“Only a tambura can bring in a tranquil aura”: Musicians comment on the convenience and compromise of digital tanpura

South Indian tambura
South Indian Tambura | ExperienceInstruments >>

The four strings of the tambura that provide sruthi or the basic swara (pitch) for musicians are considered the life force for any melodic exercise. Fixed in jack wood to enhance the naada, yesteryear musicians were stuck to this pitch provider because there were no alternatives. […]

While many are comfortable with the electronic gadget while practising, how does it feel to have an object there on the concert stage, bereft of human touch, minus the aesthetics of the real thing?

“The digital tamburas are handy for travel, but only a compromise. It’s like decaffeinated coffee,” says vocalist Aruna Sairam.

“Digital versions are comfortable to use, but only a tambura can bring in a tranquil aura.”

“We use both to get an effect. If it is only the tambura, sometimes we don’t hear the strings resonating as an open-air ambience often drowns it, thanks to decibel levels. So a good tambura along with a digital one can strike a good balance,” says Sriram Prasad of Malladi Brothers.

Doyen R.K. Srikantan says: “We were used to visualising a stage only with the traditional tambura both for aesthetics and aural synchrony. There is an art to playing the tambura, we were told, not just wielding one. But we get dependent on those who have to play it for hours. Technology assists us to meet urban demands.” […]

Even so, visually there is something elevating about a beautifully carved tambura, with its mesmeric resonance, being plucked in perfect timing by a resplendently turned out artiste.

And if it is the main artiste who is handing the tambura, nothing matches the picture of his or her face resting against the magnificent tambura, lost in sadhana. Bits and bytes can’t beat such chemistry.

Source: “Does the digitised tambura manage to hit the right note?” by Ranjani Govind, The Hindu, Bangalore, April 26, 2011
Address : https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-karnataka/does-the-digitised-tambura-manage-to-hit-the-right-note/article1767958.ece
Date Visited: 30 January 2022

M.S. Subbulakshmi © Dhvani Ohio
“Even at the peak of her career M.S.Subbulakshmi continued to
learn from other musicians” – R.K. Shriram Kumar >>
Tambura posture, fingering & therapeutic effect >>

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Flow | Mela practice – number patterns (3 counts)

“Flow” exercises

A series of “Flow” exercises invites learners to practice all the 72 musical scales of Carnatic music (“mela” or mēlakarta rāga). It is meant to supplement the comprehensive standard syllabus (abhyāsa gānam) attributed to 16th c. composer Purandara Dasa.

Repeated practice need not be tedious; instead it instantly turns joyful whenever we remind ourselves that Indian music “is created only when life is attuned to a single tune and a single time beat. Music is born only where the strings of the heart are not out of tune.” – Mahatma Gandhi on his love for music >>

As regards “time beat” in Carnatic music, the key concept is known as kāla pramānam: the right tempo which, once chosen, remains even (until the piece is concluded). | Learn more >>

Music teachers will find it easy to create their own versions: exercises that make such practice more enjoyable. | Janta variations >>

Concept & images © Ludwig Pesch | Feel free to share in accordance with the 
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license >>

Rūpaka tāla (3 counts/syllables)

Lesson 4: “ta ki ta“- trikāla = 3 speeds

Full lesson: Practice four widely used Carnatic talas >>

a = middle octave (madhya sthayi)
‘sa = higher octave (tara sthayi)

Practice with basic “Sa” = G#
Download this audio file (2 MB, 2 min. mono)
Credit: eSWAR / FS-3C Sruthi petti + Tanjore Tambura

South Indian conventions (raga names & svara notation): karnATik.com | Guide >>

The above svara pattern may be sung, hummed or practiced silently with any svara variants: those you are already familiar with (e.g. raga Mayamalavagaula, mela 15, raga Dhirasankarabharanam, mela 29, raga Mecakalyani, mela 65) or any other you want to practice.

Enjoy practicing by way of gradually getting into a state of flow: deep concentration while feeling completely absorbed by an activity.

Flow | The right tempo or “kalapramanam”

Listen to Intakannaanandam emi sung by Balamurali Krishna | Lyrics >>
Image © Kutcherbuzz.com

If there is a single feature of Carnatic music to account for its mesmerizing effect on listeners it may well be a feature known as kalapramanam: practicing rhythm (laya)1 and performing in the the “right tempo”2 (kālapramānam) which, once chosen, remains even (until the piece is concluded).

