to the tonic (khaṙaj), and the first, of steel, to the 4th -- f--c--c (absolute pitch is not given), or ma--sā--sā. This remains the basis of the later more complex tunings and can be seen as expanded dutar tuning: in the broad whole-hand strumming style of these lutes the second string acts as a drone to the first and the third to the second, the strings being tuned in descending order from the player’s left to right in an arrangement typical of west-central Asian lutes but not of the bīṇ (see VĪṆĀ, §7). Later, however, both Tagore (1875) and Day (1891) give it in descending 4ths (f´--c´--g); this could relate to the Iranian setār, or be an independent development.

(iii) The late Mughal empire (1707--1858). The Hindustani court sitar took on the outline of its modern form as a solo instrument of art music during this period. Changes included the widening and thickening of the neck, now always straight, not tapering; the use of gourd for the shell instead of carvel-built ribs; the adoption of heavy metal frets -- at first of the over-tied type transitional from the simple west-central Asian bindings -- as well as of a rigid nut and string-guider of bone, etc. (frequently also simple bindings on non-Indian types); and the fitting of heavy metal strings. The dutār pattern of two frontal pegs was retained, leaving space to the left of the main string (which runs along the frets almost centrally) for large-scale string deflection for mī~ṙ (portamento), a technique of raga music, to which the sitar became restricted in this period.

        The name sitar became established early in this period (e.g. in the Hammīra-rāso of Jodhraj, Rajasthan, c1725), though we hear of ‘fretted and unfretted tambūrā’ up to
illustr. pg. 393.png 1. An early depiction of a Mughal tanbūrah showing the deep bridge applied to a long-necked lute which, though fretted, is here played open stringed as a drone: detail from a painting (c1640) by Bichitr (EIRE-Dcb Royal Albums 7, 7)

pg. 394




(b) 2. (a) Three-string sitar: engraving from a mid-I9th-centurv Marathi tutor; (b) five-string sitar (with numbered frets): engraving from a Bengali tutor (1868)

about 1800, to distinguish the sitar from the fretless drone tambūrā. This name presupposes an earlier three-string model established in the previous century (for a 19th-century depiction, see fig.2a). It was during the 18th century, however, that the five-string sitar -- whose pegs are retained in the modern instrument, placed above the nut -- came into use (fig. 2b). Several tunings are given in later sources, with two strings (variously drone, melody or cross-plucking) added to the earlier three. Tagore (1875) gives f´--c´--c´--g´--c as the norm but notes two variants: with the third string lowered to the 5th -- f´--c´--g--g´--c; and with the fourth and fifth strings reversed -- f´--c´--c´--c--g´. The combination of these two, with the addition of the chikārī, leads to the modern seven-string tuning. 17 frets were common, with variant degrees provided only for the lower and middle 4ths and lower 7th of the first string.

        Other sitar types have been found on the periphery of Hindustan, whose distribution and related features suggest a common development of the Mughal empire. These include the Carnatic sitar, the Kashmiri setār, the Afghan tanbur and perhaps the Gujarati sittarae, which share the pattern of three frontal pegs and a main string in a double course, and are all accompanying or band-sitars.

        The two main classical sitar repertories or bāj, comprising styles of metric composition (gat) and associated performing practices, were established in this period and reflect changing centres of patronage and taste. There were other players and styles but these have since become the foundation of sitar repertory. The Delhi bāj is based on a style attributed to Masīt Khān of the 18th-century Mughal capital; his descendants later moved to Rajasthani courts and the style is also called ‘western’ (pachāo, pachvā~) or, after him, masītkhānī. The descendants of Masīt Khān were associated with a large sitar with two extra full-gourd resonators, an instrument of the hybrid bīṇ-sitār type, and they claimed descent from Tansen (Akbar’s chief court musician). The masītkhānī performing style was dhrupad-influenced, with rabāb- and bīṇ-derived ālāp (introductory section), joṙ, thōnk and jhālā (see §4 below); metric variational practices included melodic or rhythmic transformation of the gat (sīdhī-āṙī) and augmentation-diminution (thā-dūn), similar to dhrupad bānṭ (the tablā ṭekā for slow tīntāl in 19th-century Bengali sources is markedly like that of the drum pakhāvaj).

