Excerpts from

Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya - Sitar

By Dr. Lalmani Misra




The most celebrated of all Indian musical instruments, endowed with all possible attributes in the stringed category, Sitar has undergone continuous development right from the medieval period to its present state of perfection. Conjectures, theories and beliefs about its origin abound amongst musicians, artistes and musicologists. In line with the belief that it was an Iranian or Persian instrument brought in India by Muslims, some scholars in their eagerness to defend its native origin have also attributed its invention to Amir Khusro -- a famous poet, musician and able courtier. A noted linguist who brought respectability to dialect spoken in Meerut and Delhi that forms the core of Hindi, India's national language today. He used this language to write numerous verses that reflect the culture of his age. Not given to undue modesty, Khusro was not shy of using his poetic gift in his own praise. It indeed amazes one that if Khusro invented the perfect string instrument, Sitar along with inventing Tabla apart from creating a new style of singing -- Khayal, how did he fail to mention any of these grand achievements in his own writings. Writings contemporaneous to his times also make no mention of these inventions, or even refer to them.

Probably right from his death Urs is celebrated on Khusro's crypt. It is a tradition to hold the ceremonies in a manner that reflects the taste and likings of the departed person. So, when such celebration is held in memory of Tansen, Dhruva-pad (Dhrupad) is the primary choice of singers paying homage to the great musician; as second or third, they may also present Khayal or Thumri. Yet, on the Urs of Khusro only Qawwalies are sung. Had Khusro invented Khayal, it ought to be presented on the occasion, if not as primary at least as a secondary genre. Noted scholar, poet and statesman of Akbar's court, Abul Fazal in his Aien-i-Akbari has accepted Qaul and Qalwana as contributions of Khusro, but makes no mention about Khayal, Sitar or Tabla. Other later works by Muslim scholars also abstain from attributing their invention to Khusro.

The first mention of this notion is made in Captain Willard's book, A Treatise on the Music of Hidustan. Willard wrote this book in 1838, almost around the time when Maseet Khan had developed a special technique of Sitar that gained popularity as Maseetkhani style. Maseet Khan of Delhi and Ghulam Raza Khan of Lucknow laboured hard to bring Sitar at par with Been (Veena -- Saraswati, Rudra and Vichitra) and Rabab. Even though, this instrument was not accepted by descendents of Tansen, the Seni-s gradually began using Sitar to impart training to general disciples, reserving the main instruments for their bloodline alone. As the instrument had been promoted during and within the Mogul reign, the practitioners naturally wished to attribute its creation to some Muslim scholar. The best fit for this purpose was Khusro. So, when he raised question about the genesis of the instrument, the name of Khusro was reported to him. Their logic appealed to Willard as 'Seh' in Persian means three and 'Tar' stood for string: Khusro removed one string from Veena leaving three strings and called it Seh-Tar which gradually turned into 'Si-tar' or Sitar.

The tale was so well fabricated that impressed everyone. Indeed after the invasion and gradual integration of Muslims with Indian mainstream, there was undeniable impact on native life-style and culture. But the scope and reach of Islamic influence remains an area worthy of research to date. In our country history of music, as most things, is based on folk-lore and fables. There is a great need for historical interpretation grounded on scientific, verifiable facts. The little research that was carried out in the field of music confined itself to study of Shruti, Jati, Gram, Moorchhana and Raga etc. No one thought of unravelling the genesis of musical instruments or their identification, categorization, classification; as a result baseless conjectures and false beliefs gained respectability.

Some scholars consider the Sitar to be an Iranian instrument. Unquestionably, Iranian instruments have been named number of strings -- Ik-tar, Du-tar, Ci-tar, Chou-tar. But structurally, they differ widely from Indian instruments. The Indian instruments sport qualities, which are not found anywhere else in the world. It would suffice here to indicate just three of these characteristics.

A flattened bridge is the prime exclusive peculiarity of Indian instruments that has existed from ancient times to date. In the ancient period a copper or iron plate was used for the flat bridge right up to the age of Sangeet-Ratnakar 1. It was not possible to control or open the Jawari 2 with metal plates, so during the medieval period, bridges made of camel-bone and ivory were brought into service. The bony pliable surface brought an unimagined improvement in the resonance of the instrument. The ability to change tonal quality through Jawari is a unique distinctive feature of Indian musical instruments. It would be meet to point out that bridge is used in only those Indian Veena-s which are played with a plectrum (Trikon or Mizrab). The instruments played with a bow like Sarangi, Ravanhast, Israj etc. have a different kind of bridge.

The second distinctive feature is the use of frets. The manner 3 in which frets are used in Indian veena-s is not found in instruments of other countries. The third unique characteristic is of the Chikari or sympathetic strings. The chikari strings were experimented with since Kinnari Veena and their use was perfected by 12th-13th century.

All the three characteristic features were present in this instrument even before its nomenclature as sitar. It is a prevarication to attribute its origin to Iran. Some conscious purpose behind such attempts can but be suspected.

