Electronic options are no match to the traditional tanpura

A new book reaffirms the tanpura’s unique status in Indian classical music

Published - August 07, 2020 02:28 pm IST

Meeraj Tanpura

Meeraj Tanpura

At a time when the acoustic tanpura is bidding a quiet adieu to the classical concert stage, a book Acoustical Analysis of the Tanpura, Indian Plucked String Instrument written by a team of physicists, Asoke Kumar Datta, Ranjan Sengupta, Kaushik Banerjee and Dipak Ghosh (published by Springer, Singapore), shows how we are letting some significant features of our tradition fade away. The book not only reaffirmed my faith in the tanpura, but prompted me to relook at the instrument’s history and its place in the music world.

My love affair with the tanpura, spanning over six decades, began the day my Master saab, pleased with a four-year-old student’s melodic memory, brought his own tamburi (a small tanpura) and placed it in my lap. While doing so, he also narrated the legend of how Tumburu, a leader of the Gandharvas, with the blessings of Lord Siva, created the tumbura or tanpura.

According to history, the tanpura owes its origin to an instrument that came here from the Balkan region. It is also said that Indian folk instruments like tamburi, tuntuni and gopi-yantra are the precursors of the tambura, which derived its name from a gourd called tumba. The resonator of the tanpura is referred to as tumba and it is made of gourd shell in North India. In the South, it is carved out of wood. It came to be known as tanpura simply because it is capable of generating pure harmonics, unhampered by chikaris or supporting strings, as in a sitar, for a longer period than any other string instrument. This act of stretching (taan) became its identity.

Trance-like state

According to theists, the origin of the tanpura is deeply rooted in the philosophy of Naad-yoga. An ideal instrument to produce the anaahat by means of aahat, it represents the three constituent sounds of the omkaar, that is, a-u-m, which comes from the navel, heart and throat points of the spinal cord in the human body. Thus, the tanpura plays a pivotal role in the arduous task of musical awakening, commonly known as sadhana or riyaaz.

With its resonant sound, it creates a trance-like state that helps musicians cut themselves off from everything around, even their own thoughts, and drown in the ocean of music.

Life’s changing priorities have not been able to break the bond with my tanpura, although it is cumbersome to carry during travels and needs careful handling even at home. Bad weather affects its strings and they have to be frequently tuned. Despite all the care, it may refuse to respond favourably on some days. Finally, I was forced to swap my old companion with an electronic one. But soon I began to miss the physical touch of the tanpura, its warm whisper in my ears and the overpowering tumba (resonator) near my heart. This realisation raised a question. How do modern Indian musicians do without the tanpura and opt for the impersonal digital one?

Musical therapy

There was a time when legends like Ustad Faiyaz Khan had four tanpuras at his concerts. An innovative Ustad Amir Khan used tanpuras with six strings and introduced Nishad to tanpura tuning. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan slapped his tanpura accompanist once. Why? Because a little more or a little less weight of the fingers can destroy the entire setup of microtones that emanate from the resonance of the three notes the tanpura offers. This is said to be based on pure science. In fact, scientist C.V. Raman came out with the scientific principles that govern this amazing instrument.

According to the authors of the new book , “The sounds of the tanpura help to reach a trance-like state of consciousness, in which subconscious images and feelings can easily emerge. Since 2005, therapists, especially in Germany, working in schools, old age homes, hospitals and hospices, began using the Body Tambura, a new instrument, inspired by the tanpura, in the field of music therapy, for treatment.”

The book evaluates the research on the tanpura — its making, physical and mechanical properties, playing technique, the acoustic analysis of its signals, and its relation with gharana music.

But, as Ranjan Sengupta, co-author, says, “The electronic tanpura may be a practical option but it cannot replace the tonal and emotional quality of the traditional one.”

The writer is Kolkata-based critic and musicologist

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