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Sitar Music in Pakistan 

A Diversity of Playing Styles and Contemporary Trends

There is inadequate information when it comes to Pakistani sitar players. After partition India being sizeable and more established in comparison to Pakistan gained more attention of western academia, that resulted in gaining it entitlement and authenticity with regards to South Asian Classical music widely known as Indian Classical music. It’s a historical fact that right after partition when Indian cultural ministry was promoting their Arts and bringing their culture to west, Pakistan was struggling with its cultural identity and cultural Diaspora.

In absence of patronage Pakistani artist especially musicians couldn’t be the limelight as their Indian contemporizes. Pt Ravi Shankar1 became the sitar icon in west, following his footsteps Indian sitar players occupied the international stage and authenticity. In 70s many eminent sitar scholars Allyn Minor, James Hamilton, Stephen Slawek to name a few, took a journey across India for their doctorate research but Pakistan remained off their radar.

I took initiative of digging into this area as final year search paper for department of musicology, national college of arts, Lahore. It took almost a year to conduct field research across Pakistan that comprise of series of interviews with sitar players regarding their genealogy, apprenticeship and music. Through research i was able trace out five schools of sitar players in Pakistan which are as follow

Sitar players form Jaipur Senia Gharana

Senia Gharana has a bigger body of practitioners compared to other existing sitar gharanas of Pakistan. This gharana is mainly residing in Karachi, Haiderbad and few in Islamabad.During fieldwork many traces of Jaipur Senia Gharana of sitar and their disciples were found through various sources which are mentioned below.

  • According to the first source Ustad Machhu Khan2, the senior sitar player of Jaipur Senia Gharana was born around 1900 in Jaipur. He was initially taught sitar by his father Ustad Mannay Khan. Later he became a disciple of Kareem Sen who was the direct descendent of Masit Khan. He had been told by his father that there were around fifty eminent sitar players in Jaipur better known as “Hawali Wale”.
  • Ustad Machhu Khan spent his youth in Jaipur as a court musician. In 1947 at the time of partition he migrated to Pakistan and spent the rest of his life in Karachi and served Radio Pakistan, Karachi for the next 27 years as a staff artist. The musical legacy of Ustad Machhu Khan has not been carried forward by his family. He did not teach sitar to his own sons and his only disciple, Javaid Allah Ditta, son of late tabla maestro Allah Ditta Khan Biharpuriya after taking some initial training quit playing sitar and has switched to compositions and has become a known composer. Unfortunately, there is no recorded music of Ustad Machhu Khan, as at that time Radio Pakistan used to broadcast live.
  • According to the second source a family of Jaipur Senia sitar players is acknowledged by the names of the elders of the family Ustad Ahmed Bux Khan and Ustad Muhammad Khan. This family has a large body of sitar players in Pakistan. All the sitar players belonging to this family had a consensus that they are the kin of Ustad Ahmed Bux Khan and Ustad Muhammad Khan. Information provided by them has been mentioned below.
Jaipur Senia Gharana

Left to right Burhan Khan with sitar, next to him Muhammad Khan, sitting beside Muhammad Khan is Ahmed Bux Khan with two additional gourd sitar, rest unknown

  • The kin of Muhammad Khan are still residing in Sindh. During fieldwork their genealogy was traced down through their descendents. According to Sajid Khan, the great grandson of Muhammad Khan, their family tree begins with Muhammad Khan, who was a seventh generation descendant of Tansen. Imdad Khan, the younger son of Habib Khan corroborated with this information. Their family tree is as follow

Ustad Kabir Khan

(Ustad Kabir Khan was the main exponent of Senia Gharana in Pakistan. He was a relative and the disciple of Ustad Muhammad Khan )

Ustad Kabir Khan was born on 8th March 1924 at Jaipur (India). He received his initial education of sitar music from his father Amir Khan and his uncle Muhammad Khan at Jaipur. At partition in 1947 Kabir Khan, along with his family migrated to Pakistan and settled in Karachi and became a staff artist at Radio Pakistan, Karachi. On his excellence as a sitar player he was awarded the President’s Medal for the Pride of Performance in 1996 by the Government of Pakistan. He died in 2002 at Karachi.

