by David Courtney working tools

old sitar

The development of the sitar, in general terms, is really no mystery.  However, It is surprising that there have arisen theories and stories that show a total disregard for historical accuracy.

The most common story attributes the invention of the sitar to Amir Khusru.  Amir Khusru was a great personality and is an icon for the early development of Hindustani Sangeet.  He lived during the reign of Allaudin Khilji around 1300 AD.  As common as this story is, it has no basis in historical fact.  The sitar was clearly nonexistent until the time of the collapse of the Mogul empire.  Therefore, the theory that Amir Khusru invented the sitar may be discounted.

Another theory has the sitar evolving from the ancient veenas such as the rudra vina.  However, the rudra vina is a stick zither while the sitar is a lute.  There are also differences in materials used.  It is not very likely that the sitar owes its origins to this instrument.

Some suggest that the sitar is derived from the Saraswati vina.  This is at least a possibility.  Still there are uncomfortable questions raised.  Where did the Saraswati vina come from?  Why does this class only begin to show up in India about 800 years ago?  We must be open to the distinct possibility that the lute class of chordophones is not indigenous to India but imported from outside.

Ultimately the earliest origins of these instruments are irrelevant.  It is clear that the sitar as we think of it today developed in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent at the end of the Mogul era.  It is also clear that it evolved from the Persian lutes that had been played in the Mogul courts for hundreds of years.  Since this part is very clear, let us turn to other documents to clarify the picture.

The "Sangeet Sudarshana" states that the sitar was invented in the 18th century by a fakir named Amir Khusru.  This of course was a different Amir Khusru from the one who lived in 1300.  This latter Amir Khusru was the 15th descendent of Naubat Khan, the son-in-law of Tansen.  It is said that he developed this instrument from the Persian sehtar.

The job of continuing the sitar tradition fell to Amir Khusru's grandson, Masit Khan.  He was one of the most influential musicians in the development of this instrument.  He composed numerous slow gats in the dhrupad style of the day.  This style, even today, is referred to as Masitkhani Gat.  The Masitkhani gats were further popularised by his son, Bahadur Khan.  Masit Khan was a resident of Delhi, therefore masitkhani Gats are sometimes referred to as Dilli Ka Baaj.

Another important person in the development of sitar music was Raza Khan.  Raza Khan was also a descendent of Tansen and lived in Lucknow around 1800-1850.  Raza Khan was also known as Ghulam Raza.  He developed the fast gat known as Razakani gat.

Amrit Sen and Rahim Sen were two very important personalities.  They modified the tuning and stringing of the instrument and introduced numerous new techniques to the instrument.



© 1998 - 2018 David and Chandrakantha Courtney

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