Despite the many alternatives available today, fortunately we still get to see the tambura player on stage. In fact, the first thing many musicians do after accepting a concert date is to book their preferred tambura player. As more musicians show a renewed interest in the instrument, the tambura is experiencing a resurgence. Paradoxically, though, the number of dedicated artistes playing it is declining. […]
[Eminent violinist] RK Shriramkumar laments the fact that one needs to refer to the instrument as an acoustic tambura to distinguish it from its electronic version. “It’s a tragedy that musicians have brought upon themselves by settling for electronic versions. Just as instrumentalists are expected to bring their own instruments to concerts, vocalists must be instructed to bring tamburas. Students should be encouraged to play the tambura for their gurus on stage to experience the constant give and take.”
Source: “The tambura is back. But where are the players?” by Lakshmi Anand in The Hindu 2 December 2021
Miraj is famous for tanpuras made by its craftsmen, who honed their skills by first becoming trained musicians.
How did it ever strike someone to stick a piece of wood on a dried pumpkin, build this bridge and that and twist some strings on it, to make this wonderfully resonant thing one calls the tanpura? […]
“Musical training is the basic foundation for an expert tanpura maker. There are about 500 craftsmen in Miraj and all are musicians.” […]
As much as Miraj is associated with the tanpura, it is also associated with Ustad Abdul Karim Khan saheb, the founder of the Kirana gharana of Khayal. It was after listening to his record, playing in a shop, that Bhimsen Joshi decided at the age of 11 to run away from home to learn music. Music can become as obsessive as that. […]
All great musicians of the Kairana gharana have sung at this festival such as Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal, Roshanara Begum, Hirabai Badodekar and Suresh Bhau Mane. “We have a tradition of ending the three-night musical offering with a concert by a Kairana gharana vocalist. This year it was Ganapati Bhat,” said Mirajkar.
Abdul Karim Khan saheb’s music was uncluttered and deeply moving. He could tug at hearts with his plaintive and sharply etched swaras, and the power of his music lay mostly in that. Sheer mastery over swaras, what Bhimsen Joshi once spoke of as ‘swara siddhi.’ Veena Dhanam, who was hard to please, had great regard for his music. He was probably the first Hindustani musician to seriously study the Carnatic system and the first to be invited to sing all over the south. He even recorded a Tyagaraja kriti.
Source: The Hindu : Arts / Music : Strings of purity by Lakshmi Sreeram, The Hindu, July 19, 2012 Address : http://www.thehindu.com/arts/music/article3657463.ece
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.
The tambura or tanpura is a plucked drone instrument used to accompany instrumental or vocal performances. The four strings are played open rather than being depressed to alter the note. This example is considerably smaller than the typical tambura. A very small version is sometimes known as a tamburi.
This example is so profusely decorated it may have been made for display or for use at court. The front of the sound chamber features images of the Hindu deities Ganesha, Rama, Sita, Hanuman and Lakshmana, along with peacocks and cows. The neck is decorated with figures of a male musician playing a pipe or horn, a female musician playing a drum, and acrobats, who appear to be climbing a very tall bamboo pole. One of the female acrobats has a number of matkas (earthenware pots) stacked upon her head.
On the back, Krishna appears five times dancing with the gopis (cow-girls) in a circular pattern. They are flanked by four standing figures: the gods Shiva (holding his trident) and Brahma (shown with four heads and holding the vedas or sacred texts), and two rishis or great sages. The one standing below Brahma is Narada, who holds a vina, a musical instrument which he is said to have invented. He also wrote a treatise about music and was the chief of the gandharvas or heavenly musicians.
This tambura belongs to a small and fascinating group of similar tamburas, of which there are examples in museums around the world. However, most of these lack secure attribution records and the origins of the V&A instrument are something of a puzzle. The Museum’s records from 1922, when the object was acquired, state separately that it was from Pune, Maharashtra, and, slightly later, that it was probably made in Sipri (now Shivpuri), near Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, although these places are very distant from each other. However, the fact that the sound chamber of the instrument is made of wood [?], rather than of gourd, suggests that it was made in the south of India as do other aspects of the shape of the instrument, and it has been suggested that the painting style can be linked with Mysore in the south. […]
Decorated instruments are also found in German, Austrian and Italian collections. According to Klaus-Peter Brenner, a similar instrument in the musical instrument collection of Goettingen University may have been manufactured on behalf of Raja Sir Sourindro Mohan Tagore (1840-1914). If this is indeed the case (even if hard to ascertain), the pioneering musicologist may have gifted it to a visiting dignitary (Erzherzog Franz-Ferdinands von Österreich), as he did with numerous other instruments. This particular one is now being described as Göttinger Tagore-Tambura.