Playing Style of Senia Gharana

Senia Sitar playing comprise of traditional instrumental style of gat and toda(instrumental composition) with of strict rule of unchangeable right hand plucking pattern called mizrabs. Its the oldest traditional rudimental instrumental style with more emphasis on rhythmic variation with response to prescribed taal.     

Ustad Kabir Khan and most senior senia sitar player Machhu Khan are worth listen to have a clear idea of this distinct style.   

Sitar Players from Kapurthala’s Dhurpad Rababi Tradition


The princely state of Kapurthala (Punjab) was founded in 1772 by Jassa Singh and Jagatjit Singh (1911 – 1947) was the last Maharaja of Kapurthala. Kapurthala had a rich rabbai tradition. 
The history of classical music tradition at Kapurthala began in 18th century with veena player named Mir Nasir Ahmed who was brought from Delhi to Kapurthala in 1858 by Kanwar Bikrama Singh, after the downfall of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s reign. Mir Nasir Ahmed, a noble man was married to the daughter of Himmat Khan (a descendant of Tansen Binkar Gharana).
The shrine of Mir Nasir Ahmed is still situated at Kapurthala. His two sons, Mir Kallan and Mir Rehmat Ali, became distinguished veena and sursingar players.


Muhammad Karam Imam, also wrote about Mir Nasir Ahmed in his Book “Madan al-musiqi”, while discussing the instrumentalists. 

By cast Mir Nasir Ahmed was Syed, but in Delhi, he got married within a family of Kalawants, for the sake of learning veena, and he learned it well.

Interestingly, Mir Naisr Ahmed’s son Mir Rehmat Ali after getting permission from Raja Sir Daljit Singh of Kapurthala went to Calcutta to learn sursingar from Ali Muhammad, a direct descendant of Tansen. Ali Muhammad was the son of Basat Khan, who is considered as the founder of purab baj in sitar playing which was influenced by thumri.

Thus the Kapurthala musicians played purab baj. Mir Rehmat Ali and Bhai Mehboob Ali were two famous artists of Kapurthala tradition. Mughal Emperor Mohammad Shah Rangile awarded a surbahar to Mir Rehmat Ali which he later handed over to Bhai Mehboob Ali. Some of Bhai Mehboob’s disciples migrated to Pakistan and settled there.

Blood lineage of Rababi Dhurpad Sitar players of Kapurthala

Bhai Mehboob Ali (1880-1946)

Ustad Fateh Ali Khan the main exponent of rababi sitar gharana and his son Nafees Ahemd Khan are from the lineage of the same Bhai Mehboob Ali who belonged to the Kapurthala tradition. In Pakistan, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan is considered to be the main exponent of this tradition. He was born around 1915 in Patiala and was the disciple of his paternal uncle Bhai Mehboob Ali.

Ustad Fateh Ali Khan was a member of Master Ghulam Haider’s orchestra in Bombay and Lahore. In 1943 when Master Ghulam Haider shifted to Bombay, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan remained in Lahore and started working as a composer and instrumentalist for the film industry. He composed music for several films including Aina

Binkar Abdul Aziz Khan was his biggest musical influence. His expertise were considered for playing bols of melody, which require delicate control upon strings, intensity of  stroke, and ability to sustain notes. He was praised for his skill in playing interludes of film songs. In 1960 he moved to Rawalpindi and worked as a staff artist at Radio Pakistan Islamabad. During his career he toured India and Turkey. In 1978 he was awarded the President’s Medal for the Pride of Performance. He died on 22 November 1981 in Rawalpindi.

Nafees Ahmed Khan also agreed with the above information about his family. Bhai Mehboob Ali was son of Bhai Amir Buksh. Bhai Mehboob Ali was also a disciple of Mir Nasir Ahmed and his son Mir Rehmat Ali and learned sitar and surbahar from them.

