Articles

image
Hindustani

The Sitar and Surbahar: India’s most famous instrument and its bass cousin

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

The sitar is Hindustani music's prime plucked string instrument, and the first one to be widely heard and recognised in the West through the appearance of Ravi Shankar. Although its exact origins are not agreed, it is thought that the word comes from the Persian seh meaning three and taar meaning string. Some of the specialised musical terms for different sitar techniques and styles tend to be Persian words, pointing to a possible Persian adaptation of an earlier (and simpler) Indian or Persian lute. But it could just as easily have evolved from any number of early Indian instruments including the tanpura.

The sitar’s unique tone and timbre is the result of its design and construction. It is made from a seasoned gourd which acts as a resonating chamber, and can also use teak wood or camel bone (although synthetic materials are now also widespread). Some sitars have a secondary resonating chamber – an additional gourd at the end of the neck – and variants can be of varying sizes. 20 brass frets are secured to the long, hollow neck with string, meaning they can easily be shifted to suit the demands of a particular raag.

The frets are curved, hence allowing very fine tuning and also allowing sympathetic strings to sit underneath the raised curves. The sympathetic strings also have to be tuned and they vibrate to the sound of the main strings. Sitars tend to have between 21-23 strings, of which 7 or so are played using a plectrum known as a mezrab. Of these, 3 or 4 are simply used to produce a drone-effect whilst the rest are used for producing melody, with one main string for most melodic playing. There are two bridges, a large one for playing the drone strings and a smaller one for sympathetic strings.

The exact construction and design of a sitar is determined by who happens to have ordered it. There are two main playing styles, sub-divided into several other kinds derived from these two main ones: gayaki (‘singing style') of which the best known exponent was the late Ustad Vilayat Khan and the other style is tantrakari (‘instrumental’) for which the family style in which Pandit Ravi Shankar trained, headed by Ustad Allaudin Khan, is famed.

There is also a bass-sitar known as surbahar which has a wider and longer neck than a regular sitar, with fixed frets. Its development is generally attributed to the ancestors of the brothers Ustad Vilayat Khan and Ustad Imrat Khan – the latter now its best-known exponent. Because the surbahar produces a much deeper and somewhat meditative sound, it may originally have been used to play Dhrupad.

 

Listen to the music | Mita Nag hails from the Bishnupur gharana, a Dhrupad-influenced tradition of Bengal. Here she plays Raag Miyan Ki Malhar.

Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia. 

Darbar believes in the power of Indian classical music to stir, thrill, and inspire. Explore our YouTube channel, or subscribe to the Darbar Concert Hall to watch extended festival performances, talk and documentaries in pristine HD and UHD quality.

Be notified when we add a new articles

Festival 2020

XXth June 2020, Venue Name

read more

buy tickets

Other articles you may like

9 Sep 2019

Dr. Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande interview: ‘I want the raga to...

The Jaipur-Atrauli vocalist talks ragas from the past, rhythms as warrior-heroes, and the limits of approaching music... Read More

9 Sep 2019

The power of threes: Hindustani rhythm's tihai resolutions

Examining why patterns of three have such a distinctive power to tell concise stories in music, art, and literature -... Read More

9 Sep 2019

Twelve Days of Tabla: A primer on the world’s most versatile drum

Tabla masters combine jaw-dropping precision with hugely imaginative improvisation. Here's a primer on the world's... Read More

New to indian Classical Music?

The beginner's guide to Indian classical music. Whether you’re completely new to raga music or just need a refresher, we’ve put together this brief overview of all things raga music to help you feel at ease when visiting one of our concerts or watch our videos on our YouTube or our Darbar Concert Hall.

 

Follow us

Keep up to date with the latest news, events, music and musings across our social channels

YouTube latest

For hundreds more clips and shorts, vist our YT page here

Subscribe to our newsletters

Be the first to hear before events go on sale. Get the latest news and articles from Darbar