Die derzeit bekannten Parallelstücke lassen eine Provenienz entweder aus den Instrumentenschenkungen des bengalischen Musikwissenschaftlers Raja Sir Sourindro Mohan Tagore (1840-1914) an europäische Museen und Privatleute oder vom Indienaufenthalt Erzherzog Franz-Ferdinands von Österreich-Este im Jahre 1893 (briefl. Mitteilung vom 26. 9. 1986 von Dr. Alfred Janata zur Herkunft des Wiener Exemplars) vermuten, was jedoch ebenfalls auf eine Verbindung zu Tagore hindeutet, da Erzherzog Franz-Ferdinand während seiner Reise bei diesem zu Gast war (cf. HÖFER 2010: 51).
To sing just with the tanpura has been revealing: TM Krishna
M Suganth | Times of India | Nov 27, 2014 | To read the full article, click here >>
They had collaborated earlier for Margazhi Raagam, which was a first-of-its-kind Carnatic concert film and now, singer TM Krishna and filmmaker Jayendra have come together for One, a film that they say will be a peep into a musician going through the process of creativity. The two reveal how the project came to be, the challenges they faced and what it means to the viewer. […]
TM Krishna: To be able to sing just with the tanpura is the most revealing thing for me as a singer. It is the most beautiful way to discover music without becoming dependent on the pakkavadhyam or the mic. There is nothing to protect you. It was a very emotional and intimate experience for me. That depth of my experience is revealed in the film. […]
Perfect alignment to pitch, intellectualism and bhava make for great music
Widely varying styles have an equal place under the Carnatic umbrella. Is it at all possible to define a single aesthetic for a genre that ranges from the thrilling and electrifying rhythms of a Trichy Sankaran accompanying the late Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer singing the Tyagaraja masterpiece Dinamanivamsha, to the subtle rendering of a padam by the late T. Brinda? Such contrasts, though they do exist in a genre like Hindustani music, are always less stark. […]
One common aspect of such artistes who were perceived as highly aesthetic in the earlier days of amplification is the scrupulous attention they paid to shruti shuddham or toaligning themselves perfectly to pitch. Arguably, such scrupulous attention to pitch alignmentmay well have had the effect of mitigating the jarring impact of imperfect amplification. Even where there’s a great struggle to maintain shruti shuddham, an exquisite secret leaps out of old recordings of ageing masters who had lost control of their voices. That secret is the pride of place they accorded the tambura and its overall audibility. The aesthetically pleasing aura created by a sonorous and meticulously tuned tambura has a way of gently embracing a singer’s shruti lapses and folding it into the overall sound. Unfortunately, the exact opposite is feared and hence a tendency to relegate the tambura, whether a real one or electronic, to de facto inaudibility for the audience. This only exacerbates the listener’s perception of a lack of shruti shuddham.
Art, as it is normally understood, is first and foremost sensual and emotional before anything else, but Carnatic music has always been seduced by the intellect, resulting in anything from a mild flirtation to a torrid affair. The intellectual, even in musical contexts, need not be disdained but it certainly challenges conventionally held notions of aesthetics. More importantly, such intellectual music may not suffer as much at the hands of bad audio as conventionally aesthetic music, and hence, could induce stagnation in the evolution of better sound. […]
The emotional in the art is what is referred to in the Carnatic world as bhava. Bhava comes from many aspects of Carnatic music but its most serious claimant is the repertoire itself. The bedrock of Carnatic music is its repertoire – the intensely bhava-laden compositions of great masters. The remarkable vibrancy and sustainability of Carnatic music compared to some other genres come from bhava which is certainly the crown jewel. In fact, it could be argued that this alone often compensates for the lack of other aesthetic dimensions in the overall experience. […]
T. M. Krishna (in MOPA “Notes to Myself”): Now here is a fascinating story of a musician born and bred in privilege by his own admission, who enjoyed a liberal, progressive environment both at home and at school that laid the foundations for a fearless, critical mind and outspoken tongue, enjoyed the best of teachers who fostered an abiding love for Carnatic music in his young heart and was one among the band of young musicians who took the Carnatic stage by storm in the 90s. […]
Classical musicians have many concerns. A major one is having a perfectly tuned tambura — when practising and performing. Naturally. The tambura aka tanpura, is the keeper of the pitch. It is the guardian of the right note. The tambura is the drone instrument which keeps the sruti. And sruti is the mother of music. […]
This writer has often wondered why the tambura player’s name is not regularly mentioned in concert invitations along with that of the other accompanying artistes. Maybe, sabhas, organisers and artistes should think on these lines.
