Going in deep on Hindustani music's most famous string instrument. Part 1 examines its design, techniques, and history through the stories of great masters from the past (also see Part 2).
—Part of Living Traditions: 21 articles for 21st-century Indian classical music
The sitar is many people’s first introduction to Indian classical. Its sparkling, vocalistic approach to melody has left an imprint on genres from pop, rock, and jazz to classical minimalism, capturing ears around the world.
Like many Indian instruments, its exact origins are unclear. The name comes from the Persian sehtar (‘three-stringed instrument’), but the design itself may be derived from droning lutes which long predate the Islamic conquest of North India. Some assume it to have come from Iranian folk instruments, and others believe (without much evidence) that Sufi mystic-musician Amir Khusrau invented it the 13th century.
Whatever the exact origins, the sitar developed into its current form in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is made from a gourd, which acts as a resonating chamber, onto which a large neck is attached. The neck is hollow, allowing the whole instrument to vibrate, and fitted with around 20 brass frets, which can be shifted to suit the microtonal demands of the raga in question.
Most sitars have around 23 strings. But almost all melodic playing happens on just one of these (known as the baaj tar), with the six others which run above the frets used mainly to add harmonic or percussive texture (chikari). The rest, known as taraf, sit underneath the frets, resonating ‘sympathetically’ with the vibrations of the main playing string.
Musicians fit a metal plectrum (mezrab) onto their index finger, and use the low string tension to reach sweeping bends of over half an octave - more than three times that of a steel-string acoustic guitar. Unlike Western guitarists they work vertically, preferring to move up and down one string rather than switching between them.
• Listen | In the hands of a master, the sitar can simultaneously evoke melody (from the baaj tar), harmony (from the taraf), and rhythm (from the chikari). Watch Ustad Shahid Parvez use all these sounds for a jor (gently pulsed section) in Raag Yaman, live from Darbar Festival 2018. At times he varies the tone by plucking the taraf directly:
Unlike much of Western music, Indian classical is melodically-focused (i.e. based on streams of individual notes), with little explicit consideration of harmony (i.e. deliberately stacking notes on top of each other). But sympathetic strings naturally bring harmony into the music - if you run a sequence of notes up and down a well-tuned sitar you will activate several of its taraf at once, resonating together to form a chord. In essence, the taraf leave 'trails' of the melody coming from main string.
Modern classical playing can broadly be grouped into two styles - gayaki ang (‘vocal style’) and tantrakari ang (‘instrumental style’). The former is based around ‘singing’ bends which replicate the flamboyant turns of khayal vocal music, and originated with the Imdadkhani gharana (covered below). The latter, associated with Ustad Allauddin Khan's Maihar gharana, focuses more on rhythmic articulation and ‘kaleidoscopic’ patterns of notes.
Their approach is known as the Imdadkhani gharana, named for its foundational master Ustad Imdad Khan (or alternatively as the Etawah gharana after his village). Born in 1848 as a fourth-generation musician, Imdad helped to liberate the sitar's repertoire from the then-dominant Senia style - a slower, dhrupad-rooted approach based on the works of 16th century composer Mian Tansen. Khan added new energy with colourful ornaments drawn from khayal vocal music, and modified the instrument’s design to allow for greater volume and dexterity.
Imdad was renowned for the intensity of his focus. Family lore is that he once took a 12-year chilla - a ritualised form of practice which permits the musician to do little except eat, sleep, wash, and play their instrument, while rarely leaving the house. But his hard work paid off, creating the gayaki ang which still forms the basis of much modern playing. His descendants have ably carried his torch too, with many (such as Ustad Vilayat Khan, also featured below) rising to the forefront of their respective eras.
• Listen | In 1904 Imdad became the world’s first recorded sitarist, entering a studio in Calcutta to play a variant of Raag Sohini for the Gramophone Company. His startlingly fluid style incorporates influences from Qawwali devotional singing:
The latter half of last century saw the emergence of three hugely influential virtuosi - Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee, and Vilayat Khan. They all approached the instrument in unique ways, but walked intertwining paths, influencing each other as musicians and as men. I have never met a fellow sitarist who does not in some way look to them all for inspiration.
