Like the Hindu religion perhaps there is no founder of the sitar but various people have contributed to its development. Among Indian classical instruments the sitar perhaps is best known. Its exact origins are unknown. The word sitar is of Persian origin. Amir Khusro an iconic figure in the cultural history of India was a Sufi mystic and Persian scholar who was born and brought up in India, popular folklore credit him as the inventor of the sitar in around the 13th century. Today serious historians seem to reject this view of Khusro, with many believing that the sitar was in existence long before Amir Khusro’s time in diverse shapes in different regions of India. Another popular story names another Amir Khusro in the 18th century as the creator of the sitar. To add weight to this theory a noted musician Masit Khan (the second Amir Khusro’s grandson) has even had a musical style named after him- the masit khani gat (this style is slow). Raza Khan another musician is the creator of a faster style – razakhani gat. These terms and styles are still in use today. Perhaps both Amir Khusro’s as well as others modified and improved the existing veena that is said to have existed in the Vedic times. This instrument is mentioned in ancient religious texts as the divine instrument of the Goddess of the Arts and Learning namely Saraswati the one who has given the knowledge of the musical notes. The goddess Saraswati is often symbolically pictured with the Veena emphasising the importance of music in spirituality. In fact she is depicted with four arms, in two she holds the veena, in another hand she hold the lotus as a symbol of modesty and morality and in the other a book inspiring one to learn and to gather knowledge. So she is the personification of knowledge and aesthetics and Hindus venerate her as the “patron and soul of music”. By appeasing her, a devotee hopes to gain spiritual merit through arts music and dance which are seen as powerful and evocative mediums that can arouse devotion and love for God. Since very ancient times Hindus have recognised the expression of spirituality in many diverse fields of human endeavour and this has been encouraged through the teachings of the Vedas. It is a form of spirituality that cannot be confined only to purely religious expressions. From ayurveda which gives a spiritual basis to medical science, to the architecture of temples, the esoteric carving of images, poetic compositions and Indian classical music and dance are all seen as valid expressions of spirituality. In recognition of the role of music in religion, the hymns of one of the Vedas, the Sama Veda are set to music. The word sama itself means a chant or melody, hence these scriptures present vedic knowledge in a musical format. Today the veena is played in the both the north and south of India but has perhaps become more popular with the Southern carnatic musicians. In the North the sitar seems to have largely replaced the veena.
Most people today seem to accept that the Sitar is a descendant of the Veena. The instrument over the years has continued a process of modification. Great modern sitarists like Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan for ex have brought further changes and a new perspective to the sitar. These great musicians are always acknowledged when particular pieces or their influences are studied and performed. Like the Hindu religion the Sitar has continued to have evolved over the centuries. Hinduism is a discovery and not an invention of any individual or group of individuals and the teachings of Hinduism are “not personality based”. Some scholars have misinterpreted this term and translated it to imply that “Hinduism has no founders”. What this term actually means is that the Hindu religion is not based on personalities but on principles. It is a religion that fits nicely with the evolution of the sitar which is ultimately a tool that can be used to bring the timeless spiritual disciplines to life. In the classical musical tradition of India, musical sound and musical experiences are steps to the Realization of the Self. In this tradition music is a spiritual discipline that raises one’s inner being to a state of divine bliss – a way to reach God.
Article written by Ron Ragel