The origin of sitar is a story of intercultural blending. The existing dominant theory among, western scholars states that the lutes of Central Asia preceded the sitar. The lute was introduced by the Persian led Mughal Empire in the 16th century, during their conquest of Northern India, the lutes were played in the Mughals courts. Consequently the diversity of the court’s attendants influenced the lute’s evolution. The lute gradually became sitar over time, until it took its modern form in the 18th century.
In the early 20th century Indian classical music, and by extension, sitar underwent a revolution. Ustad Allauddin Khan has primary responsibility and credit for this innovation. His vast and broad ideas initiated an onset of a new era in Instrumental Indian classical music. He was born in 1862 to a family of musicians in Comilla Bagladesh. Khan’s childhood was filled with music. At age ten he ran away from home and joined a jatra (a folk Bengali theater troupe). The jatra exposed him to the various musical traditions of Bengal during their travels. Khan eventually made his way to Kolkata, began studying music for twelve years under various gurus. He developed his musical skills enough to master multiple instruments including sitar. His most notable guru, Wazir Khan, gave him access to Senia Gharana, (school of music) a highly coveted musical knowledge.
Allauddin later became the court musician at the Maihar Estate in Central Province. While there he used his diverse musical knowledge to revolutionize the Maihar Gharana. He introduced musical compositions and instrument ensembles that had never been done before in Indian music. His new style gained such renown that he attracted students from all walks.
In 1935 he toured Europe alongside Uday Shankar’s Indian ballet troupe. He became one of the first Classical Indian musicians to tour Europe. While touring he began teaching Uday’s younger brother, Ravi Shankar. He offered Ravi Shankar full training if he stopped touring and returned to India, Ravi Shankar returned to India. He went on to teach almost every famous classical Indian musician of the mid-20th century, including Alif Laila’s guru Mir Kashem Khan.
In 1955, sometime after leaving the Maihar estate, he established the Maihar College of Music. At the school he taught Senia Maihar Gharana which is the Gharana taught at Sitar Niketan.
Not until the 20th century did sitar begin to resonate around the world. In the 1950’s, the sitarist, Ravi Shankar, disciple of Ustad Alluddin Khan, first introduced the western world to the sound of sitar. His tours in Europe and North America gave the instrument widespread recognition. Many westerners gravitated towards the sitar’s intriguing and exotic sounds.
In the mid 60’s “the great sitar explosion” occurred. During that period, the sitar created the sounds that introduce most people to its message. Sitar became a common part of pop music during that period. It was used in the songs of numerous artists including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and many more.
Today sitar is still frequently used in various genres. Its meditative melodies have grown familiar and commonly heard in psychedelic, jazz fusion, and world music.
“Learning under Alif has been an eye-opening experience. I never knew playing an instrument could carry so much weight behind it, until I came here. This feeling that I have to something beyond myself when I play is an experience that I am so thankful to have found in my life. I will always be in Alif’s debt for having guided me to that."
- Alex Boyne, Sitar Niketan Student
Sitar is a tool to bring peace and beauty into the world; a plucked string instrument that belongs to the lute family. As a common part of Indian classical music, it holds a unique and important role in the music of Northern India. Sitar creates a resonating sound that is distinct from western instruments. The resonance helps carry an emotional weight in the sound created by the instrument. Many listeners note a calm feeling washing over them when experiencing its music.
The sitar is a delicate and complex instrument that has many parts. When those parts get played in concert, they create this unique aural experience. Sitars stand four feet in length and have a pear shaped body with a long neck. Crafted from a hollowed out gourd, the kaddu ka tumba is body of the sitar. The kaddu ka tumba creates most of the instrument’s resonating sound.
Although the sitar typically has between eighteen to twenty strings. Sitarists play mostly on six. Three of the playable strings, the chikare, provide the drone. The other three playable strings play the melody. The music relies primarily on the first string or the baj tar for the melody. The rest of the strings facilitate the creation of the sitar’s signature sound. In addition, the 20 adjustable frets have the added feature of changing the pitch.
The craft of sitar has a deeply embedded tradition carried on even in today’s modern world. Individual sitar makers possess their unique methods of crafting, and pass this knowledge down through apprenticeships. The non-standardization of sitar-making gives each instrument its own signature sound.