Sarod and Sitar: Musical instruments given by the Mughal courts

musical instrument sitar
Traditional Indian string instrument, wood and ivory inlay.

If we are talking of India’s syncretic culture, we can’t but escape discussing two of the most popular Hindustani classical musical instruments of modern India: The Sitar and the Sarod.

Origin of Sarod and Sitar

Curiously, both the names originate from Persian words. While Sitar, by all indications came from two Persian words, Seh, meaning three, and Tar, meaning, string, Sarod in Persian means melody. So much for their names, but the more important question is where did this duo originate?

We run into some foggy weather here. The exact origins are as much unclear as they are contested. However, as has been accepted by all historians of Indian classical music, including Allyn Miner, who has a seminal tome on the history of these two instruments, both in its present forms came into existence during what is known as India’s Islamic era.

The most popular oral traditional history of the Sitar that persists to this day, even if contested, is that it was one of the many creations of the 13th century polymath Amir Khusrau. He, it is held, created it modifying an existing Indian instrument, gave it three strings, and named it Seh-Tar.

Timeline of Invention

Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar opines that it existed in various shapes much before Khusrau, and was “variously called the Tritantri Veena…, Chitra Veena, or Parivadini.” Curiously, the similarity of the names Tritantri, three stringed, and Seh-tar can hardly be missed.

Then again there is a theory, discussed at length by Miner in her book Sitar and Sarod in the 18th and 19th Centuries, that Sitar was indeed devised by Amir Khusrau, not the 14th century poet but an 18th century musician in the court of the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah.

Encyclopaedia Britannica tends to give credence to this theory stating that, “The instrument appears to have descended from long-necked lutes taken to India from Central Asia. The sitar flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries and arrived at its present form in the 18th century.”

Sarod and Rabab

And the Sarod? Again, there are some contesting positions among scholars here. Miner, however, opines that Sarod is a close descendent of the Afghani Rabab. She believes Afghani Rabab players at a later stage started calling their instrument Sarod to differentiate in from the Seniya Rabab.

The Sitar and the Sarod are but just two examples of how the Indian musical landscape changed and the present-day Indian classical music emerged out of a constant dialogue between Indian and Islamic musical traditions.

Miner’s words are succinct in this regard, ”The early waves of Muslim invasion in Northwest India, and the 12th century establishment of the Delhi Sultanate by Turkish Muslims introduced profound changes in Indian culture…”

Historical records hint that for some time the Persian of the courts thrived without any influence of India’s culture. Eventually, however, the presence of Indians in the courts became a force for change and synthesis. This is known to have begun significantly during the time of Amir Khusrau, and to have culminated under the Great Mughals in the 16th and 17th centuries. The result was a dynamic music unique to the courts and urban centres of northern India.

 

(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)