Teachers and performers consider playing the traditional tambura early in the morning both calming and even therapeutic and must be part of a student’s training. Pantula Rama believes that a musician’s personal tambura is invaluable and irreplaceable as it comes to life during the long years of sadhana. “Musicians should maintain old tamburas — either their own or inherited — as an extension of the body itself. Sabhas should maintain tamburas of different srutis, make it a point to have traditional tambura for each concert, and have a panel of music students and artistes well trained in this art,” she says and adds that good remuneration and respect on a par with other accompanists will encourage tambura players. […]
Is it time to start tambura academies? Or at least special certificate course only on tambura tuning? Or should tambura artistes have an association of their own to ensure good remuneration?
Radha Bhaskar has some good news: “We, at Mudhra, are thinking of organising a workshop on tambura tuning and playing. Madurai G.S. Mani has offered to conduct it,” she says.
Ravikiran says that AIR should restore the importance of a separate category for the tambura player.
The number of music festivals at various government and private academic institutions has grown over the years. Students of these institutions should be compulsorily trained in this art and encouraged to provide tambura accompaniment. It would give them a great opportunity to be with senior artistes and also provide valuable stage experience too.
Bridge to the past
For Bombay Jayashri, it is a unique relationship with the tambura. Her association goes back to her childhood. “The house would be filled with Omkara naadam as my father sat with his tambura in perfect sruti alignment. That left a deep impression in my mind. My grandfather and mother were also tambura lovers,” says Jayashri, who even wrote a poem, ‘Tambura My Sakhi.’
Naturally, it led to a collection of her favourite instrument — Miraj, Thanjavur, Trivandrum… she has them all. “I buy them in pairs,” she laughs. […]
Jayashri believes that it is the tambura, which inspires the musical phrases when she sings. “As I hold it close to my ear, I find myself completely cut off from the world. The raga draws me in. May be I’m imagining it but my music is an extension of my tambura.” Jayashri has names for her collection. “They are so close to my heart, I thought it was rude to identify them as the light brown, dark brown, white cedar, etc. So they have names — Mithra, Kamakshi, Kathyayini and so on.”
Does she not find them unwieldy especially when travelling?
“They are delicate. So I don’t carry the antique ones. I have compact ones, which I can carry as hand luggage. But I would never travel without one,” she explains. “Tambura is my constant companion – a bridge to my past, keeping the memories of my childhood alive.”
The Tambura is considered a queen amongst the Suri vadhyas such as Ektar, Dotar, Tuntina, Ottu and Donai. Although tamburas are traditionally made at certain places, the Thanjavur Tambura has a special charm, which makes it a favourite. They are beautifully ornamented like the Thanjavur Veena. Veena Asaris are the Tambura makers too but not all are experts the reason being it requires a special skill to make the convex ‘Meppalagai’ or the plate covering the ‘Kudam’ or ‘Paanai.’ The making and fixing of the Meppalagai must be done with utmost care.
There are two ways of holding a Tambura. One is the “Urdhva” — upright posture, as in in concerts. Placing the Tambura on the right thigh is the general practice. The other is to place it on the floor in front of the person who is strumming it. While practising or singing casually, it can be placed horizontally on the lap, the Kudam on the right side.
The middle finger and index finger are used to strum the Tambura. Of the four strings, the ‘Panchamam,’ which is at the farther end is plucked by the middle finger followed by the successive plucking of ‘Sārani’, ‘Anusārani’ and ‘Mandara’ strings one after the other by the index finger. This exercise is repeated in a loop resulting in the sruti resonating entirely and creating a wholesome musical atmosphere. Playing the Tambura also needs special skill since the plucking should give a sustained sruti guide to the main performer.
The Tambura which gives the sa-pa-sa Sruti notes is pure therapy to the mind and soul. Sit in a quiet place with eyes closed and listen to the notes of a perfectly tuned Tambura — the effect is therapeutic.
Tambura makers rarely get orders. If they did, the preference is for instruments 50 years old since the wood used then was well seasoned and of great quality.
Except a few, the current generation is for electronic sruti accompaniment, including Bluetooth. Portability is the obvious reason for the choice. Besides few music students are taught to tune and play the tambura. Beyond all this what seems to swing the vote is that the electronic sruti equipment with its heavy tonal quality can cover up when the sruti goes astray.
During the middle of the last century, Miraj Tamburas (next only to the vintage Thanajvur) were a rage amongst music students, who were captivated by its tonal quality with high precision and the beautiful, natural gourd resonators.
