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Singing Lesson #3

by Pandit Shiv Dayal Batish

Singing with Swarmandal

(Indian Harp)

Swara means a musical note and "Mandal" means a multitude or group. In Indian music, this instrument is today used to serve different musical purposes. Under the name "Santoor" this instrument has been transformed to a very effective classical instrument made famous by Shri Shiv Kumar Sharma of Kashmir. In earlier days, pre 1950, It was Shiv Kumar's father, the late pandit Hardatt Sharma who was one of the main exponents of this instrument. He was very well known to me through my gurubhai, pandit Shivnath Ramanji, another very accomplished musician and a very fine santoor player.

This instrument is played with the help of small chop stick style wooden mallets that are slightly curved at the tips. The word Santoor is a composite of the word "cent" meaning 100 and "toor" meaning taar or strings.

The root of this instrument is from the ancient "Shata Tantari Veena" a lute having 100 strings. "Shata" means 100 and "Tantari" meaning stringed and "Veena" meaning lute. The word "taar" is derived from the "Tantari" root.

The Persians brought with them to India, a similar instrument called the "Oud" which in the Paarsi language means incense. Perhaps they were contrasting the musical values generated to the enjoyable perfume of the burning incense.

I have witnessed many musicians using a variety of sticks while performing on the swarmandal. In 1939, Pandit Shivnath Ramanji once performed on this type of Swarmandal before the Maharajah of Mysore when he was visiting the Nanubhai studios in Parel, Bombay.

The late Bade Ghulamali Khan, of Pakistan, used to use the hand held swarmandal almost exclusively for self accompaniment during his classical vocal performances. Being a former Sarangi player, perhaps he felt the shift to the swarmandal gave his mind a pleasant change from the bondage of the Sarangi, an instrument he was earning his living with. Undoubtedly, his self accompaniment on the Swarmandal sounded quite beautiful.

The main idea behind the playing of the Swaramandal is not as much the playing of it, although that too requires musicianship in a person, but also the way its delicate web of music producing strings are handled. These span the entire length and breadth of this instrument.


The strings need to be tuned every time a new raga is selected. Having many octaves covered in one instrument helps demarcate certain zones, which inturn help the singer shift to aligned and associated raga patterns. This is called "Murchana". For example, if you've tuned to the raga, Marava (Sa, Re komal, Ga, Ma tivar, Dha, Ni, Sa), The murchana from Re Komal - Re komal, Ga, Ma tivar, Dha, Ni, Re komal upper octave - gives the flavor of Malkauns. These notes are quickly plucked out on the swarmandal and aid the singer in the technique of Tirobhaava/Avirbhaava.

During performance, tuning changes often become necessary. Normal wear and tear and constant movement of the tuning peg can result in fatigue the strings and they will tend to break. It's best to keep on top of this and change the strings often. The newer strings also resonate better.

When handled and played with a healthy knowledge of modal structures and their "inter-aligned-tonal-relationships", the Swaramandal serves the purpose of immediately making available a treasure of melodic and harmonic ideas.

On this basis, when this instrument is played with one's performance, the knowledge of shifting the nailed finger spontaneously on the required pitch zones is of great help to a vocalist. In many ways therefore, this kind of accompaniment can take the performer as well as the listener to great heights of ecstatic musical enjoyment.

The very first flourish of one's finger tips on a well tuned Swaramandal, starts it resonating with harmonic arpeggios, and chords which immediately make the vocalist aware of the ingredient notes of the raga being performed.

The timber resembles that of a piano although the volume can be defined as pianissimo, but it is convenient enough for the vocalist. All the notes that would have to be played on a keyboard are available at you finger tips. The Indian vocalist is able to initiate the alaap, the introductory part of his performance, also called alaapchari, or pallavi.

The Swaramandal is generally used by vocalists in one of two positions:

1. It can be laid flat in front of the performer, who sits in a squatting posture called the "Chowkari."

2. The instrument is kept pressed to the chest of the vocalist, as was the case with Bade Ghulamali.

Both positions can have their advantages and disadvantages. Position #1 provides easy access to all strings during a performance. This is crucial especially in case of immediately required changes in tuning or other adjustments. Whereas with Position #2 the tones are louder as the instrument is closer and as such, are more helpful in providing the vocalist with tonal references during singing.

The arpeggios and flourishes, as also the occasional rests on certain strings that serve the purpose of change of keys and chords, help the vocalist to instantly shift on a different chord, thereby creating a fantastic combination resembling a small orchestra.

S. D. Batish

Editor's note:

(hastily written (7/24/2013) .... so forgive the spelling errors. Corrections to add :)
A very important part and usage of this instrument in the early foundation of Indian music was to capture the sense of the micro-tonal adjustments that are so important to the proper playing of the ragas. In our ancients texts and music treatise such as Bharata's Natyashastra, reference is made to two types of Veenas. The "Chal Veena" meaning changeable where the note is movable and, the "Achal Veena" meaning fixed. The root word "Chal" means to walk or move. Hence the Swarmandal, and its cousin the Santoor, are designated as "Achal Veenas" because all the notes are struck open and do not move as in a Sarangi, violin, etc. Another example of achal would be a harmonium, piano, guitar etc. Considering that Indian music had a system that inherently emphasized gamak (ornamentation) and meend (glissando between notes) as its main tools for exploiting the beauty of a raga, a clear example of this intonation structure was needed to make all practitioners of this art follow a specific understanding of the various shrutis (note variations in a scale) that made up a raga's movement. These shrutis were 22 in number but were very elusive to many practitioners of the art. Hence, the swarmandal became a tuner of sorts for the instrumentalists that wanted to set the frets of their instruments to the right shrutis very much like a modern day tuning device that many of us use to tune our guitars, or sitar to. After the 22 notes were properly established according to a specific tuning and ratios laid down to get these 22 notes, then, the 7 notes of a raga were selected from this set of 22 notes and all instruments tuned accordingly.I will elaborate on this further very soon. But keep in mind that the 22 note swarmaldal was not used for playing but just for reference. Indeed, we can call this our very first tuning device for an instrumentalist or orchestra!


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