        The ‘eastern’ (pūrab), or razākhānī, bāj is attributed to Ghulām Razā (early 19th century) of Lucknow, whose nawabs had by then succeeded the Mughals as the main patrons of Indo-Muslim culture. Imam (1856), in a contemporary account of Ghulām Razā Khān’s style, states that it was frowned upon by the ustads as being deficient in classical techniques such as ṭhōnk and jhālā. The razākhānī style is in fact probably closer to the sitār-tanbūr tradition: the ‘light’ ragas that form part of it (such as Kāfī, Pīlū, Khamāj and Bhairavī) are melodically similar to Central Asian tunes. Performing practice included augmentation-diminution (thā-dūn), cross-string plucking (cheṙ) and short stretches of melodic passage-work (khucṙā tān or upaj) derived from khayāl song and often improvised.

        The terms masītkhānī and razākhānī, applied to gat, denote skeletal rhythmic plucking structures (slow and fast respectively) rather than specific melodic compositions by Masīt Khān and Razā Khān. The most common razākhānī type begins on the 7th beat; some such compositions predate Razā Khān and are attributed in tradition (especially those in raga Kāfī) to ‘Amir Khusrav’ and may relate to Sufiānā rang. They were extended by 18th-century sitar players such as the brothers Lāḍ Khān and Pyār Khān. There is a greater underlying similarity in the plucking rhythm of the first lines of the two gat types than is apparent today, when the tempo difference may be 8 : 1 or more; traditional sitar players, however, still refer to the two as dhimā (‘moderate’) and dūnī (‘double’). Older gat from this period are often in two lines, corresponding to the sthāyī and manjhā, not sthāyī and antarā, of the modern style. The manjhā line is created in masītkhānī gat by triple repetition of the first sub-bar, comparable to the gat-dohrā (‘theme and doubling’) of Delhi tablā, the antarā is probably a later development influenced by vocal forms, and created here by rhythmic imitation of the first two lines into the upper octave. Razākhānī gat shows more vari-

pg. 395

ety. The emerging classical gat repertory of this time probably represents different stylizations of common material. This shows some affinities with the instrumental ‘teahouse music’ of north Afghanistan and Central Asia.

2. MODERN STRUCTURE, TUNING AND TYPES. Several types of sitar can still be found in manufacture, but the most common in Hindustani concert music (the concert sitar, or tarafdār sitār) is fairly uniform, with two main models, single-gourd and double-gourd (see fig.3, p.396); other types are found only rarely.

(i) Concert sitar. Tarafdār sitār means ‘sitar with sympathetic strings’, but this type is often simply called sitar, this feature having become standard. It is made of wood and a bulging gourd segment (though all-wood sitars are sometimes found) and is based on the ‘large sitar’ of the 19th century, when it was standardized to a length of about 122 cm (i.e. four feet: cārī phūṭ; Tagore, 1875), excluding the string holder, as the optimum length for raga music. Other dimensions are more variable. For all but very cheap instruments two types of wood are mostly used. Toonwood (tun, tūn, tunnā, Cedrela toona), similar to mahogany and taken from the Panjab, has always been thought best for sound. Teak (sāgvān, sāgūn, segūn) was formerly employed only for cheaper instruments, but with the modern higher pitch and use of thicker strings (especially in Calcutta sitars) it has become increasingly used for its strength, and combinations with a teak neck and toon soundtable are found. The body has two principal parts: the resonator or shell (khol), and the neck (ḍā~ḍ, daṇḍā, daṇḍī: ‘stick’), each being composite (fig.3).

        The shell has three main sections: a bulging segment (A.) of about two-thirds of a gourd (tumbā, tū~bā, tõbā), carefully chosen for its near symmetry and acoustic properties, cut (fig.3c (ii)) and cleaned, dried and varnished hard: a piece of thick wood (B), shaped like the half-section of the neck and shoulder of a large round bottle (gal, galā, Urdu gul, gulū, gardan: ‘neck, throat’) which, to avoid confusion with the Western term ‘neck’, we may call ‘shoulder’, with an under-shelf around its lower rim on which the gourd is glued; and the soundtable (C; tablī, probably from Urdu tablah: ‘a round wooden tray’), much thicker than in Western lutes, in shape resembling a round bottle in two dimensions, appearing convex but continuing the notional height of the fingerboard in its flat upper-central surface, and carved gently sloping down and away to its outer edge (its main section is always ovoid in conjunction with this cut of gourd; see also kachvā sitār, below). On many sitars seven carved leaves with seven points (D) project over the gourd from the rim’s lower edge.