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If a successful and busy Karnatic singer takes time off in order to write reflections on South Indian or “Karnatic” music, the book release function is bound to be met with considerable interest. […]
He pays tribute to the tambura (the tanpura) as “the life-giver, the soul of our music”. For Krishna, “it is the one instrument that can be said to hold within itself the very essence of classical music. So unobtrusive is this instrument, so self-effacing in its positioning on the stage and so tender of nature, that it is almost taken for granted.” Sadly, the tambura is rarely played “live” even during live concerts where it tends to be drowned by its electronic surrogate with devastating effect. Restoring its presence would seem indispensable in efforts such as those outlined under two chapter headings, “To Remove the Barriers Imposed by the Music” and “To Expand the Listenership of Karnatic Music”. The very concept of “fusion” is dismissed as a “lopsided idea of the music.” […]
The fact that 15 out of 588 pages are assigned to an Index is welcome in view of the publisher’s ambition to provide readers with a “path-breaking overview of South Indian classical music.” A mere glance at the Contents page and Index proves that, as in his concerts, T.M. Krishna would take nothing for granted, starting with instructions titled “A Note on Reading”. […] LUDWIG PESCH
Source: The idea of singing birds Address : http://www.telegraphindia.com/1140228/jsp/opinion/story_18023416.jsp#.UxC3W16kAfl
A scale – mēla in Carnatic or thāt in Hindustani music – isn’t a raga yet: it is no more than an imaginary arrangement of notes for the formation of “parental scales”. From 72 Carnatic mēla scales and their 10 thāt counterparts in Hindustani music, a wide range of major and minor ragas are thought to have been “derived” over a period of several centuries.1
Thinking of a particular scale enables musicians and learners to distinguish ragas from one another, which became increasingly useful as hundreds of other ragas came to performed on a regular basis.2 Joep Bor aptly defines a raga “as a tonal framework for composition and improvisation; a dynamic musical entity with a unique form, embodying a unique musical idea.”3
For this purpose 7 notes occupy certain positions within an octave as seen in the above illustrations. These notes are framed by an 8th note (“octave”) which corresponds to the basic note, now placed in the higher range. Listening carefully to the middle strings of tambura will reveal this higher note (tāra sa).
To understand their relative positions watch the above slideshow repeatedly. Nevertheless the basic idea underlying all of India’s “classical” Indian music traditions – the proverbial “seven notes” (saptasvara) as basis for melody – remains untouched.
Note: The above series of images illustrates 16 out of a total of 72 melas with the names of their corresponding melakarta ragas, including the first six melas (01. – 06.) and the last one (72.); and several others that have long played a prominent role concerts either as melakarta ragas (i.e. featuring all the seven notes) or derivatives known as janya raga (08., 15., 28., 29., 34., 36., 56. 57. and 65). The latter may feature less than seven notes, be characterized by “zigzag” patterns or notes not found in their parental scales.
So a total of 12 positions are available in the South Indian mela system whereby the basic note “sa” and its fifth “pa” are the starting points of two series of 4 notes:
sa-ri-ga-ma & pa dha ni (upper) sa
reversed and sung for the sake of memorization as follows:
(upper) sa-ni-dha-pa & ma-ga-ri-sa
Please note that – unlike in western “classical” music – the actual pitches are never given but chosen to suit one’s own vocal range or a particular instrument (e.g. flute and vina which come in different sizes and tonal ranges). This means: sa may correspond to “C” on your keyboard or for a male voice (just like “D”); but for a female voice, sa is more likely to correspond to “F” or “G” instead.
Last but not least, singing or playing a raga entails attention to subtle tonal shades just as embellishments (gamaka) as heard in a proper concert performance. So what you hear isn’t merely “a clever combination of notes” derived from some scale or other: raga based music is all about musical – even lyrical – expression, carefully regulated by certain rules and practiced in accordance with well established patterns.
In the meantime, an ever growing diversity accelerated the search for effective teaching methods suited to raga based music. In South Indian music this was achieved with the help of the melakarta scheme (72 scale abstract patterns).
Even today “tune smiths” continue to fill in the blanks left by their revered predecessors, including novelties inspired by Beethoven’s most beloved piano piece worldwide (you guessed it …)!
Interestingly the 72 mela system came to serve a dual purpose, one not found in other music traditions as regards scope: in addition to the intention proclaimed by its “inventor” Venkatamakhin in the late 17th century, namely to widen the scope for musical expression, it became a mnemonic system (aid to memory) for musicians and teachers alike.
A glance at any music textbook and most song collections of Carnatic music will show how this was achieved since music publishing began to flourish in the early 19th century.
