The family of Indian string instruments is sizable. Each instrument from the Saraswati Veena, to Sitar, Sarod, Ektara, Dilruba, Santoor, and even Tanpura reside in this category. The stringed instrument is integral to the soundscape of its people.
However, there is a lot of confusion between all these musical instruments. They look so similar. Each of them has a body made of wood and gourd. And they each have multiple strings. Especially confusing are these 3 Indian musical instruments: the sitar, veena, and tanpura.
How can you tell which of these stringed instruments, used in Carnatic music vs. Hindustani music, apart? Which instruments are used as a drone? And which is used in Hindustani music as a primary instrument?
In this article, I will share the difference between sitar and the other two very similar instruments (veena and tanpua / tambura), as well as some tips to help you understand how you can tell them apart!
Differences in plucked stringed Instrument
Now that we’ve identified the three major stringed instruments in Indian classical music – sitar, veena, and tanpura, let’s start with some basic knowledge.
Veena or Vina comes from Sanskrit and is a generic term used for plucked stringed instruments. The Veena predates the Sitar and Tanpura. There are references to the veena from the Rig and Sama Vedas. The Goddess Saraswati holds this instrument in front of her in most depictions.
Two Veenas: Rudra Veena vs Saraswati Veena
The rudra veena and Saraswati veena and Vichitra veena are regional versions of the same instrument. Not often seen in North Indian classical scene, it is however prominent in Carnatic music.
This stringed instrument commonly used in South Indian music is the veena, which can be found in more than one region including Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
In Carnatic classical music, the stringed instrument used to accompany the Veena is the mridangam.
The sitar is a long-necked lute with a gourd resonator, while the veena is more like an ancient version of the violin.
The Tanpura is a drone instrument found across the Indian subcontinent. Its construction is simple, with a gourd at its base and a long neck. It’s sound serves as the backdrop in all Hindustani classical music concerts, as well as folk traditions like ghazal.
Both sitar and veena have been around for centuries. Both are used as primary instruments in instrumental music. Sitar is used in Hindustani classical, and the Veena is used in Carnatic music.
While Tanpura looks like the sitar, it is missing a top gourd and does not have any frets. These frets allow for the Sitar to tune the sympathetic strings, which the Tanpura does not have.
Learn more about Tanpura Playing Technique in another article.
Star of Stringed Hindustani classical music instruments: Sitar
No other musical instrument is synonymous with India. The sitar is one of the most popular instruments from the Indian subcontinent, and it has been used for centuries by musicians as diverse as Pandit Ravi Shankar to the Beatles musician George Harrison. Indian musical influences (notably the Veena) combined with Persian influences gave rise to the sitar.
Unlike a Western string instrument which is held horizontally, the sitar is traditionally played vertically. The instrument is set on the floor or rested on the musician’s foot, and held across the chest.
Musical instruments in classical music, especially Hindustani classical music are played in the Gayaki ang (style). This playing style is used by all Sitar players.