        The neck proper (E) is a long, hollowed piece of wood (its top closing wall, pagṙī (‘turban’), is usually integral), rounded at the back and roughly 88 to 90 cm long and 9 cm wide; it terminates at the lower end in a heavy tenon to which the soundtable and shoulder are nailed inside the shell. The fingerboard (F; paṭrī: ‘plank’) is in three pieces: over the peg area; between the string-guider (G) and the nut (H), this piece often bearing the maker’s label; and under the frets, this section being concave with narrow flat ledges running down each side.

        The peg area, apart from the front, is not a separate piece on the sitar, but simply the top of the neck above the string-guider and nut (G and H); its simple, ‘sawn-off’ shape and arrangement of frontal and right lateral pegs are distinctive features shared by the west-central Asian long-necked lutes with wooden table, surviving in the sitar (and to some extent the tambūrā) in spite of much 19th-century pegbox remodelling of other instruments (though sitars with separate scroll pegboxes and bilateral pegs are found; see SŪRBAHĀR and BĪṆ-SITĀR). The five principal pegs (khū~ṭī, kīl, kīlak: ‘peg’; Bengali also kān: ‘ear’) and their strings (tār, derived from Persian: ‘metal string’) are arranged as shown (I (i)--(v)); the strings, secured through narrow holes in the stems of the pegs, are wound anti-clockwise except for I (ii) which is wound clockwise for spacing from I (i). Modern pegs are thick and round in cross-section, with a bulbous top carved smooth, or in whorls, roses etc. for a better grip. Older sitars have smaller pegs with a two-dimensional ‘two-leaf clover’ top. The strings are all of metal: the first and fifth are always tempered steel, the second of copper or phosphor bronze, and the others of brass or steel, according to tuning (see below).

        From the pegs the strings pass over two blades of bone or similar material set in the fingerboard and often termed ‘cross-pieces’ (āṙ, āṙī), though their functions are different. The upper may be called the string-guider (G; Urdu tārdān, Hindi tārgahan: ‘string holder’), for it guides the strings, threaded through holes halfway down, to the nut (H; aṭī, from aṭ: ‘check, restraint’), where they are held firmly in little grooves.

From the nut the main strings pass down over the frets to the main bridge (J; ghoṙā, ghuṙī, ghuṙac: ‘horse, mare, little horse’, respectively). This deep bridge, 7 to 7.5 cm wide, about 3 cm deep and 2 to 3 cm high, consists of antler or bone plate glued on a table-shaped wooden trestle whose two broad legs are glued (or on some sitars held by a pin-and-socket) near the centre of the table. The surface of the plate is filed in a parabolic contour (javārī), with the node between a third and halfway back. When plucked, the string beats on the bridge in front of the node, producing a bright tone rich in harmonics; a sharper angle of filing (khulī: ‘open’), as with most sitars, gives a twangy, nasal tone and a looser string, while a more gradual one (gol: ‘round’) gives a more subtle, veiled tone and a tighter string (as in the style of Ustad Vilayat Khan, for example). The javārī, which regularly needs renewal, serves three main purposes: it provides a long-lasting tone; it can be adjusted to allow an even timbre along the whole length of the neck (two octaves); and it reduces the tension on the string where it sits in a groove in the back wall of the bridge behind a lateral ‘ditch’ (the string would otherwise break when pulled sideways for portamento, which can be obtained over an interval up to a 5th). The contour is often different under each string (Marcotti; see M. Junius, 1975). The name javārī, sometimes used incorrectly for the bridge itself, may derive from javār or juvār (‘flood tide’), referring to the full sound it gives: it can also refer to fullness of voice in a singer, or a similar effect from the threads on the tambūrā.

