Origin of the Sitar

A popular instrument in Hindustani Classical music, the sitar is known for its sweet, melodic sound. Through the journey of hundreds of years, the instrument has been developed to its today’s form. In order to appreciate it fully, taking a look at its interesting history is also essential.

The term ‘sitar’ is derived from the Persian words ‘si’ meaning three and ‘tar’ meaning string. It is said that the sitar evolved from one or more instruments of the tanbur family. These were long necked lutes which were introduced and made popular during the period of Mughal rule. According to scholars who promote this view, when Muslim rule began in Northern India in 1192, the conquerors brought with them tanbur-family instruments, and other instruments in their multi-national army. In this period of time, the Muslim instrument was linked to the tradition of Sufi ecstatic dance.

The person generally credited with the development of the sitar is Amir Khusrau- the famed Sufi singer, musician, poet and scholar who lived under the Delhi Sultanate. He is an emblematic figure in the cultural history of the Indian subcontinent. Khusrau was a mystic and a spiritual disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi. He re-baptized the three-stringed Tritantri Veena as a Sehtaar (Persian for 3 stringed), which eventually became known as the sitar.

In the early Mughal Empire, tanbur style instruments were played in the court. As is evident from the surviving images from the period, they were beginning to change. In the late Mughal Empire, the instrument began to take on its modern shape, and developed into the ‘sitar’. The neck got wider, the bowl, which had been made of glued lathes of wood, was now made of gourd. Metal frets and a bone nut on the neck were added.

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