Sitar - Connecting the East and West

Written by Shankar Mahadevan Academy on 03 December 2015

The sitar is without doubt the most well known among Indian musical instruments, especially in the west. First made popular by Pandit Ravi Shankar and The Beatles, the sitar has since made numerous inroads into popular western music and continues to exhibit a profound influence. The sitar also holds the distinction of uniting Indian music and rock music, when in April 1965, the Yalebirds composed “Heart Full Of Soul”, where sitar sounds were duplicated with an electric guitar. The song became a major hit on its release paving the way for the sitar to become an integral part of the western music scene. Unlike many fads, which quickly pass, the sitar continues to hold ground, with many recent artists still opting to use sitar music on their tracks. 

Origins of the sitar:

The sitar emerged as a result of the Indo-Persian culture during the Mughal rule and has its roots in both the Persian ‘setar’ as well as in the Indian ‘veena.’ Legend attributes the invention of this stringed instrument to the great Indian scholar, poet and musician Amir Khusro. Commonly used in Hindustani music, the sitar is popular in all parts of the Indian sub-continent. The versatility of the sitar lies in its complex construction, which has allowed it to be adapted in a variety of genres including Indo-Western fusion music and Indian Film music. Made out of a gourd body, the sitar derives its beautiful resonance, from the aptly placed sympathetic strings and long hollow neck. These strings, which are never played by the performer, resound in sympathy with the playing strings, creating a polyphonic timber that many have come to associate with India through the popularity of this instrument.

Pandit Ravi Shankar- The pioneer who introduced the sitar to the west:

Pandi Ravi Shankar, one of the greatest sitarists of the twentieth century, can be credited for introducing the incredible sounds of the sitar to the west. Pandit Shankar was already a very popular composer and performer before he embarked on an international career. His association with the western music scene started in 1956, when he began to tour Europe and America. He increased the sitar’s popularity through performances, teaching and through his association with renowned musicians Yehudi Menuhin and George Harrison. Shankar single handedly enriched Western music with sitar sounds by writing concerti for sitar and orchestra and touring extensively. He associated with many western musicians and even performed in the famous 1969 Woodstock festival. He firmly established the sitar as an instrument of repute when he won the 1967 Grammy Award For Best Chamber Music Performance for “West meets East”, a collaboration with Yehudi Menuhin. 

The Beatles and the sitar:

The sitar gained the zenith of popularity with the popular rock band, The Beatles. It all started when George Harrison chanced upon a sitar, which was to be used as a prop, during the filming of The Beatles’ second movie “Help!”and tried to play it. This initial interest in the sitar prompted Harrison to take lessons from Pandit Ravi Shankar. He came to India and took six weeks of sitar lessons in Srinagar, Kashmir. This highly publicized event was shot as a documentary film by Horward Worth and released as “Raga” in 1971.
His newfound interest in the sitar took shape when he played the instrument in the song "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” in the album “Rubber Soul” in 1965. The Beatles association with the sitar continued as many more of their songs featured sitar tracks. These include many hit songs such as “Love You To”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Within You Without You”, “The Inner Light”, and “Across The Universe”. Apart from these songs, Harrison has used the sitar extensively in his solo album “Wonderwall Music” (1968). All The Beatles’ songs featuring the sitar were a huge success and this lead to the sitar becoming famous the world over.

The sitar in other western compositions:

The Beatles were one of the most successful bands during the 60’s and their passion for using the sitar brought on a fad where many other musicians started using sitar tracks in their albums. The Rolling Stone guitarist Brian Jones, a self-taught sitar player, played the sitar on songs “Paint it, Black”, “My Little One” and “Street Fighting Man”. Other artists who used the sitar were, The Monkeys in “This Just Doesn’t Seem To Be My Day”, The Turtles in ”Sound Asleep”, The Kinks in “Fancy”, and The Lemon Pipers in “Green Tambourine.”
Though commonly used by pop bands, sitar music also came to be used by artists of other music genres. This included art-rock bands such as The Moody Blues in their album “S. F. Sorrow,” and Jethro Tull in “Fat Man" and "Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day". It even made its way into Western Classical music, when Roy Wood from The Move played the sitar on “Night of Fear” using the same riffs as Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”. 

Famous sitar songs beyond the hippie generation:

Though the sitar craze died down by the early 1970’s, artists have continued to use the sitar to enhance the quality of their music making sitar music an integral part of pop music. Many famous artists and pop music bands continue to use the sitar to lend a distinctive touch to their music. Among these are Elton John in “Holiday Inn” from the album “Madman Across the Water”, Stanley Dan in his 1972 hit “Do It Again”, T. Rex in “Chrome Sitar”, B. J. Thomas in “Hooked On A Feeling”, Stevie Wonder in “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours”, Metallica in “Wherever I May Roam”, Tool in “4 Degrees”, Moody Blues in “Om” and Shakira in her recent album “Gypsy”.

The sitar and Indian Music:

The sitar’s foray into the west has brought about a deep awareness and interest for all types of Indian Classical music. Indian Classical, Hindustani and Filmy music are no longer contained within the Indian sub-continent but open to people from all over the world. This has brought about a renewed desire to learn Indian music, but many don’t have the opportunity to do so. The Shankar Mahadevan Academy caters to this International need by providing online singing classes for Indian Classical/Devotional/Bollywood music. Founded by renowned singer, musician and composer, Shankar Mahadevan, the Academy gives people the opportunity learn Indian music in the comfort of their home. The classes include online interaction with expert teachers and specially designed OM (Online Music) books. Shankar Mahadevan is very passionate about spreading Indian music to all corners of the world. In a recent interview with Rekha Shah, Shankar Mahadevan explains the reason why he started the academy. “I believe that if something interests you and is good to do, then surely you must do it really well. I just make time for the things that are close to my heart, and believe me, anything to do with music is important to me. I set up the Shankar Mahadevan Academy because there are thousands of people who love music -- Hindustani, Carnatic, Devotional, Film music -- and want to learn it, but don't know where to go. My online music academy is a small but sincere effort to help aspiring people learn music and revel in their talent.”
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Did you know that the sitar is the most popular Indian musical instrument in the West?