        The strings pass from the bridge over a protective plate on the table to the inferior string holder (K), sometimes called tārdān etc. (see G above), but more often named after its shape: a long narrow triangular bone piece with an upper T-bar (laṅgot: ‘loin cloth’: or mogrā: ‘mallet’ screwed to the gourd. Fastening devices vary from one or more projecting bone hooks around which the strings are looped in a noose, to a combination of a hook for the sympathetic strings and six or seven projecting teeth on the T-bar, one for each main string. Before being

pg. 396


pg. 397

attached the melody strings are threaded through fine-tuning beads (L; maṅkā) which lie either on the peg area or, and in the case of the first string always, on the soundtable below the bridge, the latter usually in the form of an animal or bird; these allow rapid minor retuning during performance.

        The frets (M; pardā, from Perso-Turkish pardah; occasionally called by the literary Sanskrit name sārikā) are of thick curved brass, of round or oval cross-section, the two ends resting on the narrow ledges of the fingerboard (see also Fret, fig. 2) and tied with bindings (fig. 3b, N; bandhanī) of gut, nylon or, much the best, a rough yarn of wild silk. Modern frets are side-tied, the bindings sitting in small grooves near either end of the fret and passing around the back of the neck; on earlier 19th-century instruments the older over-tied frets can be seen, with the bindings passing over small channels running along both sides of the fret and right around the neck. At this time the number of frets was commonly 17, giving, as today, a range of two octaves on the first string, but with chromatic (vikṛt) degrees provided only for the lower and middle sharp 4ths and the lower flat 7th (taking the major C mode as a model, which it became during this period). Apart from the tonic () and 5th (pa), held to be immovable (acal), up to four frets in each tetrachord could be moved to obtain a variety of modal fret settings (ṭhāṭ). From the later 19th century three more frets have been added, giving 20; now the lower octave is chromatically complete and only the 2nd and 6th of the middle and the 2nd to 4th of the upper octave require moving (apart from fine-tuning adjustments in certain ragas). The main reason for these additions was the fitting at this period of the sympathetic strings, whose pegs restrict fret movement (a matter to check when buying a sitar today). Completely chromatic (acal-ṭhāṭ) sitars are very rare.

        Also from the mid-19th century one or two thin strings began to be added, known today as cikārī ‘squeaking, gnat’), of 0-gauge steel and tuned variously at first to the middle tonic or 5th or the upper tonic, but nowadays to the middle tonic (O (i)) and upper tonic (O (ii)). Deriving from the bīṇ through the sūrbahār, they are best described as punctuating strings, not drones. They pass from their pegs below the nut over two small bone posts (P) set upright in the fingerboard ledge (sometimes carved in the shape of cloves, and so called: lauṅg, lavaṅg) and down over the main bridge to the string holder. The posts are set approximately a third and two-thirds along the fingerboard; on older sitars each cikārī peg is immediately above its post.

        Another later 19th-century development on the sitar is the dozen or so sympathetic strings (New Indo-Aryan. Urdu taraf, tarab: ‘side-strings’), also taken from the sūrbahār, and ultimately perhaps from the sāraṅgī. Their small pegs (Q) project sideways through the neck (formerly vertically into a long thin board fixed along the side), and the strings rise up through a line of bone-ringed holes in the concave fingerboard, passing down under the frets to their own small bone bridge (R), also parabolically filed, and under the main bridge to the string holder. Formerly of brass, they are now made of thin steel (0 or 00) and are tuned for sympathetic resonacne, adding fullness of tone and a richer texture. Decorative features on the sitar mostly hide the joints of the parts and include a long punched strip (Hindi gõṭ: ‘hem’), now regerettably of plastic, running around the joints of the resonator and shell and recalling the inlay of Central Asian lutes; a large floral plastic panel covering the front neck-table joint; two inlaid birds on the upper quadrants of the table; and raised wooden vines near the edge of the table in these quadrants. Sometimes the shoulder is heavily carved.

        Many sitars have a small second gourd resonator (S; tumbā) attached at the back of the neck below the nut; the gourd, up to 22 cm in diameter, is capped by a round wooden shoulder, ending in a heavy tubular brass screw inserted in a nut built into the neck. This is detachable, and is not an original feature of the sitar (except for bīṇ-sitār types); it adds little extra resonance and serves perhaps only a symbolic purpose, manifesting a bīṇ lineage for the player. The association is not absolute, but double-gourd sitars are mostly tuned in modern seven-string tuning and single-gourd in six-string, with associated holding styles (fig. 4, p. 398).

