A publication of the Batish Institute of Indian Music and Fine Arts
Tanpura- The celestial drone
by Ashwin Batish
[Other names & spellings: tanpuraa, taanpuraa, taanpura, tanpoora, taanpooraa, tambura, tamburaa, tambooraa, tampura, tampoora, thamboora, thambura]
If you've been to a classical music concert either of the North Indian or the Carnatic tradition, chances are that you have seen the tanpura (tambura, tanpuraa).
There are two possibilities. If the concert featured a vocalist, you would have seen a male or a female type tanpura (tambura). If the concert featured an instrumentalist, the tanpura would probably be smaller. But in either case it is also possible you saw two tanpuras accompanying the lead artist.
The picture you are looking at is of my father Pt. Shiv. Dayal Batish. Many singers prefer to play the tanpura during performance. The closeness helps in being able to quickly access it if it starts to go out of tune. Also they can control the dynamics. Sometimes ill prepared student have been know to get too loud with the tanpura to the embarrasment of the vocalist ;-)
So .... what is this tanpura?
Many explain this instrument to be a drone in the classical ensemble. This is true but let me explain all its capabilities and its use in the ensemble. Whereas the drone seems like an obvious function of the tanpura, there are many other, more subtle, uses that the tanpura is put to in every performance. A student of this instrument should try to familiarise themselves with all these areas as it will make them a better participant in a musical performance.
Taan means a musical phrase and puraa means to complete. Therefore, Taan-puraa is named after its primary function in a classical Indian music ensemble. It provides the touch of completion to the lead artist's musical renditions.
Another name for this instrument is "Tambooraa". This is derived from the fact that this instrument is made from a gourd. In India Toombaa means a gourd. Hence Tamboora means "made from a gourd". I personally prefer the first definition.
The traditional Taanpuraa has four strings. But today, hybrids are cropping up with 5, 6 and even 7 strings. The increased number of strings affords a louder and a larger variety in intonation possibilities, but, It can also tend to confuse. I recommend the 4 string type Tanpuras. There is a certain rhythm that is very satisfying to the player and to the artist being accompanied.
The strings rest over a bone or wood bridge and are latched on to the pegs and this is important as it should be looped twice in the hole of the peg so that it does not slip out under tension. Towards the bridge side, the string is latched on to the "Langot" in a very special way.
There are a few different positions proper to this instrument. Especially for women, there are sitting positions more appropriate and recommended by cultural norms of the Indian society. For men there is no real restriction except that the tanpura should be held to enhance the looks of the performing group. It should be kept steady and not allowed to rock, move or weave as this can be very disruptive to the visuals of a performance. Here is a position my father uses quite often. The Tanpura is resting over the shoulder.
The primary function of this instrument is to provide the lead artist with a drone using the proper intervals. These can be in a tuning of 4ths or 5ths. For example Pa/Sa/Sa/Sa (lower octave), and Ma/Sa/Sa/Sa (lower octave).
Ma = 4th
Sa = Tonic
Pa = 5th
Some other tunings are also used. But for the time being I recommend trying the two given above. Proper striking of the strings is crucial to the creation of warmth in the sound produced. So strike the strings gently. Use your fingers - as finger picks tend to have a plucky sound. Cut your nails - as striking with your nail will also give the tone a harsh attack. Strike sequence is of 5 beats so count
Pa - Sa - Sa - Sa - rest
1 2 3 4 5
Some of the best tanpuras come from the area of Miraj, Calcutta, Banaras, tanjore where there is a tradition of growing some of the largest gourds. Today, there is a growing trend of adopting an electronic version of the tanpura (tambura). These electronic boxes promise quick setups, controlable volumes, no tuning hassles etc. Some have analog oscillators other are now providing original tanpura samples that then play the real thing.
I am personally hooked on one of these and use it often when I go on solo performances. But when it come to playing along, there is no second to the real instrument. The dept, tone and resonance created by a full blown instrument where one can tweak the silk thread under the jawari for adjustments that satisfy individual tastes is not available to the electronic tanpura drone machines.
The instrumental version of the tanpura (tambura) is also becoming increasingly popular due to its small size and portability. Some call this the tanpuri or tamburi, although I have not heard it being called by this name personally. We sell these in our store and they can measure between 36 inches to around 45 inches in height. Instead of a gourd, the flat sound chamber is created out wood and it usually has between four to six strings. We carry these Instrumental tanpura (tambura) string sets. Like the Male, female tanpuras with string sets that are especially designed for the male and female singing range, we actually market two sets of Instrumental tanpura strings that cater to the C and F (G) tunings.
All you other good people .... please check out or Ragmala Radio broadcasts. We have ongoing lessons, music discussions, On-demand broadcasts of old and new music shows.
All the best,
email: info [at] batish.com
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