A short history of the sitar's origins

The following article has been reposted here with permission from its original author, maestro Indrajit Banerjee.

In the Western world, the sitar is perhaps the most well-known musical instrument of India. Its sound evokes thoughts and feelings of the subcontinent. It is believed to have evolved into its present form in the 1700s, during the collapse of the Mughul empire, as a marriage between the Persian setar and the south-Indian veena, while using the characteristically resonant bridge of the tampura.

Amir KhusruThere is a common story attributing the invention of the sitar to Amir Khusru. Amir Khusru was a great personality and icon during the early development of Hindustani Sangeet (North Indian classical music). He lived around the 14th century AD. As common as this story is, it has no basis in historical fact. The sitar was clearly nonexistent until the time of the collapse of the Moghul Empire.

Another theory claims the sitar evolved from the ancient veenas such as the rudra veena. However the rudra veena is a stick zither while the sitar is a lute, and there are differences in materials used. It is not very likely that the sitar owes its origins to this instrument.

Some suggest that the sitar is derived from the saraswathi, or khachappi veena. This is at least a possibility. Still, there are questions raised. There is a possibility that the lute class of chordophones are not indigenous to India but were brought from elsewhere. The use of a gourd for the sound box, the metal oval frets, and also the temple carvings strongly suggests that it is an adaptation of some kind of veena with several present-day modifications. 

It is clear that the sitar as we see it today developed during the end of the Moghul era. The Sangeet Sudarshana states that the sitar was invented during the 18th century by a fakir named Amir Khusru. This of course was a different Amir Khusru from the one who lived in the 14th century. This latter Amir Khusru was the 15th descendant of Naubat Khan, the son-in-law of Tansen. It is said that he developed this instrument from the Persian setar.

Amir Khusru’s grandson Masit Khan was one of the most influential musicians in the development of the sitar. He composed numerous slow gats in the dhrupad style of the day. This style is referred to as Masitkhani gat. The Masitkhani gats were further popularized by his son, Bahadur Khan. Masit Khan was a resident of Delhi; therefore Masitkhani Gats are sometimes referred to as Dilli Ka Baaj.

Another important figure in the development of the sitar was Raza Khan. Also a descendant of Tansen, he lived in Lucknow around 1800-1850. Raza Khan was sometimes known as Ghulam Raza. He developed the fast gat known as Razakani gat.

Amrit Sen and Rahim Sen are two more figures credited with modifying the tuning and stringing of the Sitar and introducing numerous new techniques to the instrument.

Whatever its true history, the sitar has continued to evolve over the centuries and is still evolving. Presently, there are three forms of the sitar: the kharaj pancham (the most common sitar with seven main playing strings and 2 bass strings), the ghandhar pancham (with six main playing strings and no bass strings), and the Ravi Shankar style (kharaj pancham with six strings). The kharaj pancham sitar played and popularized by Ravi Shankar has a four octave range, six primary playing strings and two bass strings. The gandhar pancham sitar modified and popularized by Vilayat Khan has a range of three octaves and no bass strings. In addition to the top playing strings, there are 12 to 13 tarafs (sympathetic strings) underneath the primary playing strings. When a note is struck on a fret, any taraf string tuned to the same pitch will begin to vibrate, creating a natural reverb within the instrument. 

The sitar’s neck and face are typically made of Indian mahogany, and its round backed body is from a dried pumpkin. Although the sitar has a minimum of eighteen strings, it generally has just one main playing string. The remaining strings provide its ethereal resonance, and are used for rhythmic accompaniment. The sitar has two separate bridges, one upper, and one lower. The upper contains the playing string(s) and the chikari strings (used for rhythmic and drone accompaniment). The lower bridge usually has about twelve taraf strings, which are very fine and are tuned to the notes of the raga (scale) being played. These strings, when tuned accurately, will resonate without being touched when a corresponding note is played on the upper main string, thus giving the sitar a natural reverb effect. This effect is enhanced by the structure of the bridge. Copied from the ancient tampura (a background drone instrument used primarily to accompany vocal music) the sitar’s bridge is made from soft deer horn. It is nearly flat on top, but is filed in a minute parabolic curve as to allow the strings to gently buzz against the nearly-flat bridge surface. This effect is called jawari.

ShrutiThe sitar is a fretted instrument, but the frets (metal bars) are tied on loosely enough to be easily moved or tuned. The tuning of the frets is another feature that sets the sitar apart from Western instruments. The sitar is played in the natural or untempered tuning system. Many Western instruments such as the guitar or piano are designed to be played in the equal-tempered tuning system, a modern invention without which the chordal harmony and 12 keys of Western music would be impossible to achieve from a single instrument. The disadvantage of the tempered system is that it is microscopically out of tune. The ancient, natural, or just tuning system retains the perfect or natural tuning of each interval. It is believed that music played in the just tuning system has a profoundly harmonizing effect on listeners.

The most striking feature of the sitar’s playing technique is its main string's capacity for being pulled or bent. On a single fret the main string can be pulled upward by at least a fifth; for example from C to G. This particular feature has only been available during the last fifty years, since steel strings have been made with enough strength to withstand such tension. This pulling capacity allows the instrument to accurately emulate the gliding effect of vocal music.

The eminent sitar players who contributed in the last 80 years are Mustaque Ali Khan, Lakhan Bhattacharya, Inayat Khan, Bhagwan Das, Gokul Nag, Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Halim Jaffar Khan, Imrat Khan, Balaram Pathak, Nikhil Banerjee, Rais Khan, Manilal Nag, and Kartick Kumar.


Maestro Indrajit Banerjee is one of the leading proponents and performers of the sitar today. Information about performances, media clips, and lessons can be found on his websites:

Indrajit Banerjee