The shape of the instrument resembles a smaller version of the well known instrument, the Sitar. The fret board and fret lacings of the instrument are identical to that of the Sitar. However, similarities almost end there.
The Esraj is a string instrument played with a bow. The instrument has four main strings and fifteen vibration strings. All are metal strings. Only the first (and occasionally the second) strings played. Other strings provide a rich vibration effect making a fuller and deep, soothing tone. Esraj creates the typical richly ornamented sound that echoes the human voice. The instrument is made from rosewood or sometimes teak. Unlike the Sitar which has a bottom which is hard, the Esraj has a leather covering at the bottom similar to that of a Banjo with a bridge which keeps the strings together. The bowing is done just above the bridge, as in violins and violas.
The Esraj is played in a sitting position with the bottom part of the instrument (where bowing is done) resting on the lap of the player. There are two major playing styles of this instrument. In the Bhatkhande style, the top part of the instrument rests against the left shoulder of the player while playing, whereas in the Shanthiniketan style, the instrument is held on a freestanding ninety degree vertical posture.
The Esraj had its golden era when the famous poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore chose as an accompaniment for his Tagore songs (Rabindra Sangeet). This situation arose out of the liberation movement when it became very unpopular to use anything that was of Western influence. Santiniketan, his highly evolved artist community, could still be called the home of the Esraj.