The sitar is a traditional and classical stringed instrument believed to have been invented in India around 700 years ago.1 It is played by striking a plectrum known as the mizrab (in Persian) or mezrab on the main strings of the instrument.There are two types of  sitar: sada and tarabdar (also spelt tarafdar).3 Sitar is played at religious functions and for leisure. Today, the instrument is not only popular in India, but has spread to other parts of the world.

The sitar is approximately 4 ft in length and made up of four parts: dand, tumba, tabli and gulu. The dand, or finger board, is made of a special type of wood known as shisham wood, and the standard width is about 3.25 to 3.5 in. The tumba forms the lower section of the instrument which comprises the resonating part, and is made of dried gourd. A gourd in an appropriate size is first set aside to dry and then cut in the middle to a width of 13.5 in to fit the tabli. The tabli forms the part that is covered with a thick wooden base, where the bridge rests, and is the main source of the good sound of a sitar. The tumba and tabli are joined by a block of wood, which is known as gulu.

Every sitar must also have frets of no fewer than 17, though at least three frets are used most commonly in a modern sitar. The other parts of the sitar are the bridges, tail-piece, adjuster, khunti, heads or peg, and steel and brass or copper strings.6

Every sitar, regardless of size, has only seven main strings, five of which are used for producing notes of different pitches and registers. The remaining two strings are known as chikari. These strings are also used for keeping the rhythm. Between the two types of sitar, the sada contains only seven strings, which is the basic requirement. The tarabdar, on the other hand, features between nine and 13 sympathetic strings.

A sitar is played using a plectrum known as the mizrab. Made of thick steel or brass wire, it is worn on the tip of the index finger of the right hand, and the sound is produced by striking the main string of the instrument.8

There are five styles of the musician’s sitting position and of holding a sitar. 
1. Sit over folded feet with the joints resting on the ground.
2. Sit with folded feet parallel to the body. 
3. Sit with the left foot folded on the ground and resting the right foot folded on the ground and resting the right foot against the sitar, keeping it away from the ground. 
4. Sit resting the right foot towards the left direction on the ground and keeping the left foot folded. 
5. Sit keeping the folded left foot towards the right and the right foot in a cross-legged position, and rest the gourd or tumba on the heel of the left foot. 

Regardless of the sitting positions, the musician is to hold the sitar tightly, with the right forearm pressed on the side of the tumba quite firmly. Female players can sit in other positions to suit their individual preference.9

Just like the sitting positions, the structural form of a sitar can be adjusted to accommodate the style of an artist playing it. In addition, the sitar player can also make adjustment to the timbre.10

Sitar has always been one of the most popular and common musical instruments in India. The modern sitar is an improved and modified form of the tri-tantri veena of ancient India.11 In the 12th century, the sehtar, an early version of the sitar, was a three stringed instrument. During the 17th century, three additional strings were included, and later, another string was added. Today, there are seven playing strings and 11 or 13 sympathetic strings on this instrument.12

Over the years, the art of playing the sitar has been refined by Indian musicians such as Majid Khan and Gulam Reza.13 They brought attention to the sitar in India with their ragas, or tunes. Contemporary sitar musicians included Ravi Shankar, whom both the West and the subcontinent have hailed as the sitar maestro. His career, which spanned some seven decades, saw him playing alongside pop group The Beatles, and winning three awards at the Grammy Awards.14 Ustad Vilayat Khan has also been acknowledged as one of the most outstanding sitar musicians from India. He has performed internationally in  Europe, the United States, Russia, East Africa, China and Iran.15 

In Singapore, the art of sitar playing has been made vibrant by many local musical families and associations. For example, the Singapore Malayalee Hindu Samajam and the 40th Indian Independence Celebration Committee organised a sitar recital event in 1988. The aim was to promote the sitar and northern Indian music in Singapore. Through the years, sitar gurus have come from India to teach and perform, thus becoming mentors to many local Indian musicians.16 Sitar lessons are today available at the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society17 and the Indian Classical Music Centre.18

Variant names

English: zither.
Indonesian: siter, found in the gamelan orchestra. The Indonesian version of the instrument is slightly different from traditional sitar, and is one of only two plucked instruments in the gamelan.
Dutch: cither.

Rakunathan Narayanan & Danny Jeyaseelan

1. “Shankar: Going Home,” Straits Times, 22 June 1992, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
2. S. Bandyopadhyaya, Techniques of Sitar: The Prince among All Musical Instruments in India (India: B. R. Pub. Corp., 1988), 30 (Call no. RART 787.82 BAN); Stephen Slawek, Sitar Technique in Nibaddh Forms (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2000), 16 (Call no. RART 787.82 SLA)
3. Bandyopadhyaya, Techniques of Sitar, 26; Slawek, Sitar Technique in Nibaddh Forms, 13.
4. Debu Chaudhuri, Sitar and Its Technique (India: Avon Book, 1981), 13. (Call no.: RART 787.9 CHA)
5. Chaudhuri, Sitar and Its Technique, 13–14; Slawek, Sitar Technique in Nibaddh Forms, 13; Bandyopadhyaya, Techniques of Sitar, 27.
6. Bandyopadhyaya, Techniques of Sitar, 27.
7. Bandyopadhyaya, Techniques of Sitar, 26–28.
8. Sharafat Khan, Enter the World of Sitar (Singapore: S. Khan, 1989), 28 (Available via PublicationSG); Bandyopadhyaya, Techniques of Sitar, 30.
9. Chaudhuri, Sitar and Its Technique, 23–24.
10. Slawek, Sitar Technique in Nibaddh Forms, 11.
11. Bandyopadhyaya, Techniques of Sitar, 26.
12. Khan, Enter the World of Sitar, 4.
13. Bandyopadhyaya, Techniques of Sitar, 33.
14. “Shankar: Going Home”; “Sitar Legend Hails Grammy Award,” Straits Times, 2 March 2002, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Khan, Enter the World of Sitar, 21.
16. Radhika Srinivasan, “Recital to Promote Interest in the Sitar,” Straits Times, 21 March 1988, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Sitar,” Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, accessed 10 July 2018.
18. “About,” Indian Classical Music Centre, accessed 10 July 2018.
19. Tan Shrz Ee, “With Strings Attached,” Straits Times, 28 January 1999, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society: Your Traditional, Classical and Cultural Indian Institute,” Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society (SIFAS), accessed 20 July 2018.


Wang Binlu, A Chinese Zither Tutor: The Mei-An Chin-Pu (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1983). (Call no. RART 787.8 WAN C)

The information in this article is valid as at September 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


Stringed instruments
Musical instruments--Asia