• Pandit Ravi Shankar (1920-2012) was undoubtedly Indian classical music’s ‘breakout star’ in the West. He is best known for his influence on the sounds of the 1960s, enthralling and sometimes teaching various pop, jazz, and classical icons. But in a way the old master was a global artist since his childhood - he first came to Europe in the early 1930s, aged ten, as part of his brother Uday’s travelling dance troupe.
He was soon playing various Indian instruments for the group, and turned towards music full-time as a teenager, in part inspired by hearing Ustad Allauddin Khan perform. He abandoned touring to learn from him, studying for years under harsh, demanding conditions. Lessons often saw him sit besides Allauddin’s son Ali Akbar Khan, who would go on to revolutionise the sarod, and his daughter Annapurna Devi, a soon-to-be surbahar (bass sitar) maestro who would, for a time, become his wife (more on her story here).
Shankar’s long career saw him bring a multitude of fresh innovations. He incorporated South Indian ragas into North Indian Hindustani music, and developed the art of the jugalbandi (duet performance). He took the sitar to new ears, playing for the half-million-strong crowds of Woodstock in 1969 and captivating musicians from Jimi Hendrix to John Coltrane.
He combined traditional temple chants with vibraphones, harps, and strings, and wrote three concertos for the sitar. He founded the Indian National Orchestra and scored the music for Satyajit Ray’s landmark Apu Trilogy. He approximated the sargam syllables of Gandhi's name (Ga-Na-Dha) into the soundtrack for Richard Attenborough's biopic, although said his “secret ambition was always to provide music for animation films”. And yes, he taught George Harrison.
Shankar was never short of ideas. His style expanded greatly over the years, but always remained tied to a classical core - he drew clear distinctions between fusion work and ‘orthodox’ playing. The Pandit was famed for his vast knowledge, often resurrecting rare ragas from the past and exploring little-known rhythm cycles with longtime tabla accompanist Ustad Alla Rakha. He played into his tenth decade, performing right up to his death at the age of 92.
"In India, I have been called a 'destroyer.' But that is only because they mixed my identity as a performer and as a composer. As a composer I have tried everything, even electronic music and avant-garde. But as a performer I am - believe me - getting more classical and more orthodox, jealously protecting the heritage that I have learned."
• Listen | Shankar at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, playing to a crowd that includes Jimi Hendrix in the front row:
• Pandit Nikhil Banerjee (1931-1986) was also a disciple of Allauddin Khan, entering the gurukul (master-student relationship) with him at the age of 16. But despite studying alongside Shankar, his sound always remained markedly distinct from that of the elder man - a testament to the versatility of their guru.
In Banerjee’s ever-eloquent words: “[Guruji] had a strong antipathy toward anything narrow in the sphere of teaching. He was a teacher incarnate with the purest vibration. Any student, if really deserving, had from him the shower of his blessings, and by the sheer touch of his genius felt quite transformed".
After Allauddin’s death in 1972 - reportedly, if not provably, at the age of 110 - Banerjee continued to study under his daughter Annapurna Devi (who at the time was separated but not yet divorced from Shankar). His bond with her brother Ali Akbar would remain strong too, with the pair going on to perform over a thousand duet concerts. He often turned outside his instrument, notably drawing on the vocal innovations of Ustad Amir Khan, founder of the Indore gharana:
“In [Khan] I found a rebirth of that Saint-Musician, who with his philosophy of music was lost through decades…he had successfully practised all the 5,040 patterns that are possible by the combinations of seven notes, enabling him to have full control over the raag blooming forth...He had a total command over the intrinsic purity of the classical formula of music, but that never made him a conservative.”
He empathised with the singer's searing emotional sincerity: “A few days before [Khan] died...he said to me: 'Music is wrung out of your heart, which alone it is given to enchant'. Even to this day I often feel haunted by those words. Music is the spontaneous outflow of the purest feelings of the soul, and it must come as ‘leaves to a tree’...conceive the raga image as the mother conceives the child.”
