SITAR The sitar (Persian, setār, "three-string") is a long-necked lute popular in North Indian classical music and commonly constructed from a dried gourd base with a hollow wooden neck. The neck of the contemporary sitar has metal frets, which arch over the face of the neck and which are tied from the back so that a single piece of string (made of gut or nylon) loops over indents at the edges of the frets. The advantage of these tied frets is that a musician can move them to adjust the intonation of individual notes. Performers wear a thick piece of twisted wire (mizrāb) over the index finger of the right hand as a plectrum.
Sitars have metal wires. The principal melody string (bāj, or sometimes, gayakī) is steel and is set in the middle of the neck, leaving room for the performer to pull the string over the arched frets (sliding the pitch). The principal drone string (kharaj) sits adjacent to the bāj (and to the left if facing the instrument) and acts as a secondary melody string. Three or more drone strings ( jorī) sit next to the kharaj, one or two of which sometimes double as additional melody strings. The highest pitched drone strings (cikārī) lie to the far left of the neck and attach to pegs protruding from the side of the neck. Underneath these plucked strings, seven or more "sympathetic" strings (tarab), tuned to the notes of the rāga, vibrate "in sympathy" without being plucked. Like the sarod and the sārangī, the sympathetic strings extend from pegs in the side of the neck, up through holes in the face of the neck, and pass under the melody and drone strings. These tarab strings rest on a separate bridge that sits just in front of the higher-sitting platform bridge for the melody and drone strings. The bridges have the distinguishing characteristic of appearing to be flat, although their surfaces actually have a very slight curvature from which the strings gradually leave. This shape produces the instrument's characteristic emphasis on high partials as the very end of the string "buzzes" against the bone or wood platform.
The two best-known sitar performers of the late twentieth century are Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar. Vilayat Khan prefers to play sitars with the lowest of the tarab strings slightly offset away from the other sympathetic strings. Ravi Shankar prefers a Bengali version of the sitar that features a string one octave lower than the kharaj.
The tuning of sitars similarly varies, with some aspects common to all sitars, and others peculiar to the playing tradition and to the particular rāga chosen for performance. The bāj (melody string) is set to the fourth (mā) so that the tonic fret sits midway up the neck. This allows performers to approach the tonic (sā) from both above and below. The kharaj (principal drone string) is always set to the tonic. The uppermost drone strings (cikārī) are also set to the tonic, with other strings set to the fifth or, in some cases the fourth or the fifth (or, sometimes, other notes), depending on the effect the sitarist is attempting to achieve.
The sitar first appears in references in the eighteenth century, and it appears to be related to a class of instruments that include the Persian setār, the central Asian tambur, and later regional variants such as the Kashmiri setār. Characteristics that distinguish the sitar are its lateral and frontal pegs, a gourd body, a nontapering neck, and a flat bridge.
Miner, Allyn. Sitar and Sarod in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1997.
si·tar / siˈtär/ • n. a large, long-necked Indian lute with movable frets, played with a wire pick. DERIVATIVES: si·tar·ist / -ist/ n.