Adopting it as part of regular practice enables musicians to perform in perfect alignment. Of equal importance are a number of benefits, including

The last point may be seen as test of the assertion made by the most beloved composer of South India: Sri Tyagaraja posing the rhetorical question: “Can there be any higher bliss than transcending all thoughts of body and the world, dancing with abandon?” – Intakannaanandam (learn more on karnATik.com), Bilahari raga, Rupaka tala

For details, also refer to the Oxford Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music

  • Glossary-cum-index
  • In the following section(s)
  1. ‘”The sense of rhythm gives us a feeling of freedom, luxury, and expanse. It gives us a feeling of achievement in molding or creating. It gives us a feeling of rounding out a design… As, when the eye scans the delicate tracery in a repeated pattern near the base of the cathedral and then sweeps upward and delineates the harmonious design continued in measures gradually tapering off into the towering spire, all one unit of beauty expressing the will and imagination of the architect, so in music, when the ear grasps the intricate rhythms of beautiful music and follows it from the groundwork up through the delicate tracery into towering climaxes in clustered pinnacles of rhythmic tone figures, we feel as though we did this all because we wished to, because we craved it, because we were free to do it, because we were able to do it.” – Carl Seashore in Psychology of Music (New York: Dover Publications 1938/1967 quoted in Cosmic order, cosmic play: an Indian approach to rhythmic diversity by Ludwig Pesch []
  2. “Carnatic music has this unique aspect where the musicians on stage and the audience explicitly put the tala on their hands. Each song has a particular tala and the related facets of rhythm include the tempo or kalapramanam of the song, the specifics of the tala — whether it is one of the Chapu talas or Suladi Sapta talas and its associated components, eduppu — the pivotal point where the melody starts in the tala cycle and this can occur at samam (the same starting point), before or after the tala commences [and] ‘kaarvai’ — versatile, rhythmic pause that is woven into the song itself or improvisations (kalpana svaras, korvais, pallavis). Another critical element is the arudi which can be described as a ‘landing point’ or the point of emphasis of a syllable of the lyric. The arudi is particularly important in the pallavi (part of Ragam Tanam Pallavi).” – Learn more: Arudi — the emphatic, landing point by KavyaVriksha, a “life long student of Music” []

Flow | Colourful and creative “when life is attuned to a single tune” – Mahatma Gandhi

An exercise for raga Kuntalavarali (YouTube) >>
Practice with basic “Sa” = G#
Download this audio file (2 MB, 2 min. mono)
Credit: eSWAR / FS-3C Sruthi petti + Tanjore Tambura
The above exercise is inspired by eminent Carnatic flautist
Sikkil Mala Chandrasekhar rendering
Bhogindra Sayinam (Kuntalavarali, Khanda capu) by Svati Tirunal
Excerpt © HMV Marga 1996 cassette recording
“Flow” exercises

A series of “Flow” exercises invites learners to practice all the 72 musical scales of Carnatic music (“mela” or mēlakarta rāga). It is meant to supplement the comprehensive standard syllabus (abhyāsa gānam) attributed to 16th c. composer Purandara Dasa.

Repeated practice need not be tedious; instead it instantly turns joyful whenever we remind ourselves that Indian music “is created only when life is attuned to a single tune and a single time beat. Music is born only where the strings of the heart are not out of tune.” – Mahatma Gandhi on his love for music >>

As regards “time beat” in Carnatic music, the key concept is known as kāla pramānam: the right tempo which, once chosen, remains even (until the piece is concluded). | Learn more >>

Music teachers will find it easy to create their own versions: exercises that make such practice more enjoyable. | Janta variations >>

Concept & images © Ludwig Pesch | Feel free to share in accordance with the 
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license >>

Become fluent with the help of svara syllables (solmisation): practice a series of exercises, each based on a set of melodic figures that lend themselves to frequent repetition (“getting into flow”) | Practice goal, choosing your vocal range & more tips >>

South Indian conventions (raga names & svara notation): karnATik.com | Guide >>

raagam: kuntalavarALi
Aa: S M1 P D2 N2 D2 S | Av: S N2 D2 P M1 S

If a raga1 constitutes more than mere arrangements of notes derived from a given scale, this is due to the mood it evokes in listeners from different backgrounds. This shared experience is often explained in terms of “colour, beauty, pleasure, passion and compassion”, the very connotations of the Sanskrit root ranj from which rāga is derived.

Many scholars have probed into such associations, some shared across India and depicted in countless miniatures, carrying a specific connotation (for a given community of practitioners), or relating to regional customs.

So innovation – including new ragas and adaptations from other cultures – has been a matter of prestige for centuries, thereby confirming a common human trait: innate curiosity giving rise to open-mindedness, thereby widening the scope for self-expression and intercultural collaboration (or new patronage in response to changing economic circumstances and technological advancement).

This is the common ground for vocal and instrumental music whereby neither “side” dominates the other and instead, provides scope for playful interaction. What makes such interaction special is that more often than not, it dispenses with detailed musical scores, even rehearsal; and instead, relying on memory and swift anticipation. No doubt, these are assets worth acquiring (and maintaining) for young and old alike, being useful in many fields of knowledge, and therefore worth integrating in general education.