Ustad Fateh Ali Khan giving lesson to his son Nafees Ahmed Khan

Playing Style  :

The Kapurthala Rababi tradition comprise of Purab baj. Purab baj in tabla refer to khulay hath ka Baj(playing with open spread hands)  which is distinct for its bols of Pakhawaj(a percussion instrument predecessor of tabla, to accompany dhrupad performance). The distinct used of three mizrabs worn on index, ring and little finger of right hand is clear indication of veena influence which is evident in their jor and jhala. Ustad Nafees Ahmed Khan still carrying this tradition and legacy of his late father.    

Sitar Players from Kashmir’s state Pounch

In Pakistan Ustad Sharif Khan was the main exponent of this tradition. Ustad Sharif Khan was born in Hariyana, in the family of hereditary dhrupad musicians, who were descendants of Bahram Khan, a dhrupad singer and predecessors of binkar Bande Ali Khan. 

A prominent figure of Alwar court was the dhrupad singer Bahram or Bairam Khan, one of the predecessors of the outstanding binkar Bande Ali Khan of Indore

Blood lineage of Pounch Musicians


Ustad Sharif Khan’s father was Raheem Khan who got his training of surbahar and sitar from his father Qutab Din Khan and his paternal uncle Ghulam Nabi Khan. Later Raheem Khan became the disciple of Imdad Khan (the founder of Imdad Khani Gharana of sitar). After getting initial training from his father, Ustad Sharif Khan also became a disciple of Imdad Khan’s son, Inayat Khan. Ustad Sharif Khan’s family was employed at Pounch as court musicians. Maharaja of Pounch was connoisseur of music and played surbahar. Maharaja used to spend the winter season in his house at Lahore named “Pounch House” where many eminent musicians like Abdul Aziz Khan Binkar etc used to perform. After partition their family migrated from Kashmir and settled in Lahore. In Pakistan Ustad Sharif Khan, better known as Sharif Khan Pounch Wale, was the main exponent of this tradition. Ustad Sharif Khan developed a distinct style and created his own baj. He was the only sitar player in Pakistan, who was also proficient in veena. His style of playing sitar is known as “sharifkhani baj.


From left to right Raheem Khan ,Ustad Sharif Khan Pounch Wale and His son Ashraf Sharif Khan  

Playing Style 

Ustad Sharif Khan like his contemporizes Abdul Haleem Jaffer, Vilayat Hussain Khan, to name a few, developed his own style Sharif Khani baj, which is rendition of dhrupad vocal on sitar with amalgamation of surbahar and veena’s meend(string bending) techniques to bring out the nuances of vocal music.    

   Sitar Players from Delhi Gharana of Tabla and Sarangi

Delhi had been a noted city for its political and cultural significance. Delhi also played an important role in patronizing the arts especially music till the end of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s reign in 1858. Afterwards many musicians migrated to other states like Alwar, Jaipur, Rampur, and Lucknow in search of patronage. 

The sitar players from Delhi Gharana of tabla and sarangi are acknowledged by their head of family Ahmadi Khan. Born in Delhi 1890 Ahmadi Khan hailed from the prestigious Delhi Gharana of tabla players. Ahmadi Khan started his training of sarangi under the guidance of his maternal uncle Ustad Nazeer Khan. Ahmadi Khan left Delhi and spent a long period of time in Amritsar and Lahore. He passed away in Delhi in 1945. 

Musician from Delhi Gharana of Tabla and Sarangi

Ustad Ahmadi Khan’s son, Imdad Hussain Khan was born in Delhi. After partition Imdad Hussain Khan settled in Pakistan. Imdad Hussain Khan was the first one who took to sitar playing within the gharana and his son Ikhlaque Hussain Khan has continued this tradition. Other than getting his initial training from his father Ikhlaque Hussain Khan also learnt from Ustad Kabir Khan. Later he became a disciple of Pt. Ravi Shanker

From left to right Ahmadi Khan and Imdad Hussain khan

Blood lineage of Musician from Delhi Gharana of Tabla and Sarangi Ustad

Ustad Ahmadi Khan


Imdad Hussain Khan 


Ikhlaque Hussian Khan


Turrab Khan (maternal nephew)

From left to right. Ikhlaque Hussain Khan and Turrab Khan

Playing Style
Hailing form dehli gharana of sarangi and tabla these sitar players are well versed in khayal Their music is based upon the rendition of khayal bandishs (vocal compositions)on sitar.  