Banerjee devoted himself to the theoretical, mystical, and philosophical aspects of music, forming an idiosyncratic, precise sound that tended to eschew the flamboyance of his peers. Musicologist Mohan Nadkarni superbly captures its essence:
“Although his technical virtuosity was stunning, it was balanced by a meditative, introspective, and lyrical approach that, owing to his seriousness and dedication, reached a depth of expression rarely achieved by others…[his] art was an amalgam of the best in Hindustani music, in all its beauty, grandeur, and dignity.”
Known for quiet humility, Banerjee followed the example of his guru by showing little interest in money, fame, or worldly recognition. He never became a household name, but many critics still herald him as the finest sitarist ever to pick up the instrument. He died of a heart attack at the untimely age of 54, arguably at the peak of his powers.
"The cultural history of our motherland is perhaps the most wonderful story of a long and sublime integration. The civilisation which we call ours had to face the currents issuing from different foreign sources as a sequel to the numberless invasions that had been carried out through the ages. But none of the forces could annihilate the inherent vitality of our culture - which assimilated them, enriched its own treasure, and enlarged its own dimension."
• Listen | Banerjee in action, trading fearsome melodies with Pandit Mahapurush Mishra’s tabla:
• Ustad Vilayat Khan (1928-2004) was Imdad's grandson. As a young boy he wanted to be a singer, but his mother encouraged him to take up the sitar instead in order to further the family’s illustrious Imdadkhani lineage. He followed her advice, going on to revolutionise the instrument’s capabilities and expand the outer limits of the gayaki.
Khan grew up learning from various family members, recording his first album at the age of eight. But after the sudden death of his father Ustad Enayat Khan a year later, he quickly developed his own sound, attacking melodies with a confident, rhythmic swagger and using novel bending techniques derived from a deep study of vocal music. He could turn swooping passion into delicate, meditative invocations in an instant, often emphasising the space in the music by performing without a tanpura drone.
Richly harmonic inclinations led him to experiment with tuning his chikari (percussive strings) to a full chord, adding subtle intervallic dissonances to counter the lack of a drone. His musical mind was famously open, saying that "If I even hear a small singer on the wayside sing something worth adopting, I will take it”. Non-classical work included acclaimed film soundtracks (notably Jalsaghar), although he rarely pursued direct collaborations with other musicians.
He did not limit his listening to Indian forms, poring over Ella Fitzgerald records and coming to cite Béla Bartók as his "absolute favourite" Western composer (it is surely no coincidence that the music of the Roma gypsies - one of Bartók's principal folk obsessions - derives in part from their North Indian heritage).
The Ustad was a notoriously fiery, unpredictable character. In 1952 Ravi Shankar was performing at the Jhankar Festival, in front of a crowd that included most of Hindustani music’s leading stars and patrons. The young Vilayat, at age 24 yet to make his name, decided to walk onto the stage and challenge his rival. The crowd, though shocked at such disrespect, were intrigued at the man's mysterious confidence, and made no protest. Namita Devidayal tells the (perhaps stylised) story in her biography, The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan:
“By the time the faster taans [melodic elaborations] started, the notes had become sharp arrows shot with the intention to annihilate...At one point, Ravi Shankar hit a set of high notes in the third octave. Like a kite catching its prey, Vilayat Khan scooped up the lid of his little metal oil box and, instead of using his fingers, pressed it on the strings of his instrument.”
“The sound that emerged, of amplified metal on metal, was audacious and amazing. Suddenly [sarod maestro] Hafiz Ali Khan got up from his seat and applauded: 'Maar daala!' (He killed him!). Others sitting next to him cheered. Baba Allauddin Khan also jumped up and started shouting. 'You have defamed my boys, shuorer baccha (you son of a pig), you scoundrel', followed by even choicier expletives in Bengali. The music stopped abruptly.”
