Indian Musical Instruments

This article contains information on the Musical Instruments of India.

The beginnings of musical instruments In India can be found in implements and functions of ordinary life. For instance, pots and other vessels were beaten upon as drums. Some of the instruments have often multiple functions—the conch (sankh) was in ancient times blown to announce victory in a battle and it is used in religious functions even today. Indian musical instruments provide us historical information on the socio-religious traditions of a people, geographical distribution of the flora and fauna and soon. That only some communities use a kind of instrument indicates the social taboos prevalent in earlier times. The kind of material used to prepare an instrument in a particular region tells us about the flora and fauna of that place. Study of music and evolution of any musical theory or grammar would be impossible without these instruments. This is because vocal sounds cannot be measured directly; the various features of the instruments are necessary to study the various aspects of music. The growth or decline in the use of different instruments has a deep Impact on the development of music.

 About 500 instruments, including those used in folk and classical music, are known to man. Classifications of musical instruments have been done in many ways. But the one prevalent worldwide today was formulated by Bharata (lived between 2nd B.C and 4th A.D) in Natyasastra

Drums, also avanaddha vadya (covered instruments) or membranophones are  the hollow instruments have originated from cooking, storing pots. They are covered with skin and are almost always used as rhythmic accompaniments in music and dance. The most primitive drum was a pit covered with skin. Later drums were made of earth and wood. Drums are classified in many ways depending upon their shapes, structure, the positions in which they are placed while playing.

Frame (open) drums have a circular, wooden or metal frame covered with skin on one side. The most common class is the tribal folk daff (also dafli or dappu) which includes the ghera (Rajasthan), tappattai, tappate/ tappata in the south, the chengu (Orissa). Other frame drums include the simplest soorya pirai and the chandra pirai of the south; the khanjari (of the north) or kanjira (of the south).

Drums with two faces (like the gna of Laddakh) might have been wooden and cylindrical at the beginning. Cylindrical drums, generally called the dholak when small and the dhole when large (though these terms may refer to barrel-shaped drums as well), include the ancient bheri and the popular chenda of Kerala. Many bifacial drums are classed under ‘mridanga’—the mridangam of south India, the pakhavaj of Hindustani classical music, the pung (Manipur) the sri khole (West Bengal), the barrel-shaped tavil of south India. The barrel-shaped mridangam is the only drum used in Karnatak musical concerts (the suddha maddalam is played for dances such as Kathakali). Its left face—the toppi, a plain membrane—is simpler than the right valan talai and the faces are constructed differently. The right face has the soru, a black mixture, fixed to it permanently while the toppi has a paste of soft dough stuck to it just before the actual playing begins. The wooden pakhavaj, described in the Ain-i-Akbari, is a single, barrel-shaped drum with moveable cylindrical blocks for gross tuning. Its plaits are struck by the hammer to effect pitch modifications. The paste is applied to the pakhavaj in a manner resembling that of the application in the case of the mridangam. But the syahi is used instead of the soru. Its major gharanas are that of Nath Dwara and of Kudau Singh (19th century).

Two-faced drums include the wasted or hourglass drums (the damatu or budbudke or kudukuduppe). These include the nga chung of the Tibetan region, the tudi of the south, the highly-developed eddakka or idakka (Kerala).

There are the surahi-shaped drums (the Kashmiri tumbaknari, the jamukku of Tamil Nadu, the burra of Andhra) and the conical dundubhi which includes the dhumsa of the Santals, the nissan of Orissa, and the folk drum, nagara, of north India. The tabla— contro­versial in origin—has become very popular over the years and has taken over from the pakhavaj especially in khyal singing owing to its comparatively softer and sweeter sound. It is actually a pair of drums—the right tabla proper of wood where the paste is loaded in the centre and the left dagga or duggi (also, bayan). The tabla is associated with the Delhi gharana, the Ajrada gharana, and an eastern branch influenced by the pakhavaj.

Friction drums like the burburi of south India are rare in the country.

Wind Instruments also sushira vadya (hollow instruments) or aerophones, vibration of air columns produces sound in these musical instruments. They can be classed as instruments using no mechanical parts to produce or control the sound and those using vibrators (reeds).

To the first category belong the trumpets, earliest of which were animal horns, played by using the lips to regulate the air. While in the simple (primitive) trumpets, air is directly blown, there are others where a mouthpiece is used to aid the playing lips. There are side-blown trumpets and end-blown trumpets, like the horns and conches. The horns, ancient in origin, feature in folk/tribal music and include the singe of the Bhils, the kohuk of the Marias, the reli-ki of the north-east, the deer-horn singi of Uttar Pradesh, the south Indian C-shaped trumpet of brass/copper, kombu and the S-shaped kombu (like the banke, bankya, bargu, ran-singha, narsingha, turi. The Indian sankh or conch shell is a shell trumpet now used in folk music/dance and in worship. The primitive straight trumpets include tutari, bhongal of Maharashtra, kahal (Orissa), bhenr (UP), the thunchen of the northern Himalayas and the peninsular tiruchinnam. The flute is said to have been brought by the Aryans. It is generally made of bamboo. The most common is the horizontal flute which lends itself excellently to the pitch modifications of Indian music. The air is blown into a small hole near its blocked end. The end-blown flutes have plain ends (the fifli of the north-east, the narh of Rajasthan) or beak-like narrow openings (the bansuri and the algoza—actually a pair of beak flutes). The Indian flutes go by the name of murali, bansi, vamst, pillankuzhal—in Tamil Nadu, pillanagrovi—in Andhra, kolalu—in Karnataka—as well.