Sitar Players from Indore Gharana

This gharana is the most recent amongst the existing gharanas of this region. The representative and main exponent of this gharana Ustad Rais Khan was born on December 25, 1939 in India and passed away in 6th May 2017 in Pakistan. In the year 2004 during a performance on Pakistan Television Ustad Rais Khan claimed that he was from “Mewati Gharana”. His statement stirred a controversy regarding his links with the “Indore Gharana”. Many scholars have included him in the Indore Gharana.



Sitar Players from Indore Gharana Blood Line 

Ustad Rais Khan was taught by his father Muhammad Khan Binkar of Indore Gharana. On his mother’s side, he is related to the sitar virtuoso Inayat Khan of the Imdad Khani Gharana. Around 1980 Ustad Rais Khan got married to Bilqes Khanam in Pakistan and became a

Pakistani citizen. He was awarded President’s Medal for the Pride of Performance in 1980. Ustad Rais Khan was among the topnotch sitar players of this era and a true representative of his gharana. His son Farhan Khan has followed his footsteps.

Playing Style

Ustad Rais Khan was a living legend. His brilliance of rendering khayal vocal bandish on sitar with such details and delicacy that brought it very close to nuances of human voice. He would often sing the melody and then played it on sitar. Like his maternal uncle Ustad Vilayat Hussain Khan, his style was also gayaki ang(vocal rendition on sitar)  reflecting his own emotions and musical genius .    


Classical music in Pakistan, whether it is vocal or instrumental is in a state of decline and inertia. There have been multiple socio-political, socio-economic and socio-cultural reasons for it but one of them is the near absence of a serious commitment on part of the government. The patronage of music in Pakistan has been left to a few semi government organizations or to a few persons who have resources and taste for music.

Within Pakistan, there are organizations, which have, at a semi government level patronized both classical music and its education. The organizations include Lahore Arts Council Alhamra, Lok Virsa, National College of Arts, National Academy of Performing Arts, and different colleges that have started classes of music.

In the absence of any serious government support, music thrived on its own in Pakistan. A particular case has been  sitar music, the maestros that we have discussed above have  not only continued the tradition of sitar music but also gave rise to a stylistic diversity, which is richer when compared with India, where in recent years, only two styles have flourished.

In recent years among many Pakistani sitar players of the current generation, have toured abroad and some of them have permanently settled there. This has put them in competition, with their contemporaries, who may belong to entirely different tradition.

Given the above factors in Pakistan, the diversity of playing styles that have been identified of the sitar maestros seems to gradually fading away. With increasing impact of globalization a relatively more generalized performance mode and structure is becoming apparent.

It is difficult to say what will be the future of sitar music in Pakistan. On the one hand the above factors have adversely affected the tradition that has maintained the purity of the styles and on the other hand opened possibilities of innovation. The young generation torn between heritage and legacy of their stylistic norms and the growing demands of innovation (through the impact of cultural infusion, globalization and internationalization of music) play to contemporary taste as well as striving at a convergence of tradition with popular taste.

Will this potential of change contribute to the growth of sitar music or result in decline is a question that needs to be addressed., under the strong influence of the media and globalization, a more intelligent and creative response is needed to cope with the process of social change and varying aesthetic requirements by the younger lot of sitar players in Pakistan.

The diversity of styles in sitar music of Pakistan is an evidence of both talent and sheer labor. The individuals, who have spent their life time in exploring the details of the components that their particular style consists of, have not been appreciated. Their released music has not been fully reflective of the depth and wide range of their musical genius; only giving us a cursory insight at best. There is a need that the recorded music of Pakistani sitar maestros should be discovered and released so that the young generation can have examples to emulate.

The youngsters who are turning to sitar music have a dual responsibility. On the one hand they have the legacy of the sitar maestros, and on the other they have challenges of a different time, where both the audience has become more diverse with heightened expectation. The internationalization of music and the technological breakthroughs have set the stage for recasting our tradition in full awareness of the times we live in.

Ali Ayub