If Sitar was neither invented by Amir Khusro, nor did it originate in Iran, then what is the lineage of its development? If this valid query remains unanswered, then the reasoning given above is pointless. Basing his reasons on the practice of calling sitar a Satar in Maharashtra, Pt. Omkarnath Thakur traces its origin to Sapt-tantri (seven-stringed) Veena. He holds that that Sapt-tantri became sapt-tar, then sat-tar (sattar) and finally satar. The scholars who traced its development from tri-tantri veena could not prove their claim lacking a connection linguistic or otherwise between the two instruments. Shri Umesh Joshi establishes the invention of sitar during the period of Samudragupta in his book Bharatiya Sangeet Ka Itihas. He gives the following proof for his presumption:

"The national library of Istanbul, Maqtab-i-Sultania now known as Maqtab-i-Mazhuriya is the largest not only in Turkey but in countries of east. A poetic treatise written in 1749 was spotted in the Arabic section of this library that had been copied from an earlier text on harir (a special silk cloth made for writing purposes) decorated with golden brocade. The collection, commissioned by renowned king of Turkey, Sultan Saleem is in three parts. The first gives a brief introduction of early Arabic poets; the second describes poets from contemporaries of Mohammed Saheb till the end of Bani Ommaya dynasty. The third part discusses the poets from the beginning of Abbas dynasty to the court poets of famous emperor Harun-al-Rashid and mentions contemporary poets and singers. The book called Sejarul Okil (Sayar-ul-Okul 4 ) was compiled by Abu Hamir Abdul Asmai, Kalidas of Arabic poetry and a famous singer, musician and poet in the court of Harun-al-Rashid. The first edition of this collection was printed in 1864 and second in 1932 from Beirut. The book also contains an elaborate description of the ancient Mecca shrine, the town and the annual fair known as Okaj which used to be held there every year. The introduction of this book describes the ancient Arabic society. There is a description of a fine instrument which was made of goat-skin instead of the gourd but carried seven strings like sitar. It was used to accompany singing of poetic verses or okaz. 165 years before Hazrat Mohammed, a poet-singer named Bintoi had regularly been attending the Mushayara (poet's conclave) of okaz for three years. Three of his poems were inscribed on gold-plates and hung at temple of Mecca. He says,

Blessed are the people who live in the land of Vikramaditya, the mighty emperor who is most generous, pious and scholar of Ilm-i-Mausiqi (the art of music). The bud of one's heart blooms when one listens to him playing his Seh-tar. Right at that moment, our Arab world forgetful of the divine, revelling in material delight was imbued in darkness. We had completely banished this amazing art from our hearts. The entire country was mired in murky night then, so how did this ray of joyous dawn light up our morning skies?

It is the kindness of that very emperor Vikramaditya (people also call him Samudragupta) who included us foreigners in his mercy and sent the scholars of his land with communiqué of sacred faith. These noble men shone like bright sun in our land filling it with brilliance. The masters who taught us faith in the divine, art of music and poetry, rules of civil society, the path of righteousness and meditation through Sehtar playing, were sent by emperor Vikramaditya to promote education, religion, music and Sehtar in our land. 5

All the above are represented in the following Nazm:

"Inn-nash-shafai santul bikaramtun,

Fahalmeen, qarimun, yartfeehaha vayovarasas

Vihillaha sarmamin, elabhot karvvnan.

Vihillaha yuhi qaid min hova ya faqhroo,

Fazal Asari, nahneo, sarim vijaheleen,

Paridun vijamil, kazan vinaya qhatroo.

yeh sab dunya kanatef naartaki vijaheleen,

Atdari villalla mahiratun, fakef tasbahu,

Kaunni eja majkar, lehda balhada."

The facts stated above prove that sitar had already been invented in this age."

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1 Sangeet Ratnakar by SharangDev was written around late 12th century to early 13th century.

2 A method of manipulating the bridge by rubbing, scrubbing or grazing or attaching thin pieces of wool or silk so that the string could be distanced from the end of bridge. This improved the tonal quality by providing room to string for greater resonance.

3 Frets are fixed in most instruments like guitar or Veena-s used in southern India. Movable frets were incorporated in north Indian veena-s to accommodate the change in frequencies of notes directed by the need for consonance in a given Raga.

4 Oak, P.N. and H. L. Oberoi A GLIMPSE OF PRE-ISLAMIC ARABIA , appendix IV


5 Also noted by P.N. Oak on http://islamreview.org "The text of the crucial Vikramaditya inscription, found inscribed on a gold dish hung inside the Kaaba shrine in Mecca, is found recorded on page 315 of a volume known as ‘Sayar-ul-Okul’ treasured in the Makhtab-e-Sultania library in Istanbul, Turkey."

References :

Excerpts from Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya: Swar-Mandal

Excerpts from Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya: Other Veena-s

Dr. Lalmani Misra on Wikipedia

For views of musicians on aspects of music click here

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