        The sitar is always played with a twisted-wire plectrum (Urdu mizrāb), worn on the right index finger (fig. 3d).

(ii) Plain or practice sitar. The plain (Urdu sādā) sitar is used only by some beginners and differs only in the absence of sympathetic strings; the fingerboard, not needing to accommodate these strings, is convex, with the frets sitting closely on it. It is actually the concert sitar of the 19th century, used by some players into the early decades of the 20th.

(iii) Kachvā sitār. This type differs in having a flat-cut half-gourd tumbā in the shell ( fig. 3c (iii)) and is now not common, though it was more important in the 19th century; the highly-regarded Lucknow sitar player Ghulām Muḥammad Khān developed the sūrbahār from this type in the 1820s, and his son Sājjād Ḥusain was influential in Calcutta later in the century. Its shape makes it difficult to obtain a firm grip, and it was probably used especially for ālāp and slow gat styles. Its name is often explained as ‘tortoise’ (Hindi kachvā) sitar, and this was rendered in Sanskrit by writers such as Tagore (1875) as kacchapī vīṇā in an attempt to derive it from the ancient instrument of that name. Neither the derivation nor the resemblance to the animal seems tenable, and the name was probably derived instead from another Hindi word, kachvā (‘half’ or ‘flank’, referring to the gourd shape).

(iv) Small sitar. This has also been little used since the 19th century (except for miniature specimens intended for children -- or for tourists’ walls). Smaller sitars suitable for amateurs and often of a size to be played sitting in a chair were common then, with small shells of wood, coconut or even silver or an ostrich egg (Tagore, 1875). In a compliment to the lady amateur Tagore invented the name ‘cherubim lute’ (kiṃnarī vīṇā) for these sitars.

(v) Carnatic sitar. The Carnatic sitar, probably used only in the Karnataka area of the south and described by Day, is now obsolete. It had a long slender neck, a full rounded soundbox, and was made of wood, though sometimes gourd was used for part of the resonator. A small second resonator (probably of gourd) was attached near the top of the back of the neck. There were seven strings and pegs, three of the latter placed frontally and four on the right side. The strings were all of metal, the first six steel and the last brass. The first two were a double course tuned to the middle tonic, given by Day (1891) as g. The frets, 14 or more small upright blades of wood capped with metal and about 1·25 cm wide,

pg. 398


4. Modern seven-string sitar played by Ravi Shankar

were only under these strings; they were tuned to the major scale, or with two extra sharp 4ths, or chromatically. The other strings were open drones; the third was tuned in unison with the first two, the fourth and fifth to the middle 5th and upper tonic respectively, and the last two to the lower 5th and tonic: g --g--g--d´--g´--d--G. The bridge, though small, was of the deep Indian kind.

        The lute was held resting diagonally on the player’s right thigh. It was played by professional performers of the southern devotional music which Day called bhazana, in an ensemble which also included the tablā, one or two tambūrā, the sāraṅgī, the mādalā and a bajānā śruti or a tāla. The Carnatic sitar had no scope for sideways deflection of the strings or portamento but was suitable for vocal accompaniment; it had a ‘soft and sweet tone’, which Day compared to that of the mandolin.

3. TECHNIQUES AND NOTATION. 19th-century depictions of sitar players show them kneeling or half-kneeling in difficult positions, dictated by their role as court servants. Nowadays the player sits fully on the floor, his left leg tucked flat beneath his right, the shell supported in the hollow of his left foot. The sitar’s main weight is in the neck, and the shell must be held down by the right forearm, hanging naturally. The left thumb maintains a steady pressure on the side of the neck, with an angle at the wrist; the knuckles press down over the first string. Some players sit cross-legged (fig. 4a) with the raised right thigh supporting the neck (requiring less pressure from the right arm); others keep it flat (fig. 4b).

