Asia Life

The Sitar: From Ancient India to the Beatles

Stretching back to the 13th century, the sitar laid the foundation for world music today.

Jonathan DeHart

When Ravi Shankar, sitar virtuoso, passed away last December there was an international outpouring of tributes and writings on his life and contributions to world music. The Indian maestro, who was shredding the sitar strings until his death at the age of 92, almost singlehandedly brought Indian classical music into the Western consciousness. He did so by collaborating with a bevy of artists across a vast range of styles, from American violinist Yehudi Menuhin and composer Philip Glass to jazz greats like John Coltrane and Bud Shank.

Perhaps Shankar’s most famous link with Western pop came through George Harrison of the Beatles, who studied under Shankar and would later call him “the godfather of world music.” The sitar has been assimilated into the Western auditory palate – if nothing else as a bit of “exotic” seasoning – but for many their first exposure to its sounds came via Harrison.

Describing the sounds of Harrison’s sitar and the instrument itself, Paul Saltzman wrote in his book The Beatles in India: “I was struck by the exquisite beauty of the instrument…A rich, reddish-brown color, George’s sitar was visually a beautiful piece of art in and of itself…the sitar has a haunting, multidimensional voice that can be both exciting and soothing, meditative and other-worldly, all at the same time.”

While Shankar via Harrison may have helped bring the sitar into popular consciousness, the instrument’s roots are in the distant past. The sitar is a member of the lute family and is popular in northern India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Named after a Persian instrument called the setar (“three strings”), Sufi musician Amir Khusrow laid the groundwork for the instrument’s development in the 13th century during the Delhi Sultanate period. It would later flourish in the 16th and 17th centuries, but it was not until the 18th century that it took its present form.

Saltzman described Harrison’s sitar as having “intricately inlaid ivory designs, and large side and front tuning pegs…with five melody strings, five or six drone strings and between nine and thirteen sympathetic strings.” The sitar is up to four feet in length, it has a large gourd sounding box at its base and sometimes a smaller gourd up top. Twenty arched movable frets overlay up to 13 sympathetic strings that are tuned to match the notes of the raga (melodic framework) being played.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

“It’s improvisation. I like to use the analogy like a game of chess,” Brian Q. Silver told NPR. “Every raga – and there are hundreds of different ragas – has its own set of rules…you have to follow the rules. But in that limitation, you’re intimately free.”

He added, the sitar “is a wonderfully expressive and challenging instrument. It is an instrument, unlike the Western string instruments, which usually play up and down the neck only; you can play up to five notes pulling the string to the side.”

Flickr (kathleenjoyful)Undaunted by these complexities, Harrison was not the only Western musician entranced by the exotic twang of the ragas of this singular instrument. A sitar craze swept over pop music in the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with the Yardbirds’ song “Heart Full of Soul,” followed by the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” “Within You Without You” and “Love You To”; as well as the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.” Others have also spiced up their music with the exotic sounds of the sitar, from Shakira (“Gypsy”) and Tool (“4 Degrees”) to Stevie Wonder (“Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours”) and Elton John (“Holiday Inn”).

The sitar’s pop heyday has come and gone, but it is still a vital force in music. Shankar is not the only one who has carried the torch. Today his spirit lives on in his own voluminous output as well as in the music of his daughter Anoushka Shankar, renowned in her own right. Other sitar greats include the late Nikhil Bannerjee and Vilayat Khan, as well as Shahid Parvez who is still living.

“The exciting thing and the terrifying thing about this music is you don’t have music to play from,” Silver added. “You sit down to play. And whatever you play comes from your education and from your heart.”

For a sample of what this unique instrument can do, when accompanied by the tabla (an Indian hand drum), listen here.

Editor’s note: The text has been updated from the original version.