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Strings, Winds & Beats – The Sitar



In the first part of this series, I covered the violin. But of all the Indian instruments, the plucked string instrument sitar and the percussion instrument tabla are probably the most recognised among western audiences. For the sitar, it was primarily because of the efforts made in the late 50s and 60s by Pandit Ravi Shankar to popularise Indian music abroad. Thanks to him, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other rock and jazz bands used the instrument, though in a small way.

So this episode will focus on the sitar. Before I get into how it is used in different genres, let’s begin with a brief introduction. For starters, its name is derived from the Persian ‘seh-tar’ (meaning three strings), though it was said to be derived from the Indian instrument veena. It was used in the Mughal courts, but underwent many modifications till the 18th century.

A sitar can have 21, 22 or 23 strings, and has moveable frets and two bridges. It is played with a metallic plectrum called a mizraab.


The sitar is primarily used in Hindustani classical music, but has for many years also been used in Indian film music. By and large, Carnatic musicians have stayed away from the sitar, though veena maestro S Balachander was known to play sitar in Carnatic style too. However, many Hindustani musicians have adapted Carnatic compositions. These days, the instrument is being increasingly used in fusion and experimental music. Let’s now take a look at how it’s used in different styles:

Hindustani music: Here, the sitar is primarily played by a solo artiste, with accompaniment from the tabla and from the stringed drone instrument tanpura. At times, it is also used as a duet (called jugalbandi) with other instruments.

A concert usually begins with the rendition of a classical raga, the melodic mode used in Indian music. The first piece comprises a three-part movement beginning with the slow alaap, increasing tempo with the jod and reaching an energetic climax with the jhala. Here, there is no tabla accompaniment.

After the alaap-jod-jhala sequence, the instrumentalist plays two or three compositions in the same raga, with tabla accompaniment. These are known as gats or bandishes, and while the sitar player demonstrates his skill here, the tabla player also gets certain portions to play brisk passages, much to the audience’s delight.

George Harrison and Ravi Shankar


Once this first raga is over, the sitar player may play another raga, or may play certain light ragas, folk tunes or devotional pieces, depending on the time allotted.

Though there are different styles of playing sitar in classical music, the two most common ones are the Maihar and the Imdadkhani types. While Ravi Shankar represents the Maihar school, the late Ustad Vilayat Khan was the leading player of the Imdadkhani tradition. Among the purists, both have a large number of diehard loyalists, who often get into heated debates on who is better.

Over the years, other great sitar players have included the late Nikhil Banerjee (also of the Maihar tradition), Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, Rais Khan and Vilayat Khan’s brother Imrat Khan, who also plays the surbahar, a bass version of the sitar. Among Ravi Shankar’s disciples, Shamim Ahmed Khan and Kartick Kumar made a mark, whereas among Vilayat Khan’s disciples Arvind Parikh is well-known.

Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Shujaat Khan, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee


The next generation has names like Buddhaditya Mukherjee, Debu Chaudhari, Shahid Parvez, Nayan Ghosh, Manju Mehta, Usman Khan, Rajendra Verman, Vilayat Khan’s son Shujaat Khan and Imrat Khan’s sons Nishat Khan and Irshad Khan. Shashank Katti has used the sitar for playing music with healing purposes.

The younger generation has talented musicians like Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka Shankar, Kartick Kumar’s son Niladri Kumar, Purbayan Chatterjee, Chirag Katti and Dhimant Verman, but of late, many youngsters are primarily focusing on fusion and experimental music. We shall talk of them in the fusion section.

Regarding classical duets, the two best-known examples of sitar jugalbandis are Ravi Shankar with sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan, and Vilayat Khan with shehnai monarch Bismillah Khan. Both combinations are delightful to hear.

Hindi film music: For many years, the sitar was prominently used in Hindi and Bengali film music. However, the increasing dependence on keyboards and programming has now reduced the trend drastically, though session musicians today do contribute to film and Indipop songs if needed.