Wind instruments with vibrators (reeds) may be single-reed or two-reed instruments, or free-reed instruments. While in the first type the reed beats against the hole edges and only regulates the current of air, in the latter the reed, which does not touch the sides of the hole, produces the sound. Single-reed instruments include the been (Pungi), the tarpo (also, ghonga or dobru or khongada), the tatti or mashak (the Indian bagpipe), the Assamese pepa. The major double-reed pipes are the nagasvaram, an important instrument in Karnatak music, and the sophisticated shehnai, with which is associated the name of Bismillah Khan. Both the instruments have only recently become concert instruments. There is also the mukhaveena, the sundri, the naferi, the ottu. The main among the free-reed instruments—which are rare—is the harmonium. Notes are produced when air trapped by the bellows rushes out through a narrow opening on pressing the keys. There is also the khung (rusem) of east India.

Stringed Instruments – The numerous tala vadya or chordophones of various types, many of which can be traced to primitive cultures, can be classed into drones, rhythmic instruments which do not create melody; polychords wherein a string corresponds to every note in producing melody; monochords or fingerboard instruments—a single string can produce the whole melody though there may be many strings on an Instrument.

The common and simple drones are the tun tune (a folk instrument), the gopi yantra (of Bengal, Orissa), the jamadika (Andhra), the premtal, the buang played by the Oriya Santals. The well-developed drones include the single-stringed ek tar or eka nada, the tamboori, and the four-stringed tamboora or tanpoora. It is famous for its rich sound quality which depends upon the positioning of the jeevan or javari—the thread on the bridge under the strings. The polychords (also, veena—referred to in the Vedas and identified by some with the Dravidian yazh) are the most primitive stringed instruments and mainly comprise the harps and lyres—said to have never existed in India. The harps are referred to in the ancient books depicted in the ancient monuments and music of the earliest times depended upon them. Though generally arched with a resonator and an arm (danda), there are also the box-type (dulcimer type) harps which have no arm. Chief among them is the santoor, specific to Kashmir, which has a large number of strings played with thin sticks. There is also the small svaramandal.

The monochords or fingerboard instruments may be plucked or bowed. Plucked ones include zithers, in which the resonator is fixed below the fingerboard. Typically Indian, the zithers include fretless ones—the most prim­itive bamboo zither or gintang, the ancient alapini veena, the eka tantri or Brahma veena, the vichitra veena of Hindustani music—and fretted instruments, mainly the kinnari of the middle ages and its descendant, Rudraveena. Unlike the zithers, in the lutes the resonator extends to form the fingerboard. Of the short-necked lutes, chief is the sarod. It is a fretless, wooden lute with narrow bridge and strings, plucked with the triangular ‘java’. Ali Akbar Khan and Amjad Ali Khan feature among the eminent sarod players. There is also the kacchapi, rabab of the north-west, svarabat (svaragat) and sur singar. The long-necked lutes include the Sarasvati Veena, the chief among veenas, which holds a supreme status in Karnatak music. It is the only instrument on which all the three—svara, raga and tala – can be played. Like this veena, the sitar (from Persian seh-tar) holds an exalted place in Hindustani music. It is said to have been invented by Amir Khusrau (13th century). The wooden lute has live metal wires for playing ragas, a couple of drone strings, the chikari, and a set of thin wires, the tarab. The famous Ravi Shankar is associated with this instru­ment. A popular long-necked, fretless lute is the gottuvadyarn (Mahanataka veena), the only Karnatak music instrument to have the resonating strings—tarab. The bowed monochords have not achieved the status of the plucked ones in India. Those which are held with the fingerboard above and the resonator below include the sarinda, the kamaitcha and the sarangi. The sarangi’s uniqueness lies in the finger-technique used by the player—the ‘finger nails’ are used to stop the fingers! The bowed instruments held with the sound box above and the fingerboard below include all local forms of the violin—the Ravana hatta or Ravana hasta veena of Rajasthan and Gujarat, the kingri of the Pradhans in Andhra and Maharashtra, the kenra and the banam (Orissa), the pena (Manipur), the veena kunju of the Pulluvans (Kerala).

Solids – The ghana vadya or idiophones are often believed to be the earliest musical instruments known by man. They are mainly rhythm keepers as they are not developed enough to produce the definite pitches which are important for melody. Pots used as idiophones include the matki, noot, gagri and the ghatam, which is played In Karnatak music concerts. Made of special clay, it is capable of producing a variety of sounds. The jaltarang, a set of water-filled porcelain cups struck with bamboo sticks, is used in orchestras. Ankle bells—the ghungroo, the gejje; plates such as the north Indian thali, jagte (jagante) of Karnataka and Andhra, the semmankalam of Tamil Nadu, the chennala. (chenkala) of Kerala, the Rajasthani sree mandal (a number of plates); sticks like the dandiya (Gujarat), kolu, of south India; and varieties of slit drums—the Assamese songkong, the north-eastern tak dutrang, Katola of Madhya Pradesh—feature among idiophones.

The Indian Orchestra – Though the orchestra has never existed in India, instrumental groups such as the kutapa—explained by Bharata in Natyasastra, melam of south India (the nayyandi melam, for instance), the pancha vadya ensemble of Kerala have been there. In recent years, the music in Indian films has been orchestrated to a certain extent.