In the present context of “learning and teaching South Indian (Carnatic) music in unconventional ways”, we may freely explore this vast scope for creativity and lifelong learning: starting from minuscule motifs, then internalizing them and eventually appreciating the achievements of revered musicians past and present including the nuances in the way they render any given raga.

It is in this spirit that you are encouraged to “fill in the blanks” by first listening to a raga rendition of your own choice, then adapt any of the previous patterns in a manner that entices you to actually practice what attracted Mahatma Gandhi to music which he loved “though his philosophy of music was different”:

In his own words ‘Music does not proceed from the throat alone. There is music of mind, of the senses and of the heart.’ […] According to Mahatma ‘In true music there is no place for communal differences and hostility.’ Music was a great example of national integration because only there we see Hindu and Muslim musicians sitting together and partaking in musical concerts. He often said, ‘We shall consider music in a narrow sense to mean the ability to sing and play an instrument well, but, in its wider sense, true music is created only when life is attuned to a single tune and a single time beat. Music is born only where the strings of the heart are not out of tune.’

[Bold typeface added for emphasis]
Learn more from Namrata Mishra (Gandhi website)
More on the present course author’s Intercultural blog >>

I have a suspicion that perhaps there is more of music than warranted by life […] Why not the music of the walk, of the march, of every movement of ours, and of every activity?

Mahatma Gandhi in a letter to Rabindranath Tagore’s son Rathindranath
The Oxford India Gandhi: Essential Writings by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, p. 568
To create your own exercises based on any favourite raga including “pa”,
copy and fill the above table (fields marked in green)
as seen in other “Flow” exercises on this course website >>
For ragas excluding the fifth note “pa” while containing “dha”
(from a group of ragas known as pancama varja ragas), use the above table
For ragas including the fifth note “pa” while containing a “zigzag” (vakra) feature, use the above table

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  1. The most concise definition of a raga may be that by Joep Bor: a tonal framework for composition and improvisation. []

Flow | Janya practice 5 & 7 notes


An exercise for ragas Mohana Kalyani and Bilahari (YouTube) >>
Practice with basic “Sa” = G#
Download this audio file (2 MB, 2 min. mono)
Credit: eSWAR / FS-3C Sruthi petti + Tanjore Tambura
The above exercise is inspired by eminent Carnatic flautist
Sikkil Mala Chandrasekhar rendering
Siddhi Vinayakam (Mohana Kalyani, Adi) by
Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar1
Excerpt © HMV Marga 1996 cassette recording

Become fluent with the help of svara syllables (solmisation): practice a series of exercises, each based on a set of melodic figures that lend themselves to frequent repetition (“getting into flow”) | Practice goal, choosing your vocal range & more tips >>

South Indian conventions (raga names & svara notation): karnATik.com | Guide >>

raagam: mOhanakalyANi
Aa: S R2 G3 P D2 S | Av: S N3 D2 P M2 G3 R2 S

The above exercise pattern may also be applied to
raagam: bilahari | More details: songs listed under raga Bilahari >>
Aa: S R2 G3 P D2 S | Av: S N3 D2 P M1 G3 R2 S

“Flow” exercises

A series of “Flow” exercises invites learners to practice all the 72 musical scales of Carnatic music (“mela” or mēlakarta rāga). It is meant to supplement the comprehensive standard syllabus (abhyāsa gānam) attributed to 16th c. composer Purandara Dasa.

Repeated practice need not be tedious; instead it instantly turns joyful whenever we remind ourselves that Indian music “is created only when life is attuned to a single tune and a single time beat. Music is born only where the strings of the heart are not out of tune.” – Mahatma Gandhi on his love for music >>

As regards “time beat” in Carnatic music, the key concept is known as kāla pramānam: the right tempo which, once chosen, remains even (until the piece is concluded). | Learn more >>

Music teachers will find it easy to create their own versions: exercises that make such practice more enjoyable. | Janta variations >>

Concept & images © Ludwig Pesch | Feel free to share in accordance with the 
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license >>

Listen to Uma Ramasubramaniam demonstrating the svaras (notes) for the present raga(s) on Raga Surabhi >>

Practice with basic “Sa” = G#
Note: this recording has no fifth note “Pa”
(as advised for those janya ragas wherein “Pa” will not be sung or played)
Download this audio file (2 MB, 2 min. mono)
Credit: eSWAR / FS-3C Sruthi petti + Tanjore Tambura

Information about the persons, items or topics

Learn & practice more

  1. “Harikesanallur L.Muthiah Bhagavatar was something of a Superman in Carnatic music [who] created new raga-s, imported several from Hindustani music and composed many songs in many forms such as kriti-s, varnam-s and tillana-s.” – Sruti Magazine []