Excerpts from

Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya - Sitar

By Dr. Lalmani Misra




From the example cited by Shri Umesh Joshi, it might be conceded that the word seh-tar or sitar was in use at that period, but to consider that anything like modern sitar existed then would be stretching the imagination. Although in India the Tritantri Veena was in existence by then, but its structure varied greatly from the modern sitar. Till the time of Bharat, a veena with frets had not been created. Frets were used first of all in Kinnari Veena as a result of studious insight into musical treatises. Scholars agree that Matang muni (sage) was the inventor and first performer of Kinnari Veena. The period of Matang lies between sixth century A.D. and eighth century A.D. Hence the existence of fret-based instrument prior to sixth century does not seem logical.

The development of the modern form of sitar started between 13th and 14th century. From 7th to 13th century within India Ek-tantri Veena and Kinnari Veena were most popular. Ek-tantri was without frets while Kinnari carried frets. It was around 13th century that Kinnari Veena started transforming into Rudra Veena. In his Sangeet Ratnakar, the Tri-tantri veena that Sharangdev has described the same instrument is called as Jantra 6 in appraisal of Ratnakar by Kallinath. This clearly evinces that during the times of Kallinath, Tri-tantri veena had gained a popular name, Jantra. This name was used by Krishna-worshipping poets in their verses. Describing musical instruments of his age Abul Fazal in Aien-i-Akbari has mentioned the jantra instrument and describes it as resembling Veena with five strings and sixteen frets.

It is to be noted here that till very recently, there were sixteen frets in sitar. Sir Sourendramohan Thakore has also given photographs of Sitar-s with five and six strings in his book, Yantrakshetra-Deepika.

Another point worth mentioning here is the fact that tri-tantri veena developed in two different ways. In one avatar it remained fret-less (Tambura), while the other form sported frets (Sitar), categorized by Indian scholars as Anibaddha (having no ties) and Nibaddha (literally tied). On this basis, Sitar and Tambura have been described in the following manner in Sangeet-sar (literally, Essence of Music), written by Tansen (in Braj, a prominent dialect of the Hindi region).

Henceforth I write the characteristics of Tambur, the veena played by Gandharva Tumbur. In folk parlance it is called Tambura. This tambur should be built out of wood. On one side fix a halved gourd to a long wooden plate. Therein fix three or four iron strings and keep one separate for base note tuning the remaining strings together into a different note. Sing in tune with this. This tambura is of two kinds. One is nibaddh. The other, anibaddh. Where a Raga demands particular notes, tie a flex at those places. Sing that Raga on the basis of this. Such a Tambura is nibaddh. In folk speech it is known as sitar. And where there be no bonds of flex, know that as anibaddh Tambura The longer part of this Tamburveena is similar to Rudra Veena. In this stem fix the frets at required places and tie the strings leaving space of two fists from outer edge of the gourd. With the help of strings slide a bridge underneath the strings. Place it at a point where it gives the best pleasing sound. Such would be the nibaddh tambura. And where seven, five or four strings are present but no guiding frets are there, such an instrument that aids in singing, in all other respects like nibaddh tambura is anibaddh tambura.

The structural description of Tritantri veena gleaned from Krishna-cult poets, Aien-i-Akbari, Sangeet Parijat and Sangeetsar establishes beyond doubt that both Tambura and sitar are developed form of the Tritantri. Both these instruments were initially used as accompaniment for singing. In then latter half of eighteenth century some of the direct descendents of Tansen, began to include new instruments in their repertoire of music education for general learners. This helped in establishing the nibaddh tambura -- Sitar -- on one hand and sur-bahar on the other. The Alap part of Veena was performed on sur-bahar and the vocal part was played on sitar. This was the same period when Khayal was becoming a popular choice amongst vocalists and Tabla was merrily gaining ground among percussion instruments. The material based on Veena did not prove sufficient for the capability sitar possessed hence a new style -- Gat (movement) -- began taking shape. Although the Bandish (composition) of gat carried strong influence of vocal bandish-es, but due to special use of Mizrab, the gat compositions differed from vocal ones. Ustads-s of Seni gharana had gifted this style to the upcoming string instruments. They were responsible for liberating sitar from providing accompaniment to vocal renderings and gaining the independent status of a main instrument. Stalwarts of Seni school who created gat-s for sitar included Nihal Sen's son Amir Khan (style named amirkhani after him), Maseet Khan (originator of maseetkhani), his disciple Barkatullah Khan, another disciple of Seni-s, Ghulam Raza Khan (initiator of razakhani) among some others.

