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MAKING THE SITAR

by David Courtney working tools


Introduction

This page provides an overview of the making of sitars.  One point should be kept in mind; sitar-making is a very individualized craft.  Every craftsman is going to have his own individual interpretation.  Therefore, the techniques shown here must be considered to be but a sample.

The terms too, must be taken with some caution.  India is a land of tremendous linguistic diversity.  If a mango is called something different every hundred miles, we certainly expect the names of the parts of the sitar to show a similar diversity.  With these points in mind let us look more closely into sitar-making.

 

The Craft

Sitar-making is a very traditional craft.  Virtually every city has craftsmen who deal in this commodity.  Like the other crafts, it is passed down from generation to generation; in this manner the apprentice learns the techniques form an older, more established craftsman.  The one point which continuously comes through is that it is a very manual process.

 

Overview of the Parts of the Sitar

The basic parts of the sitar are shown in the illustration below:

expoded view of the sitar
Parts of sitar

You can zoom in on the previous illustration for a clearer understanding.

 

Glue, Varnish & Fasteners, and Tools

The tools used are generally simple hand tools.  Hand saws, rasps, hammers, and similar tools are the norm. Power tools of any kind are generally not used.

The glues, paints and varnishes are usually made from scratch.

Glue for instance, is usually saresh; this is a mucilage which comes in brown sheets.  It is mixed with a small amount of water and kept over a small fire.  There has been a recent introduction of synthetic glues into the craft, but still mucilage is the preferred glue.

There is no varnish as we think of it in the West.  The traditional varnish is actually lacquer.  Lacquer is a mixture of laq (a tree gum which has been partially digested by insects) and alcohol.  Occasionally chandresh is added to give more of a sheen.  Paint is made in the same, way except pigment is added to the mixture.

The fasteners are very interesting.  Metallic nails have very little use in the craft of making the sitar.  Screws are sometimes used.  The most common fastener is actually a small tack or nail made from slivers of bamboo.  These tacks may be anywhere from 1/4 to one-inch in length.  The are made by slicing the outer skin of bamboo. Only the outer skin is used because it is the strongest.  In a typical sitar, metal fasteners such as nails or screws can be counted on the fingers; but there are hundreds of these bamboo slivers used.  (If your sitar ever breaks the gourd, you can see scores of such bamboo nails on the inside.

 

The Neck (Dandi)

The neck is based upon six pieces.  There is the major portion of the neck, this is known as dandi.  There are three front plates, and two camel bone bridges (ard patri).  These are shown below.

exploded view of the neck
The parts of the neck

 

Patri (Neck Bridges)

The patri are the two bridges at the top of the neck.  The word "patri" literally means "leaf" and may be applied to any flat leaf like object.  One will find other parts of the sitar also referred to as patri.

Fabrication of the patri is simple.  First, rough bridges are fashioned from camel bone.  These are shown below:

The patri
Patri (upper bridges on neck)

These bridges must then be finished.  Cut holes in one of the bridges to allows the strings to pass.&nmsp; The other bridge is notched to allow the strings to pass over them.  These is shown in the picture below.

The patri
Ard patri in proper place

 

Taraf Mogara

The taraf mogara are the small grommets made of camel bone that are glued into holes on the neck front plate.  They serve to strengthen the hole so that the strings do not bite into the wood.

Taraf mogara
Taraf mogara

 

Gullu

The gullu is the wooden cowl that joins the neck (dandi) with the gourd (kaddu).  It is hollowed out of a single piece of wood.  This is shown below:

The gullu
The gullu

 

Gourd (Kaddu Ka Tumba)

The gourd (kaddu) forms the bulk of the resonator (tumba).  This is a large, hard gourd, roughly 14 inches in diameter.  There are two ways that the gourd may be cut and mounted on the sitar.  The most common has the base of the gourd running perpendicular to the face (tabkadi).  This would be cut as shown below:

normal cut of the gourd
Common cut for gourd

Another way which is sometimes used, is to have the base of the gourd running parallel to the faceplate.  This style is considerably less popular.  It would be cut in the fashion shown below:

less common cut of the gourd
Less common cut for gourd

 

Tabkadi (Faceplate)

The tabkadi is probably the most important wooden piece of the sitar.  It is made from a single piece.  It is very important that the grain of the wood run in the direction of the tabkadi.  It is also very important that this wood be free of knotholes or other imperfections.

The tabkadi should be neither too thick nor too thin.  If it is too thin, the sitar will have a very loud sound; unfortunately it will have a very poor sustain.  If the tabkadi is too thick, the instrument may have a good sustain, but a very low volume.  If everything is correct, the sitar will have a loud volume and a good sustain.

The tabkadi is shown below:

The tabkadi
The tabkadi

 

Decorative Leaves (Patri)

These decorative leaves are usually made of wood and glued to the gourd, just below where the gullu attaches.  They are purely decorative and are sometimes left off the instrument.

decorative leaves
Decorative leaves (patri)

 

Tardani Mogara

The tardani mogara sometimes referred to as kili are the posts where the strings attach to the base of the sitar.  The name "kili" literally means "nail" while the term tardani mogara literally means "the jasmine blossoms that hold the strings".  The term kili is so named because the posts somewhat resemble protruding nails, while any of the camel bone protruding bits may be referred to as mogara (Jasmine blossoms). These tardani mogara are fashioned from camel bone as shown below:



Tail post
Tardani mogara

 

Wooden Tail Mount

The tail mount is a piece of wood that attaches to the base of the gourd (kaddu).  This forms a strong base in which the tardani mogara are placed for the attachment of the strings.