Most of the earlier composers like Naushad, Shankar-Jaikishan, Madan Mohan, S.D. Burman, Vasant Desai, C. Ramchandra and R.D. Burman made prominent use of Indian raags, and also used the sitar wherever possible. Among the sitar players, Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan and Rais Khan have played on numerous film songs in the 50s and 60s. While the former has played in the movies Mughal-e-Azam, Jhanak Jhanak Payal BaajeGoonj Uthi Shehnai and Kohinoor, Rais Khan has played in Hanste Zakhm, Humsaaya, Amrapali and many other movies.


Ravi Shankar had composed music for the film Anuradha, and used a lot of sitar there. He also used the instrument prominently in the music for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.

Jazz, experimental music and fusion: Though the sitar is now playing an increasing role in these genres, there have been instances of its use many years ago.

In the late 50s, Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan played at a concert with jazz pianist Dave Brubeck on the latter’s Mumbai visit. Of course, Ravi Shankar was the person who made this an international trend, first recording with jazz saxophonist-flautist Bud Shank and then teaming up with legendary classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin on the ‘West Meets East’ project. He also wrote concertos for sitar, where he was accompanied by western-styled orchestras, did a jazz-inspired project called ‘Jazz Mine’ and recorded with international virtuosos like composer Phillip Glass, flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal and cellist Msitslav Rostropovich.

Ravi Shankar’s nephew Ananda Shankar was another pioneer in east-west fusion, playing sitar-based versions of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Jumping Jackflash’ and the Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’. For his part, Nishat Khan has collaborated with jazz, Gregorian chants, western classical and flamenco musicians.

Among youngsters, Niladri Kumar has created a modified called the ‘zitar’, which he uses on many fusion concerts. Purbayan Chatterjee has released an album called ‘Sitarscape’ besides spearheading the Classicool project. Anoushka Shankar has released many albums of experimental music. Another well-known fusion sitarist is Ravi Chary, who has accompanied percussionists Trilok Gurtu, Fazal Qureshi and Taufiq Qureshi, and has released his jazz fusion album ‘Crossing’.

A few foreigners have taken to the instrument too. American musician Colin Walcott actually learnt from Ravi Shankar, and played the sitar in many jazz recordings, either as a solo artiste or with the band Oregon and musicians Don Cherry and Nana Vasconcelos.

Abdul Halim Jaffer, Ananda Shankar, Ravi Chary, Prem Joshua, Nana Vasconcelos


Germans Prem Joshua and Al Gromer Khan are accomplished sitar players blending Indian music with jazz, world music and new age on some wonderful albums.

Sitar in popular international music: Though the Beatles popularised the use of sitar in rock music, the first to actually record the instrument were the band Yardbirds, on their song ‘Heart Full of Soul’. Beatles guitarist George Harrison, however, got increasingly interested in the sitar, and took lessons from Ravi Shankar and Shambhu Das.

Harrison used the sitar on Beatles songs like ‘Norwegian Wood’, ‘Within You Without You’ and ‘Across The Universe’, and also on his solo album ‘Wonderwall Music’.

Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones used the sitar on the song ‘Paint It Black’, whereas the band Traffic used it on ‘Paper Sun’ and ‘Hole in My Shoe’. Jethro Tull used it on ’Fat Man’ and ‘Skating Away on The Thin Ice of The New Day’.

Other performers to follow the trend, albeit on one or two songs, include the Kinks, the Animals, the Monkees, Scott McKenzie, Steely Dan, the Moody Blues and Genesis. And though the sitar craze died after the mid-70s, the instrument was still heard in later examples like Metallica’s ‘Wherever I May Roam’ and Tool’s ‘4 Degrees’.

While the sitar has been used in various genres, the true barometer to judge a player’s musicianship does not lie in fusion or experimental music, but specifically in the way he plays traditional Indian music. The instrument has a wonderful tone and an ability to relax the minds of listeners, and those who want to really reap its benefits should go in for the real stuff. It’s magical.

Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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