Pandit Kishan Maharaj, who played tabla for the concert, later said: “If these two eyes of India play together again, one will shut for ever”. But Vilayat’s brash personal style was not to change - he once threw a party in honour of his beloved Mercedes, a gift from the King of Afghanistan, and later in life turned down the Padma Bhushan (India’s third-highest civilian award), declaring the committee as being musically unfit to judge him.
But his genius was near-universally recognised by the time of his death at the age of 75. He had irrevocably changed the landscape of the sitar, customising its design and raising expectations of what was possible.
"Too much tradition makes for dead wood. But I don’t want so much progress as to lose my identity."
• Listen | At age 72, Vilayat Khan belies his years on a superb version of Raag Bhairavi in London, named for the Hindu goddess of destruction. Kishan Maharaj plays tabla, exactly half a century on from their fateful Jhankar Festival performance:
Shankar and Khan’s relationship always remained complex. The former achieved worldwide fame for collaborating widely, taking his tradition far outside of itself, while the latter preferred to maintain strict formal boundaries, innovating from within. They never performed together again. Devidayal recounts a meeting shortly after the Jhankar incident:
“Shankar invited Vilayat Khan and Ali Akbar to the radio station to listen to his new orchestra... Afterwards, they all sat in [Shankar’s] cabin and had tea with fresh samosas. Ravi Shankar said, 'Vilayat-bhai, this should never happen again.' Vilayat replied, 'I agree, Robu-da'.”
But the rivalry continued. Khan would loudly proclaim that his Imdadkhani lineage was twice as old as Shankar’s Maihar gharana, and Shankar responded to Khan’s accusations of diluting the music by appealing to the strengths of his own heritage, saying “my guru...never got trapped in his self-image”.
Khan was known to make sharp-tongued comments about Shankar’s supposed desire for the spotlight (“Ravi-ji has popularised India’s music all over the world at the cost of his music...”). Shankar tended to keep quieter, but some said he privately craved the levels of critical adulation received by the Ustad. And he occasionally dropped a few obliquely catty references (“I feel jealous of my musical friends who are in this ‘I’m the greatest’ syndrome...”).
But in the end, both men held immense respect for each other’s accomplishments. When asked directly, Shankar would describe Khan as “a friend of mine whom I admire so much...personally he too admires me”. And in the words of Vilayat’s daughter Zila, herself a successful Sufi singer:
“They shared a wonderful camaraderie. They would joke and laugh like crazy. Once when [Shankar] came to perform...he said that he was here and would like to come over...so we had a fun-filled evening. They realised and knew each other’s roles in the world of music.”
An additional layer of intrigue is presented by the fact that the young Shankar very nearly became the disciple of Ustad Enayat Khan, Vilayat’s father. Who knows how different the modern sitar might sound had the Pandit learned - and lived - alongside a teenage Vilayat instead of Banerjee?
Banerjee himself preferred an introverted approach, avoiding competitive sentiments and consequently becoming comfortable with a style which some see as a ‘happy medium’ between Khan and Shankar. He readily hailed both as great players, but was not entirely placid either - when asked about Shankar’s orchestral experiments, he replied “no comment, no comment”.
Others had their own styles too. Ustad Barkatullah Khan helped to develop the Jaipur gharana’s percussive approach, and the Indore gharana’s Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan took his own style (the Jafferkhani baaj) to All India Radio jam sessions with Dave Brubeck in the early 1960s. The ‘singing’ Benares style, influenced by light classical forms such as thumri, has been upheld by those such as my own guru Pandit Shivnath Mishra. There are many more.
The legacy of the three greats still forms the dominant context for modern sitar playing. But musicians have always been experimenting in all directions. Modern maestros have built on the ideas of their forebears, and some would say that today’s era is the most innovative yet. Read Part 2 here...
• George Howlett is a London-based musician and writer, specialising in jazz, rhythm, Indian classical, and global improvised music. Parts of this article draw from Jameela Siddiqi's excellent historical writings for Darbar - sitar basics and Ustad Imdad Khan. Have a read!
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