The Tanpura

About The Instrument

The tanpura is a long-necked plucked string instrument of India and it is unique in that it plays neither melody nor rhythm but provides a kind of resonance resulting in a drone (called “jawari”) that is absolutely crucial to Indian classical music because it is this harmonic drone which acts as a back-drop and support for the soloist, whether a vocalist or instrumentalist, as well as providing a continuous reference point for all the musicians in an ensemble.

According to some theories the name comes from “taan” (meaning “melodic phrase”) and “pura” (meaning complete). Sometimes it is also spelt (and pronounced) “tambour” or “tamboura”, (particularly in Urdu, which is the first language of many Indian musicians) but that word can also, confusingly, refer to several other instruments played in Central Asia, Iran, Middle-East, Greece, Turkey and East Africa.

In the essentially Indian tanpura, (of which a smaller version called “tanpuri” is often used for Karnatik or South Indian music recitals), four strings are plucked in succession to produce a continuous loop of sound, usually the notes called SA and PA (the first and the fifth notes of the scale). The steady, rhythmic pace of this plucking – heard from the beginning of a performance until the very final note – is quite independent from the rhythm being played or sung by the soloist.

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It is said that the tanpura had already evolved into its current, modern form, by the end of 16th Century and that it can be seen in some Mughal paintings of that period, but others argue that the instruments shown in most of those paintings appear to be older versions of the modern tanpura.

Some scholars also maintain that the tanpura is related to the sitar, owing to the structural similarity between the two instruments. The body and shape of a tanpura does, somewhat, resemble that of the sitar but unlike the sitar, the tanpura is fretless because its strings are always pulled full-length, producing a sound that is particularly rich in overtones.

Every single tanpura string produces its own unique and cascading range of harmonics while at the same time building up a specific resonance. For this reason, although it is only an accompanying instrument, main soloists or maestros can spend a great deal of time and take a lot of trouble over tuning the tanpura to create the exact, delicately nuanced tonal shade to suit their own requirements according to the raag they are going to be singing or playing.

Tanpuras can be of different sizes and pitches. There are larger ones called "males", smaller ones called "females" (mainly for vocalists), and yet another smaller version which is usually used in the accompaniment of other string instruments like sitar or sarod.   

There are three main styles of tanpura with most North Indian musicians preferring the Miraj style, which is usually between three to five feet in length, with a carved, rounded resonator plate known as table with a long, hollow and straight neck.  The round lower chamber to which the tabli, the connecting heel-piece and the neck (known as “dandh”) are fixed to a dried gourd (called “tumba”). Its bridges are usually cut from one piece of bone.

FACT ABOUT TANPURA

V&A Museum IM.238-1922

Given by Mrs Biddulph in accordance with the wishes of the late Colonel John Biddulph (1840-1922)

Painted wood and ivory with metal strings and rosewood pegs

Possibly South India, acquired in Pune, Maharashtra, or Shivpuri, near Gwalior 1850-1895

The tambura is a plucked drone instrument used to accompany instrumental or vocal performances. This unusually small example is so profusely decorated it may have been made for display or for use at court. The front features images of the Hindu deities Ganesha, Rama, Sita, Hanuman and Lakshmana. On the back, Krishna dancing with the gopis (cow-girls) is flanked by four figures including Shiva, Brahma and the sage Narada.

Height: 93cm

Width: 24cm

Depth: 16cm

The Tanjore style of tanpura is favoured by Karnatik or South Indian musicians. It is roughly the same size as the Miraj variety but has a slightly different shape and style of decoration. Usually, there is no gourd (or tumba) with the spherical part is being cut out of a solid block of wood.

A third variety known as “Tanpuri” is usually used for the accompaniment of smaller-scale string instruments.  It is usually only about two or three feet long, with a flat wooden body and a slightly curved table or lower chamber.  Generally tuned to a higher octave, the Tanpuri style of tanpura is considered ideal for the accompaniment of sitar, sarod and sarangi.

Nowadays it has become fairly common to see “electronic” tanpuras, in the shape of an easily portable “tuning box” in place of the real thing, while the even more portable mobile phone applications, especially those found for the iPhone, are getting increasingly popular with younger musicians. But many maestros feel that this kind of digital aping of the rich rainbow of sounds that a manual tanpura has to offer, threatens to diminish the tuning ability of less experienced musicians.

Author: Jameela Siddiqi

All Rights Reserved ©2015 Darbar Arts Culture Heritage Trust 

Many Maestros of The Tanpura

Although the tanpura forms such an important component of an Indian classical musical recital, it is not an instrument that can ever perform solo, for its whole purpose is to support and sustain a tonally rich and harmonic drone in the background which serves as a continuous reference point for the soloist. As such, many leading maestros, whether vocal or instrumental, will devote a great deal of time, often on-stage, to the correct tuning of this instrument so that it produces all the subtle shades of tone required for the raag they have chosen to perform. It is not uncommon for a maestro to spend as long, or even longer tuning the tanpura as he/she might with their own solo instrument.

It has been said that watching and listening to a maestro tuning a tanpura is the best musical training one could hope to have as the many shades and nuances of sound which are dealt with on this instrument are unmatched elsewhere.

Students of Indian classical vocal music were always encouraged to do their riyaz (or practice with meditation) while playing a tanpura for themselves although nowadays many students would probably use a substitute electronic device.

With larger numbers of musicians performing outside of India, it is also often the case that the maestro has previously not even met their tanpura accompanist. But this hardly matters as the most crucial thing about the tanpura is its exact fine-tuning rather than its ability to hold a “dialogue” with the soloist.

Nowadays, it has become a customary privilege for a senior pupil of the soloist in question, (or another advanced student of classical music) to be asked to play the tanpura for a performing maestro.  Students of Indian classical music often have to wait for years before their master or guru gives them permission to perform in public and playing the tanpura is, for many students, the first opportunity to appear on the same stage as their maestro-teacher. Even so, novices and less experienced musicians often complain that playing the tanpura is an arduous task, given its repetitive nature of plucking successive strings continuously in the same order and having to sit still for what could well be a few hours.

FACT ABOUT TANPURA

V&A Museum IM.238-1922

Given by Mrs Biddulph in accordance with the wishes of the late Colonel John Biddulph (1840-1922)

Painted wood and ivory with metal strings and rosewood pegs

Possibly South India, acquired in Pune, Maharashtra, or Shivpuri, near Gwalior 1850-1895

The tambura is a plucked drone instrument used to accompany instrumental or vocal performances. This unusually small example is so profusely decorated it may have been made for display or for use at court. The front features images of the Hindu deities Ganesha, Rama, Sita, Hanuman and Lakshmana. On the back, Krishna dancing with the gopis (cow-girls) is flanked by four figures including Shiva, Brahma and the sage Narada.

Height: 93cm

Width: 24cm

Depth: 16cm

Author: Jameela Siddiqi

All Rights Reserved ©2015 Darbar Arts Culture Heritage Trust 

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