Sitar Musical Instrument | Classical Sitar Music

Sitar Musical Instrument

The emergence and rise of Sitar as one of finest instru­mental expressions of Classical Raga music, its nuances and rhythmic development constitute a really fascinating story. No particular person, not even Amir Khusro as the legend goes, invented the Sitar. The instrument is the clear result of a systematic process of evolution in which may master per­formers and thinkers have lent a hand.

Historically, all Indian instruments using strings were called Vinas of different types, the Vina being a generic name for them. Amongst them was the Tritantri Vina an instrument with three strings and frets. How it was tuned is not very clearly known but by the 11th or 12th century it had emerged as an instrument for accompaniment to vocal music and later also as an independent concert instrument. A little later, there were a series of Muslim invasions on North India and the Gangetic plains. The invaders mostly Persians and Turks were not only brave warriors but also loved finer things of life like music. Some of them had brought along with them a small instrument with three strings called “Seh-taar” meaning three strings. The visitors were greatly impressed by the Tritantric Vina as were the Indian performers by the Seh-taar. Then started a process of integration, understanding and assimilation which is typical to the resilience and adaptation potentialities of Indian Culture. The emergence of the Sitar was surely a part of this process and no historical date can be mentioned of its invention. Sitar also demons­trated the inherently secular character of our culture and art. By about the 18th Century the Sitar had come to acquire five strings. By stages, the number increased to 7 and from the Sitar later emerged the grand Sur Bahar an instrument used for Raga Alap only.

As in case of vocal music gharanas, the sitar gharanas also, over the centuries, developed their own features. These may list as‑

  • The tonal quality of the instrument.
  • The Technique of using the Mizrabs (plectrum).
  • The style and tone of the meeds or graces.
  • The style of Raga Alap and treatment of the ragas.
  • The nature and structure of compositions in the Vilambit, Madhya and Drut laya.
  • The pattern of Upaj, Todas and Tanas and the balancing or rapport with the drummer (tabla).

Apart from these, there were characteristics relating to specialization in certain ragas, forms of Alap or Gatkari from gharana to gharana.

Sources of the Classical Sitar Music Gharanas

The sources most clearly were the Dhrupad composition, Raga Alap of the voice and the Raga Alap particularly of the Rudra Bin. All these cast a magic spell over the Sitar players down the centuries. The most powerful influence over Sitar has been Khayal music and the Tarana songs. Historically all the earlier master exponents of Sitar had learnt music from the Binkars and Dhrupad singers. The music of latter is inscribed very deep into Sitar music. Whatever be the claims lately made of Sitar having its own independent baaz and personality, its dependence upon Bin and Dhrupad has been intense and can be discerned even today in the playing of the Sitar maestros.

In fact in evolving “Gatkari” where the Sitar has stolen March even over the venerated Rudra Bin, the reliance has once again been on Dhrupad songs and the Layakari of the Rudra Bin. The Sitar until the thirties of this century clearly had Vilambit. Alap, Madh Alap, Jod Alap, Thok Jhala followed by the gat compositions.

The old Sitar Baaz was based on slow movements of Alap and gat intermixed with enjoyable note combinations pro­duced by the Mizrab of the right hand. It was the Jaipur gharana of Sitar which produced “Do hath ka Baaz”—that judicious blending of the playing of both the right hand using special bols of Mizrab and the left hand playing notes on the frets with graces, gamakas and tanas. The Sitar also come to develop special ‘bols’ of the Mizrab which were different from gharana to gharana and this helped to develop the technical aspects of Sitar which became typical to Sitar giving it a distinct and separate identity as an instrument.

The impact of khayal on Sitar has been very great indeed. And it is this, perhaps, which can explain the very quick metamorphosis of the old traditional baaz in the last 70/80 years or so with the more recent trends of khayal music. In one word, the emphasis gradually shifted from the right hand to the left hand making possible rendering of swift passages, phrases, tanas and adding to melodic beauty of Sitar playing in practically all the departments.