All these maestros were active between mid eighteenth to late nineteenth century. While on one hand gat style developed on sitar, on the other hand it general vocalists and Sadhu-s (holy men) employed sitar as instrument for accompaniment. Captain Willard discussed the contemporary instruments and artistes in his 1838 book, A Treatise on the Music of Hindustan. He remarks that sitar is a modern instrument invented by Amir Khusro of Delhi. Although it is as long as ordinary Tambura it is smaller in size. On its wooden pipe there are seventeen movable frets of silk, flex, silver and brass etc. to facilitate tuning of the instrument. Often it carries three strings, hence the name sitar. In the present times a number of modifications have been made.

There are several mistakes in above statement of Willard being based on inaccurate information. Instead of dissecting the whole statement, let us focus on two important issues. First, he calls sitar a modern instrument. This stems from the facts that established schools were using Veena and Rabab; the schools of Sitar were gradually taking shape. Second in importance is his remark that "(in Sitar) a number of modifications have been made." In his time, Nihal Sen's son Amir Khan, Maseet Khan, Barkatullah Khan, Ghulam Raza Khan and several other musicians were experimenting on sitar along with popularising the new instrument. As more and more Muslim and Hindu artistes accepted this instrument modifications were incorporated. Still, the content and material for sitar was greatly limited compared to present period. A book -- Qanoon-i-Sitar -- was written in 1870 by Sayyed Safdar Hussein Khan Dehalvi throwing light on the development of Sitar.

Safdar Hussein employed four scholarly musicians and gradually developed interest in Sitar. In search of a proper teacher of the instrument he reached Delhi where he met Bibi Jan Sahiba who earned his respect. Bibi Jan had learnt sitar with Bahadur Khan, son of Maseet Khan. After learning sitar with her, Safdar Hussein introduces the instrument as:

There are two kinds of frets in sitar. The first twenty two are fixed thereby creating the Achal (stationary) Thhath. Chiefly these are of Been (Saraswati Veena); but some keep it so on sitar also. The second kind is of the common sitar that has sixteen frets as per detail.

About the strings of Sitar, he writes:

Be it known that normally there are six iron and brass strings

Baj string (main string) of iron -- 1 string

Kharaj (Mandra Shadaj) (C or lower tonic) of brass -- 2 strings

Pancham of iron -- 1 string

Larj (Ati mandra Shadaj) (two octaves below middle octave) of brass -- 1 string

Papiha (Chikari or secondary string tuned in Fifth of middle octave)

He also speaks about the Baj of Sitar:

Sitar Baj (style or manner of playing) has two approaches. One, Maseetkhani and the other, Alirazakhani which is also know as Purbi (eastern). The gat-s of the later baj are difficult. Bol-s of mizrab are Ada (oblique, slanted not regular) and the speed of gat is fast. And so addha Tal (oblique or irregular movement of 16 beats) is used for accompaniment. The expanse of these gat-s is also complex. In maseetkhani all manner of playing is acceptable; the span is ample for one to go on playing a single gat for as long as he pleases. But Bahadur Khan changed it otherwise. A beenkar originally, when due to a bruised hand he had to turn to sitar he incorporated toda-s of been into it and taught them to Bibi Jan. Largely, toda-s of dhah, doon, jhad, kiwad, gamak, soot, tan and mizrab are played in maseetkhani.

In the above book diagrams of Sitar are given to explain the various Thhath-s 7. Safdar Hussein has also mentioned an earlier book on sitar written by Munshi Ujagarmal which is not traceable.

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6 Joshi, Umesh. Bharatiya Sangeet Ka Itihaas, pp. 162-164

7 People who consider Bhatkhande as the inventor for Thhath would be surprised to know that the word Thhath has already been used in this publication of 1870. 12 Thhath-s with the help of sitar diagrams have been explained -- 1. Th Yaman 2. Th Bharavi 3. Th Pilu 4. Th panchkalangada 5. Th Jaijaiwanti 6. Th Jaunpuri 7. Th Des 8. Th Kanhada 9. Th Khamaj 10. Th kafi 11. Th Kalangada 12. Th Hindol. Prior even to this, Somnath describing mela in his Rag-vibodh has said, "Thhath iti bhashayam".

References :

Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya published by

Bharatiya Jnanpith

18, Institutional Area, Lodhi Rd

New Delhi - 110003

Bharatiya Shastriya Sangeet: Shikshan, Shastra Va Prayog.

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