“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 | 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 notes – raga Valaji 

An exercise for raga Valaji (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 the eminent violin duo Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan & Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi rendering a varnam by their late father
Lalgudi Shri. G Jayaraman: Chalamu seya in Adi tala1
“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: valaci (valaji), 16 cakravAkam janya
Aa: S G3 P D2 N2 S | Av: S N2 D2 P G3 S

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

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  1. Live Concert at the Narada Gana Sabha Hall 1 January 2004 []

How prehistoric societies were transformed by the sound of music

Amidst lively debates within and beyond India these perspectives on our shared legacy make interesting reading:

  • Vainika Savithri Rajan who believed that Tyagaraja, like other great men, was always meditating, but his medium of expression was nādam, “sound”.
  • In the introduction to his unfinished yet voluminous magnum opus Karunamirtha Sagaram, titled “The Dignity and Origin of music”, Abraham Pandither entices readers to embark on a virtual journey through time and space; a discovery of nature that for him would have gone hand in hand with musical evolution if not advanced civilization itself.
  • A summary of findings by archaeologists titled “How prehistoric societies were transformed by the sound of music”.

Learn more (excerpts and library links) >>

For up-to-date information, type the above authors, related titles or topics in the search window:

More resources | Disclaimer >>

Audio | “Dedication to her guru, Veena Dhanammal” by Savithri Rajan

“The greatest, most beautiful thing is compassion expressed through music” – Savithri Rajan

Excerpt from: Tyagaraja and the Renewal of Tradition: Translations and Reflections by William Jackson (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1994), pp. 174-175
https://search.worldcat.org/en/title/878687716

How does Savithri Rajan perceive Tyagaraja? She characterizes Tyagaraja as an heroic soul who was able to reach out through shared feelings and colloquial idiom to ordinary people; he was willing to serve selflessly like a mother risking her own life to jump into a pool and save a drowning child. Yet she feels that Tyagaraja simultaneously holds to the tradition of communicating the greatest message of the Upanisads. To her, this is an important point, “Because to Hindus the Upanisads together form the core of the Hindu religion; the ultimate, the last word in philosophy, the Upanisads lead one to a transcendental silence,” which is found in the lives of the Buddha, Sankara, and Ramana Maharshi. Savithri Rajan believes that Tyagaraja, like these other great men, was always meditating, but his medium of expression was nādam, “sound” – he was an aspirant who followed nādopāsana, the approach or worship by way of sound. She points out that Tyagaraja composed a song beginning with the word nādopāsana saying there is nothing higher than worship via sound, music is the best vehicle because Brahman is nādam – divine sound – which is the omnipresent, omniscient power, “call it Power with a capital ‘P’, call it God, call it Christ, call it Krsna, call it Rāma.”

What was it that Tyagaraja was expressing in his songs? Savithri Rajan believes that everything Tyagaraja felt in his search to understand and have compassion was experienced and expressed through the medium and vehicle of music. In her view, “the greatest, most beautiful thing is compassion, karuna, the ability to feel for others.” And every song of Tyagaraja has “karunā sāgara” – an ocean of compassion in it.

“The music of Tyagaraja’s compositions can be so poignant I have seen people with eyes wet when listening to a great piece rendered by a great vidvān [a very learned performer]. To one who does not understand Telugu and does not know the rāga, but is nevertheless moved by the piece and feels the sentiment and emotion in it, the communication is through the nādam – and there are many such people.”

The reason there are many is that the communication of realizations occurs at a deep level utilizing notes and rhythms best able emotionally to move South Indians of various backgrounds: the unsophisticated, the temple-anchored faithful, the festival-goers who express inner spiritual urges through participation in music and pageantry. These various South Indians feel a serious lack if a Tyagaraja song is not part of any musical or religious program. […] 

Savithri Rajan feels that today’s performing musician “owes everything” to Tyagaraja. “What is his concert worth if he cannot render an Ayyarval kirtanai [song by Tyagaraja] well? His merit and reputation are judged by this touchstone.” Further, she recalls, that her mother, who had “unerring bhakti” held that the music-charged words of Tyagaraja in honour of Rama constitute a talisman with special power.

As Savithri Rajan sees it, the listener, the performer, the housewife, the spiritual seeker, and various kinds of students, – each in a different way approaches Tagaraja and his multifaceted personality, which he pases on to others, his simplicity, renunciation and sensitivity to the onslaughts of materialism and human frailty, all made this “emaciated, fragile man, a mendicant by choice, a seer, a sage, and a saint by the grace of Rama,” and thus he stands out as an inspiration to all.

She believes that in the fast pace of the modern world Tyagaraja’s bhakti message of music and love of God and man is of great value, and that it influences many who have the ear to hear and leisure to meditate. She recalls that her teacher, Tiger Varadachariar used to say that Tyagaraja brought Valmiki’s Rama closer, “adorably closer,” and in a moment of great appreciative experience he would even declare that Tyagaraja’s Rama was greater than Valmiki’s Rama. “Tyagaraja talks to his Rama, praises, cajoles, and even quarrels with Rama.” She feels that the aesthetic experience is heightened by this intimaciy. She feels that the depictions of Tyagaraja’s yearning have elevated and ennobled her thoughts and helped her to keep equanimity in various situations in her life, and she believes many others born in her culture have had similar experiences. […]

In her private LP recording titled “Dedication to her guru, Veena Dhanammal”, Savithri Rajan (1908-91) pays tribute Veena Dhanammal (1867-1937). As a child she was tutored by the legendary singer and composer known as “Tiger” Varadachariar (1876-1950, a disciple of Pattanam Subrahmanya Ayyar).

Veena Dhanammal is a legend

Veena Dhanammal is a legend; she was one in her own lifetime. Was she for real? There’s so little of her music which has survived and even loss which is heard, and yet her music has been praised in such superlative terms by those privileged to have listened to her. – Sruti Magazine >>

Item list with composers and research link

Intacalamu (varnam) – Begada – Adi – Tiruvotriyur Tyagaiyer

Ninuvinagati gana – Kalyani (alapana) – Adi – Subbaraya Sastri

Sri Raghuvara sugunalaya – Bhairavi – Adi – Tyagaraja

Nicittamu na bagya – Vijayavasanta – Adi – Tyagaraja

Tanam – Ghanaraga panchakam (order: Nata, Gaula, Arabhi, Sri, Varali)

Maname bhushanamu – Sankarabharanam – Misra capu – Govindaswami Ayya

Mariyada teliyakane (javali) – Surati – Rupaka – Patnam Subrahmanya Iyer

Find song lyrics and information about Carnatic ragas including those by the above composers >>
(e.g. type “Tyagaraja rare ragas” or “javali by Patnam Subrahmanya Iyer”)

Obituary by V.R. Devika 1991 © Courtesy Sruti Magazine >>

Tips: (1) to automatically play both the sides of the LP-recording, click the play button; (2) scroll down to access the remaining tracks; (3) download the audio files, liner notes and images here: https://archive.org/details/savithri-rajan-LP-record-dedication-guru-veena-dhanammal
(4) Please be patient if the page takes a little longer to load (depending on available bandwidth)

Tips: in the above search field, type a combination of names and subjects of special interest: to find more audio and video contents sung or played by a favourite musician or musical instrument; along with preferred raga or tala, on the occasion of a festival or lecture demonstration (e.g. Music Academy Madras), location (e.g. Narada Gana Sabha) or item (e.g. varnam, kriti, tillana) | How “Safe search” is used on this website >>