The Sitar Diaries- ABC of Playing A Sitar

So you got your sitar, got your mizrab and even coaxed your feet into the slightly uncomfy position sitting like a pretzel. Now it all comes down to holding the sitar properly (aka getting a solid grip on it) and striking a note!

The sitar has a longish neck that culminates in a rounded bottom. While holding the sitar, the neck (daand) is pointing upwards and the player’s elbow rests on the swell of the bottom aka the tumba.

The mizrab is put on the index finger of the right hand and the left hand is pressed down on a fret while the hand does either of these four movements-

DA. RA. DIR. DRA! I added an exclamation after the last mode of playing a note because it’s played in a quick and almost aggressive manner.

DA is the bol representing the upward strike. The mizrab starts from the bottom end of the string and strikes upward.

RA is the bol representing the downward strike. The mizrab starts from the top end of the string and strikes downward.

DIR is a quick flick doing a Da, followed by an immediate Ra. It will seem like a “stutter” from the sitar.

DRA is when the first string is stroked from inward and then immediately outward very fast, giving the outward stroke more power/emphasis than inward stroke.

The left hand moves up and down the neck of the instrument while the right hand continues to strum the strings in a medley of the movements described above and sounds are emitted. Once the proper sequence of notes are put into play, a melody emerges.

Incidentally the higher up you go on a sitar’s neck the lower the tonal quality of the notes and conversely the lower you move on the neck the higher the tonal quality. Highs and lows on a sitar often take novices a while to master since the hand typical tends to reach for a higher place when told to strike a high note and vice versa.

Also, initial days of playing a sitar can be tough in more ways than one- the steel wires cut into your hands and thankfully causing calluses which help you play as time goes by. But till the time the calluses form it’s a wee bit painful and applying bandaids on the index finger of the left hand can help the younger students withstand the discomfort that can occur.

Tuning a sitar is also very important. With all string instruments, the tautness of the wires can make or break the sounds that will be created. The pegs on a sitar are to be tuned gently (by novices) and a good way to find out how your sitar should sound is to sing the sargam (that is singing the notes instead of the composition). The notes, SA-RE-GA-MA simplistically corresponds to the DO-RE-MI-FA in Western classical music.

But alongside learning bits of theory, it’s more important to get to know the instrument, familiarize yourself with its contours and then just jump headfirst into playing it.

Attribution: some texts within the blog post have been taken from these sources-


The Sitar Diaries-Genesis&Evolution

The sitar is a string-instrument which is primarily played in Hindustani and Carnatic modes. It has strings made with steel and the sound is produced by striking at the strings while wearing an implement called a mizrab and simultaneously flexing the right hand palm open or shut whereas the left hand presses down on a particular wire.


The conception of the Sitar is largely been attributed to Persian sources with the earliest sitars being inspired from a Persian instrument called a se-tar i.e 3 strings.Over the years it has been customized to suit the prevailing movements in music in the Indian subcontinent with Amir Khusrow being credited with it’s present form.

A sitar can have 18,19 or 20 strings of which 6 or 7 (corresponding to the octaves) are strung over raised, curved frets. The remainder of the strings run under the main strings and resonate and enhance the melody. They are often played separately as well to add emphasis or a different pitch to the music.

This is how a sitar is typically held-

It takes a bit of getting used to but in time your legs stop feeling like you’re on pins and needles and the heady feeling of strumming a a vibrant note takes over everything else and you’re on your way to a little slice of heaven!

Play on!

Philosophical Masturbation

I happened to speak to someone about relationships recently and that got me thinking about…DUH! relationships. The kinds I have with the people in my life. The kinds I see all around me and those I’ve been a part of vicariously, for whatever oddball reason there maybe.

It struck me during my conversation that sometimes when we walk away or are walked away from, the significant people in our life, we aren’t usually doing it for one reason alone. There are usually a multitude of reasons and one of them might rule the roost but the others play their part in the decision making process-be it a good or a bad decision.

A reason which is a bit OTT but is relevant nonetheless is the act of knowing someone too well. People like some amount of mystique in their lives. They like the element of the unknown, even if it’s an iota and not a dollop. And they don’t want to be an open book where each ‘t’ is crossed out and ‘i’ is dotted before its time.

One of the other factors which go hand in hand with being known very well by the significant other, is knowing them a little too well.

Ergo predictability rules the roost or we imagine it to do so and often opt to be away from the severity of known and cozy up in the warmth of the unknown. Let’s face it, a person who knows you, warts and all, will lay you bare and none of your excuses will work in front of them. The fallacies you might want to hide behind will be ripped apart from you and you’ll be shown a mirror to your own self. Again. And again.

It’s tough. Sometimes unsavory and often unpalatable. And the easiest way to avoid it is to be rid of the person who knows you so well.

Starting over with a new person lets you be someone you wanted to be but couldn’t. Or atleast pretend to for a while.

Familiarity isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be at the end of the day. It’s just another state of being. And you might want to be someone else.

The Sitar Diaries- Anatomy of a Sitar

Last Friday I went to a neighbor’s house and saw a veena propped up in a corner. And it brought to mind the little time that I’d spent learning to play a sitar. It made me think of this series of blog post titled- The Sitar Diaries which will explore the structure and form of a sitar, how to play it, what is typically played and a bit of intro to some of the most famous Hindustani Classical raags and taals.. Am not delving into the Carnatic style at all since my exposure to that methodology is absolutely nil!

So here goes and I hope that more people will continue to embrace musical instruments as a way of self-expression, recreation and pleasure. I, unfortunately, was not able to continue with my sitar lessons but I have a yen for the instrument and still wish that a time comes when I can reconnect with it. Till then the days of my air-sitar will continue instead.


Parts of a sitar labelled.