Sitar and Tabla

Any discussion on the evolution of Sitar music will remain incomplete without a reference to the part which rhythm and tabla accompaniment has been playing during the last 40 or 50 years. As stated above the old baaz of Sitar based on the Mizrab has been completely changed and the powerful impact of Khayal has induced rapid rhythmic patterns, harmonical tanas, rapid movement from octave to octave, use of tehais etc. The Sitar baaz has come largely to the left hand. The Khayal has brought great refinement in Masitkhani baaz following Khayal vistar, layakari and later fast tanas.

The tabla player is no longer a mere accompanist keeping the beats of rhythm as a passive partner. Today the start of Masitkhani gat is heralded by a long drawn “Salami” by the tabla player when the Sitar player just keeps on repeating the gat and then comes a thunderous tahai on the Tabla landing on the ‘Sam’ and often the crowd, conditioned to this new feature, bursts into applause depen­ding on the status of the players. Then follows vistar, alternated by tapas of many patterns, interspersed with sur­prises, stuccato notes etc. When the Sitar player returns to the gat, the tabla player again springs back into rela or tukdas and in the process tries to reply to the Sitar players tanas. This goes on and finally comes the drut gat when the players break off into frequent spin offs, sowal jawab etc.

A little later the chikari tempo or Jhala is raised to often hair rising speed to the thunderous cheers of the crowd many of whom have been eagerly waiting for this exciting part of the programme. Many listeners outwardly condemn this riot of notes and sounds but secretly have a great longing and liking for it. The author in his long career Of 40 to 45 years as a performer has watched audience responses and what is being said here is the literal and hard truth Very few indeed are concerned about melody, sublime features of our music. There is loud applause for this jugglery and feast of sheer sounds and the press also joins in this applause; the hint is clear enough—those who do not or cannot countenance all this may as well leave, for today’s jet music and its exciting pleasures will not be the poorer without them. Turning once again to the finale of the Sitar concert, exciting and crowd catching acrobatics follow. At top speed, Sitar player gives up the Jhala and starts rhythmic patterns of notes at one fourth the original speed. Every movement is answered by the Tabla player and so the game goes on and suddenly there is maddening return to the pinnacle of speed when the ragas, the notes the tala beats are already under serious jeopardy. Then comes the finale with furious passages and repetitive tehais at the end of which the recital ends. Sometimes the Sitar player manages to regain his composure and plays one or two familiar phrases to remind the audience of the raga or the melody which was being played so long. Now comes the scene of crashing applause, shouts of ‘encore’, the artists on their feet bowing to the audience over and over again, photo cameras clicking and someone from the organizers managing bring to down the curtain.

The Classical Sitar music is characterized by the restless features of the jet way of life. Only one point may be made here and that is that for every hour of playing gat, the Sitar player needs play for 35 minutes only, while the remaining 25 minutes “rightfully” belong to the Tabla player. The total music provides certainly lot more of fun and merriment and is therefore understandably popular with present day crowds.

The other two significant developments which merit mention are

  1. Continuing interaction and interdependence between the playing style of all plucked instruments, the three most prominent being Sitar, Sarod and Guitar and to some extent Mandolin. Instruments are coming to acquire a common baaz. Really speaking, one hears the same Alap, Jod, Jhala and gats on the Sitar, Sarod, and Guitar and there appears to have emerged a standardized instrumental playing style.
  2. The interaction between different Sitar and other instrumental gharanas is quite visible and here too one witnesses a more or less common style and technique of play emerging. There are a few stylized differences only and some differences in tonal qualities. All else seems to have become standardized.

Strictly speaking, talking of Sitar gharanas today might seem to be of largely academic or historical interest. The Gharanas of Sitar musical instrument still are important and have relevance because all the changes and innovations being attempted today are ultimately rooted in the methods and styles developed by gharana exponents of yesteryears.