For a more detailed application, listen to the 72-Melaragamalika rendition by Smt Kiranavali’s students at Cleveland Aradhana 2014_Part 1; click/bookmark part 1 of this recording here; and click here for Part 2 >>
More about the 72-Melaragamalika sung by Smt Kiranavali’s students
The entire ragamalika [by Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer (1844 – 1892 AD)] is set to Adi tala. The Pallavi is sung in Sriragam, followed by some beautiful jati phrases in Tillana style. There is no Anupallavi and the Charanam has 72 lines, one for each melakarta, with the raga mudra skillfully inscribed in each line. At the end of each mela raga, there is a Chittaswara, and further, to enhance the beauty of the composition, his brother Ramaswami Sivan added additional Chittaswaras at the end of each line, whose poorvanga (first half) is in the same raga, but the uttaranga (second half) is in the next raga. At the end of each Chakra (6 raga cycle), the Pallavi is repeated. At the commencement of the Prati madhyama series, the jati phrases are also sung. This is not a piece we hear often in concert platforms. Occasionally in the past, one or two Chakras of this lengthy composition has been rendered by Musiri Subramanya Iyer and M S Subbulakshmi. Recently (June 1989), the Gramaphone Co. of India (HMV) released an album (LP No. ECSD 40552), and simultaneously a 60-minute casette (No. HTCS 03B 3346) under the title ‘Mela Ragamalika Chakra’, where M S Subbulakshmi has melodiously rendered this divine ragamalika, with all the above-mentioned features and Chittaswaras.
Most ragas cannot be said to actually have been “derived” from any pre-existing scale but instead, they came to be associated with a particular “parent scale” much later on, as seen in ongoing debates among music scholars and performers.[↩]
There are many reasons for such an increase in the number of ragas since the late 19th century; this includes greater pride in India’s cultural heritage displayed by a growing middle class: men – and increasingly women – willing devote their leisure time to an art formerly seen as the domain of specialists patronized by temples, courts and merchants for rituals and festive occasions; and with the arrival of the printing press, music primers became a lucrative proposition for scholarly musicians besides being affordable and time saving for non-professional learners.[↩]
“As well as the fixed scale, there are features particular to each raga such as the order and hierarchy of its tones, their manner of intonation and ornamentation, their relative strength and duration, and specific approach. Where ragas have identical scales, they are differentiated by virtue of these musical characteristics. […] Most importantly, a raga must evoke a particular emotion or create a certain ‘mood’, which is hard to define, however. As the term raga itself implies, it should ‘colour’ the mind, bring delight, move the listeners and stimulate an emotional response. In other words, the concept of raga, which has evolved over a period of two millennia, eludes an adequate brief definition.” – Joep Bor, ‘What is a raga?’, p. 1 in The Raga Guide: A Survey of 74 Hindustani Ragas, Nimbus Records with Rotterdam Conservatory of Music first published in 1999[↩]
Martin Spaink (Amsterdam) earned a name for himself as a leading tanpura expert. Read more on the finer points of tanpura playing, stringing, tuning, maintenance, restoration and playing techniques. Read his article on fine-tuning of a tanpura >>
In his recent book, A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story, T.M. Krishna reflects on those misconceptions and stereotypes that stand in the way of truly appreciating South Indian music. He reiterates the unique role played by the (acoustic) tambura / tanpura which is all too rarely heard ‘live’ in Indian concerts today.
For this eminent singer “it is the one instrument that can be said to hold within itself the very essence of classical music. So unobtrusive is this instrument, so self-effacing in its positioning on the stage and so tender of nature, that it is almost taken for granted. It is the life-giver, the soul of our music. … Only a musician who has experienced this sanctity can be a true musical vehicle. In the internal absorption of the tambura’s resonance, music happens.” (pp. 48-50) He asks whether the electronic tambura satisfies the human sense of tune when digitization really changes the manner in which we hear sound, a phenomenon he has explored in practice.
In his view, the practice of substituting the tambura by electronic devices also in the classroom “has worked to the detriment of sruti. All this has consolidated the misconception of Karnatic music going ‘off key'”. (p. 235-6; see the book’s index for more on this and related topics)
Publisher’s note One of the foremost Karnatik vocalists today, T.M. Krishna writes lucidly and passionately about the form, its history, its problems and where it stands today T.M. Krishna begins his sweeping exploration of the tradition of Karnatik music with a fundamental question: what is music? Taking nothing for granted and addressing readers from across the spectrum – musicians, musicologists as well as laypeople – Krishna provides a path-breaking overview of south Indian classical music. – HarperCollins Publisher (2013) Price: Rs. 699