        The basic plucking style is a continuous through-movement of the right hand from the wrist, all four fingers held loosely together and supported by the thumb, mostly on the first string but often lightly brushing the second string simultaneously. Only the plectrum is used for plucking, with the hand tilted somewhat, generally inwards () for a downbeat and outwards () for an upbeat. The left hand cups the neck lightly, touching it only at the back with the rigid thumb and on the frets primarily with the gently curved index finger between the pad and the tip; this light grip is maintained throughout performance, the middle finger touching for a descending turn, or the third for a large stretch (but some players ascend with the middle finger and descend with the index, or vary their fingering according to context). The constant use of one finger creates the Indian vocal legato quality, and the distance between frets is too great for much use of positional fingerings.

        Full notes on the frets are ‘standing notes (Hindi khaṙā sur), but there are many ornamental techniques, of three main types. The first kind are played along the string: in ghasīṭ (‘dragging’) the finger slides to another fret, lightly for grace-notes (kaṇ: ‘drops’), up or down (Bengali bikṣep, prakṣep: ‘casting’) or slow (gharṣan: ‘friction’ or ās: ‘expectation’) to suggest intermediate tonal-microtonal pitches; a dramatic slide is chūṭ (‘release’). Hammering with the middle finger is sparś (‘touch’), or kaṇ, and repeated hammering zamzamā (Urdu: ‘humming’); in kṛṇtan (‘cutting’) the middle finger plucks off a fret. The second type consists of a sideways pulling (khī~c) of the string for portamento (mī~ṙ) up to a 5th or, rarely, a flat 6th, derived from the vīṇā class but, like the sūrbahār, pulling to the left of the neck, free of the strings. The sitar is considered to have two ‘breaths’ (dam) in mī~ṙ, the dying sound revived by manipulation. Āndolan is a slow repeated ‘swing’, and gamak a throbbing fast one. The third kind, a cross-string plucking (cher, cheṙ-chāṙ), is principally a feature of jhālā (the third section of a piece; (see §4 below) since the adoption of cikārī strings, but still occurs. In the modern period many tutors with notations have been produced, especially in Hindi, but the most precise and valuable form is that of the Bengalis Gosvami (1868) and Tagore (1872), on a Western-inspired staff with graphic symbols, which some modern tutors, with their plethora of commas and apostrophes, would do well to equal.

4. REPERTORY AND PERFORMING PRACTICE. Table 1 gives a schematic representation of raga form as played on the sitar. It displays the two movements (ālāp and gat-toṙā), principal sections (ālāp, slow and fast gat and subordinate sections (joṙ, jhālā (3), jhālā (6)). Some main optional extensional procedures are grouped vertically beneath each section. Full performances include all sections (1--6); shorter renditions omit some, especially 2, 3 and 6, which cannot open a performance. The introductory ālāp (1b or c, 2, 3) sometimes occurs alone, but normally elements of both ālāp and gat-toṙā are included (at the very least 1a and 5). The order of sections is always maintained. Change to a related raga (at section 5, for example) sometimes occurs, while rāgmālā (‘a garland of ragas’) with extemporized changes of mode is quite popular. Prastārikā (‘a medley’) of gat in several tāl is now rare. The usual term for the complete performance is rāg (New Indo-Aryan for Sanskrit rāga), though the term gat was formerly used in this sense.

        The first section (ālāp) is devoted to the exposition of the mode through various techniques primarily derived from vocal music, above all portamento (mī~ṙ), which is

pg. 399

Table 1.png achieved through string deflection. Ālāp is without metre (tāl) or drum accompaniment and is always molto cantando. Āocār ālāp (1a; Sanskrit uccār: ‘pronouncement’) is a brief announcement of the raga through a few characteristic phrases, such as the pakaṙ (Hindi: ‘catch’), and may lead directly to gat (4 or 5). Phrasal ālāp of various kinds (1c; Hindi bandhān: ‘bound’; Urdu qāid: ‘strict’) comprises more extended development of such phrases centring on strong tones of the mode -- the tonic (New Indo-Aryan , khaṙaj/ṣaṙaj, sur), melodic centre (Sanskrit saṃvādī; Urdu jān: ‘soul’), secondary centre (Sanskrit saṃvādī) and often also the 5th (pa) or 4th (ma) degree of the scale. In 1b, vistār or bistār (‘extended’) ālāp, these features of the raga are elaborated in slow, rigorous developments through low, middle and upper octaves. In the middle octave, each note is introduced in turn in ascending scale order and ‘each note in turn becomes the vādī’ (V. N. Bhatkhande: Hindustānī saṅgīt paddhati, 1910--32); the development of each note is concluded by a rhythmic cadence (Hindi muhrā: ‘coming forward’). This form reflects the bīṇ-sūrbahār repertories; a generation ago a sitariyā (sitar player) could play vistār of a raga on the sūrbahār and then its gat-toṙā on the sitar tuned a 4th or a 5th higher. Ālāp-type development may also occur in gat sections (4, 5). In slow gat (4), vistār-type extension called baṙhat (Hindi: ‘increase’) or ālāpī is performed in free tempo against slow tablā metre. This feature is again relatively modern and derived from khayāl song; in both khayāl and sitar performance it would follow an introductory āocār ālāp. Short phrasal ālāp occurring in gat sections is bahlāvā (Hindi: ‘divertissement’).

