S is for Sitar and Surbahar
This post is related to T is for Tanpura not Sitar; it’s Good to Know the Difference, so it may help to start from there. On the previous post there was a comment from a reader whose mother is a Vainika, i.e. a Veena player, saying that some people she knew thought it was cool not to know the difference between these instruments. One hopes the coolness quotient of Indian music will improve over time.
As always, there is no need to watch the videos to their full length or at all, though it might help to watch a classical clip to familiarise yourself with the sound and to distinguish the sound of the Sitar from that of the Tanpura.
A Sitar is a more complicated instrument than the Tanpura: it is used to produce complex melodies and not just the tones of Sa and Pa (though it has the strings to produce a drone) and will take longer to learn how to play (though some would argue that learning how to tune the Tanpura is a lifelong process!). The Tanpura is a unique instrument in the function that it performs; there are no Tanpura concerts, though it may be used for meditation. But Sitar concerts, where the Sitar features as a solo instrument are common. The Sitar features largely in Hindustani music concerts, i.e. concerts performed in the North Indian style of classical music. It is also played in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The word “sitar” has Persian origins. There is some dispute about the origins of the Sitar, but there seems to be some consensus that it is an Indo-Persian instrument. To read more on it’s history see this link. It’s origins are attributed both to the Veena of India and the lutes of Western Asia.
The Sitar is used a lot in Hindi film music and has been used by pop bands like the Beatles and by the heavy metal group Metallica. It would be fair to say that the Sitar is the most well-know Indian instrument in the West. Many people are able to recognise the sound of the Sitar, even if they confuse it’s appearance with that of the Tanpura.
Listen out for the Sitar right at the beginning of the Metallica song Wherever I May Roam:
And for a calmer sound, let the Beatles step in. Their first song that tried to incorporate Indian music was Love You To. People are divided on whether they like the sound:
Another Beatles’ song where I think the Indian element sounds better and where the Sitar is used is Norwegian Wood:
Though a Sitar may look like a Tanpura, it has movable frets on the fingerboard (see picture below), whereas a Tanpura doesn’t have any frets at all, and many more strings than a Tanpura (approximately 21-23), of which usually six or seven are playable. Remember that Tanpuras usually have four (or sometimes five) strings. Some of the strings of the Sitar provide the sound of the drone, and quite a few are sympathetic strings, that create resonance. The gharana, or school of Hindustani music the Sitarist belongs to, determines the number of strings and frets used.
The Sitar often has two gourds at either end (though not always), whereas a Tanpura ALWAYS has only one. It also has many tuning pegs sticking out of the side (known as kunti) but the Tanpura has them only on the top.
Here is a picture of a type of Sitar:
Picture Credit: kksongs.com
Here is a video of Sitar Maestro Ustad Shahid Parvez playing the sitar. His sitar has only one gourd. Contrast this video to that of Pandit Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar that follows-they play sitars with two gourds. You can see Tanpuris (small Tanpuras that are used to accompany instruments) in the background in both videos.
Here is a video of Pandit Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka playing the sitar.
Sitars became poular in the West thanks to Pandit Ravi Shankar and his famous pupils the Beatles, particularly George Harrison. Here is a video of Panditji teaching George Harrison!
The Sitar is held differently to a Tanpura, i.e. across the chest, and played differently. Both hands are used to play the Sitar (for the Tanpura you need only one hand) and each hand is used differently. One hand plucks ( a plectrum is worn on the index finger) and the other hand slides or fingers the strings. The Sitar can initially be cruel on the fingers and demand blood, whereas the Tanpura strings are much simpler to play!
If you go for a sitar concert, you will often see the musician tuning the Sitar between pieces. The tuning of the Sitar is too complicated to get into here, suffice to say, this also depends on the gharana and the musician.
I would like to end the section on the Sitar with a video of the late great Pandit Nikhil Bannerjee, my personal favourite sitar player. Reluctant to be in the limelight, and completely devoted to his music, he received the honours due to him rather late in the day. Exquisite playing of the highest order.
Another instrument that I will briefly mention here is the Surbahar (and the legendary player associated with it). The Surbahar is a close relative of the Sitar but is significantly larger, and has a lower, deeper, more bass sound. It is rarer than the Sitar these days and not as many people play it. It is/was sometimes played as a prelude to the Sitar or the Veena and some Sitar and Veena players do play it in addition to the Sitar or Veena, though they may employ different styles both musically and in the technique of using their fingers.
Here is Beenkar (i.e. “Veena player”) Suvir Misra playing the Surbahar in the Dhrupad style (he is left-handed). Misra uses three fingers to pluck the strings (quite a feat).
Picture credit: india.tilos.hu
Allauddin Khan initially refused to teach Annapurna Devi music, because his other daughter’s mother-in-law burned her Tanpura. Another daughter had died an early death. Ultimately, he had to teach Annapurna Devi, when confronted with her genius (he came home one day to find her teaching her brother the renowned Sarod player Ali Akbar Khan and his other student who went on to make waves, Ravi Shankar). Today, she teaches a few very select pupils (though not necessarily Surbahar) and generally refuses to meet anyone. Some other Surbahar greats are Ustad Imrat Khan, the late Pandit Chandrashekhar Naringrekar and Pandit Pushparaj Koshti. Other, younger exponents include Shubha Sankaran and Rajeev Janardan
Here is a video that has a recording of Annapurna Devi playing the Raga Manjh Khamaj:
If anyone has any questions, please leave them in the comments section, I will be happy answer to them or to point you to more detailed sources!