The patri
Wooden tail mount with three tardani mogaras

 

Kunti

The kuntis are the tuning pegs; a sitar has two types.  There are larger pegs for the playing and drone strings, and there are smaller ones for the sympathetic strings.

There are three common styles of large tuning pegs.  These are the lotus pegs, the fluted, and the simple.  These are shown below:


Lotus Kunti - The lotus peg is considered to be the finest peg.  The presence of this peg is often a visible indication that the great care was taken for the whole instrument.  This is usually found on the professional quality sitars. A lotus peg is shown below:

Lotus peg
Lotus kunti



Fluted Kunti - The fluted peg is not nearly as refined as the lotus version.  Although one sometimes finds professional quality sitars using this style, it is often an indication of a middle grade of instrument. A fluted peg is shown below:

fluted peg
Fluted kunti



Simple Kunti - The simple peg is often an indication of a student grade instrument.  Although there is nothing wrong with this style, it is often an indication that there has not really been a lot of care taken in the fabrication of the instrument. A simple peg is shown below:

Simple peg
Simple kunti


Taraf Kunti - There are also the smaller pegs for the sympathetic strings.  An example is shown below:

Small peg
Taraf kunti

 

Mogara

The mogara are the two post that raised the chikari strings above the neck.  The name "mogara" literally mean "jasmine".  It is so named because the posts somewhat resemble the blossom of the mogara.  These posts are placed in holes that are drilled in the side of the neck as shown below:

mogara
Mogara

 

Tumba

The tumba is an optional part of the sitar.  It appears to be a relatively recent addition.  Even today it is not universal.  There are a number of styles.  Sometimes it is made of a gourd (kaddu) and sometimes it is made of wood (lakadi).  Sometimes decorative leaves are applied (patri).  A common method of fabrication is shown below.

The tumba
The tumba

Opinion is divided as to whether the purpose of the tumba is to affects the sound, whether it affects the balance or whether it is just decorative.  It is quite likley that it serves all three purposes.

 

Main Bridge

The main bridge, often referred to as the ghoraj or bada ghoraj, is one of the most unique parts of the sitar.  It is composed of two parts.  The major portion is wood.  However the most critical section is the bone plate, often referred to as the jawari.  The preferred material for this plate is antelope horn (barah sinha).  However over the years the antelope from which the horns are obtained has become an endangered species. This horn has therefore become hard to obtain.  The most common substitute is camel bone.  Camel bone produces a material which is surprisingly similar to elephant ivory (hathi ka dant).

The relationship between the wooden bridge, the bone plate, and strings is shown in the figure below.

bridge and strings
The wooden bridge (ghoraj), the bone plate (jawari), and the string (tar)

Notice that the bridge has a very characteristic curve to it.  This is extremely critical and it takes a lot of experience to be able to produce just the right contour.

Although sanding the bridge to the correct contour is very difficult, the basic concept is quite simple.  The bridge works very much like a guitar that has a warped neck.  The overtones of the sitar are produced by the rattling of the strings against the bridge.

This has just been a brief introduction to the bridge, go to the following resource for more information:

 

Taraf Ka Ghoraj (Chota Ghoraj) (Bridge for Sympathetic Strings)

The sympathetic strings also have a bridge.  This has a contour similar to the main bridge.  Both the main bridge and the sympathetic bride are shown in the photo below:

Bridges
Taraf ka ghoraj (sympathetic string bridge) and main bridge

 

Parda

The parda are the wire frets on the sitar.  They are composed of metallic rods bent to their characteristic shape (see below).

fret
Parda (fret)

A good discussion of tying the frets is to be found at: Perfect Third Music's Knots

 

Stringing The Sitar

There are a number of approaches to stringing the sitar.  The various approaches are inextricably linked to the desired tunings.  The following links deal with this subject:

 

When one is stringing the sitar it is usual to have one or more beads to assist with fine tuning of the instrument.  A normal bead and a swan-shaped bead are shown in the photograph below:

tuning beads
Tuning beads

 

Tuning The Sitar

Here are some resources for tuning the sitar:

Go to ""Tuning the Sitar"


Tuning the sitar

 

Conclusion

This page is just the barest introduction to the craft of sitar making.  However we hope that you will at least get a feel for this interesting subject.

 

 


 

Selected Video

Ravi Shankar - The Art Of The Sitar

Ravi Shankar - The Art Of The Sitar

Add to My Profile | More Videos

 

Hari Chand Sharma Bierbeek 1997

 

Karasek Sitar Has Origins Both Foreign And Domestic

 

 

 

This page last updated

© 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 David and Chandrakantha Courtney

For comments, corrections, and suggestions, kindly contact David Courtney at david@chandrakantha.com