        In joṙ (2: Hindi: ‘joining’) and jhālā (3), there are various combinations of techniques that may partly derive from vocal nom-tom ālāp (which may itself derive from instruments) developing raga through pulse and tempo. Rhythmic groupings are set up through tonal patterns and play made with departure and return to the beat; later stages concentrate on intensified patterns -- laṙī and complex cross-rhythmic bol and ṭhonk (Hindi: ‘hammering’).

        Jhālā (Hindi: ‘a shower’), which cannot be earlier than mid-19th century on the sitar (when the cikārī strings were added), contrasts accelerated patterns on the melody strings and the cikārī, with accent either on the latter (ulaṭ: ‘reversed’) at the end of ālāp (3) or on the former (sulaṭ: ‘straightforward’) to conclude fast gat (6; some sources reverse these terms). The ulaṭ with added complex bol is ṭhonk jhālā. A former technique derived from sarod and rabāb, jhārā (also ‘shower’), played patterns similar to jhālā, but all on the main string. The sitar and bīṇ equivalent of the time was cheṙ (Hindi: ‘excitation’) which contrasted melody string notes with fast patterns on open or fretted drones.

        The metric gat compositions (4, 5) remain the heart of sitar raga repertory as models for the student and the nucleus of performing practice. In the mid-19th century these were quite separate traditions; in standard modern performing practice, both types of gat follow in succession. Quadratic tīntāl (16-beat rhythmic cycle) is the base for both bāj. In the 19th century, 12-beat ektāl was the other main tāl for sitar (being symmetrical it was also good for thā-dūn, see below); nowadays gat in many tāl have been developed, notably by sitarists of the Allauddin Khan school.

        There are many types of improvisational practice (Sanskrit prayog: ‘usage’; Urdu fiqra: ‘construction’) which occur as toṙā (‘breaks’) in gat playing. In gat-vistār, for example, the plucking pattern of the masītkhānī gat is kept up by the right hand while the left hand moves elsewhere to provide different melodic elaborations. The older truly variational ones (sīdhī-āṙī, thā-dūn) are less common today, but āmad (variation of the cadence) is still important. Chand, boltān and tārparan stress right-hand plucking and are similar to joṙ-jhālā techniques. Tān, mainly melodic bravura passages, have seen a great development following that of khayāl. Very rapid right-hand plucking has always been a feature of sitar playing, but with the left hand moving much more slowly, so that many small sets of repeated notes are heard. Concert virtuosos now often move the left hand as fast as the right. Cross-rhythmic work (āṙī-kuāṙī ‘cross-crooked’) and the triple rhythmic cadence (tīhāī, tīyā) serving as a closing cue probably derive from drums and dance (kathak). Modern savāl-javāb (‘question-answer’) is antiphonal phrasing from sitar to tabla leading to climactic sāth-saṅgat (‘simultaneous (improvised) accompaniment’); more traditionally this denotes thematic imitation of sitar and tabla ‘breaks’.


        Abu’l Faẓl: Ā’īn-i-akbarī (c1590), trans. H. Blochmann in The Imperial Musicians (Calcutta, 1873, 2/1927), 680ff; trans. H. Jarret, rev. J. Sarkar in Saṅgīt, Bibliotheca Indica, cclxx (Calcutta, 1948), 260ff
        Pratāp Singh, compiler: Saṅgīt-sār (Jaipur, c1800), ed. Poona Gayan Samaj (Poona, 1910212) [in Hindi]

pg. 400

        N. A. Willard: A Treatise on the Music of Hindustan [1834]; repr. in S. M. Tagore: Hindu Music from Various Authors (Calcutta. 1875, 2/1882/R1965)
        Muhammad Karam Imam: Ma’danu ’l-mūsīqī (1857), trans. G. Vidyarthi, Sangeet Natak Akademi Bulletin (1959), nos. 11--12, pp. 13. 33; (1959), nos.13--14. p. 6; (1960), nos.15--16. p. 49
        K. M. Gosvami: Saṅgīt-sār (Calcutta, 1868) [in Bengali]
        S. M. Tagore: Yantra-kṣetra-dīpikā (Calcutta, 1872) [in Bengali]
        —: Yantra-koś (Calcutta. 1875/R1977) [in Bengali]
        K. D. Banerji: Gīta-sūtra-sār (Calcutta, 1885) (in Bengali)
        C. R. Day: The Music and Musical Instruments of Southern India and the Deccan (Delhi, 1891/R1977)
        A. H. Fox Strangways: The Music of Hindostan (Oxford, 1914/R1965)
        B. K. Roy Choudhury: Bhāratiya-saṅgīt-koś (Calcutta, 1965) [in Bengali]; (New Delhi, 1975) [in Hindi)
        B. S. Śarma: Sitār-mālikā (Hathras, 3/1966) [in Hindi]
        I. N. Pathak: Sitār-siddhānt (Allahabad, 1967) [in Hindi]
        Anwar Khan: Sitār-darpaṇ (Baroda, 3/1972) [in Hindi]
        M. Junius: The Sitar (Wilhelmshaven, 1975) [incl. T. Marcotti: ‘On Doing Djovari’]


pg. 476

Sūrbahār. Large plucked lute of north Indian classical music, effectively a bass SITAR. It was invented c1820 by the famous sitar player Ghulam Muhammad of Lucknow (or, some say, by his teacher, the bīṇ player Pyar Khan) as a sitar suitable for playing the older Hindustani raga style of the bīṇ (see VĪṆĀ, §7). Its construction is essentially that of the sitar, but with the following differences: the overall dimensions are much larger, with a length of 145 cm or more, a neck width of at least 11 cm and the diameter of the soundtable over 40 cm; the gourd-section at the back of the shell is flat-backed and round-sectioned (as is the table), like the kachvā sitār (see SITAR, fig. 3c), often with a projecting wooden floor-rest on the left side of the gourd; the tied curved metal frets are often vertically flat-sectioned, with small flat plates at either end for support; the pegbox is separate, bent-back and often has a scroll, open at the back and with a bilateral (two left, three right) arrangement of the main pegs. Some sūrbahār have also a soundhole on the table, or a second gourd resonator.

        In its introduction of bīṇ tuning with two punctuating


Sūrbahār played by Imrat Khan

cikārī strings (the same as for the modern seven-string sitar but a 4th or a 5th lower) and of the dozen or so sympathetic strings the sūrbahār led the way for similar developments on the sitar from the mid-19th century. As noted by Tagore (1875), it is simply a large kachvā sitār with sympathetic strings, and it is still mainly performed by sitar players, with the same plectrum and technique (though some use that of the bīṇ). Its Urdu name means literally ‘a springtime of notes’, referring to the sympathetic strings, then unusual on long lutes. It is considered to have three ‘breaths’ (dam), in that the dying sound can be revived twice by left-hand portamento (mī~ṙ), which in the hands of masters (of which there are but few) can extend to a full octave, mostly in the solo ālāp and joṙ styles.


        S. M. Tagore: Yantrakoś (Calcutta, 1875) [in Bengali]
        C. R. Day: The Music and Musical Instruments of Southern India and the Deccan (Delhi, 1891/R1977)
        A. H. Fox Strangways: The Music of Hindostan (Oxford, 1914/R1965)



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Thank u David for your time and effort posting this.
Learned man and a scholar. "I hope you have many camels" as the Persian saying goes!!
In your case my best wishes thank u.

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Thanks for this very informative and comprehensive editorial / commentary .

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Thanks Rex.
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