Tambura on the brink

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Classical musicians have many concerns. A major one is having a perfectly tuned tambura — when practising and performing. Naturally. The tambura aka tanpura, is the keeper of the pitch. It is the guardian of the right note. The tambura is the drone instrument which keeps the sruti. And sruti is the mother of music.

Tyagaraja in his Thodi kriti, ‘Kaddanuvariki,’ said: ‘Mudduga tambura batti’ — Lord Rama blesses and protects a person who practises regularly with the tambura in perfect sruti.’ In today's times, however, the digital tambura is replacing the manual one in concerts, workshops and lec-dems and sruti apparatus like I-pod, I-Pad apps are also being used. Many students do not learn to play the manual tambura.

Indeed this digital or electronic tambura or apps are wonderful inventions and have come as a boon to musicians because they are easy to transport locally and while travelling and don't need a long period of painstaking tuning — just the turn or flick of a button.

Yet, the traditional tambura has a beauty and utility which can never be replaced or replicated completely. It provides a kind of naadam and grace to the concert and stage which the digital tambura cannot simulate — even the digital ones which are designed to look like traditional ones. Moreover, when using digital substitutes, voltage fluctuations and power-failures during concerts disturb the performer’s sruti.

Tambura on the brink

Most important, learning to tune and play the traditional tambura helps a student gain sruti-gnanam (knowledge of sruti).

Chitravina Ravikiran says that students should be aware of the importance of learning to play the traditional tambura to perfection. Says he: “The aesthetics and functionality of the traditional tambura make up an important subject by itself in music. Tambura-playing and tuning is an evolved and high-class art. The slightest disturbance in sruti will disturb the performer and reflect on the concert. The aural perspective has many other factors. For example: the tambura player needs to lower the volume when I am singing in lower octave and increase it when the pitch increases. He/she needs to keep adjusting even with regard to percussion play, etc. The aural perspective has many other factors too. At one time, All India Radio used to have a separate category for tambura players and appoint reputed vocalists for this. Unfortunately, this practice carries little importance now for AIR.”

The renowned singing duo, Malladi Brothers, say: “We understand why digital tamburas and apps are becoming popular but we believe that the traditional tambura must be used in concerts; in fact, having a pair in perfect sruti for practice and performance is ideal.”

According to Pantula Rama, no replacement can give the same nourishment to a concert as a well-tuned and well-played traditional tambura.

Tambura on the brink

But the fact is that it is not easy to find accomplished tambura players for concerts. Of course, many top musicians manage to have well-trained students across the country, who play the tambura for them at their concerts/workshops. Scarcity of tambura aritstes is especially evident during the Madras Music Season, which takes place in December. Even in other cities such as Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Thiruvananthapuram, it is not uncommon to find performers asking for someone from the audience to come on stage and play the tambura for them.

What has led to the shortage? Tambura tuning and playing is a delicate art which few wish to master. Inadequate remuneration is another reason. Both have created a conducive situation for digital replacements.

Musicologist and musician Radha Bhaskar observes with concern: “With many musicians switching over to electronic tamburas for convenience, there are few opportunities for tambura players. For any profession to thrive, opportunities are essential and it should also be lucrative. In this case, it is neither. Tambura artistes find themselves widely in demand only during the Music Season.” There are of course musicians, who retain tambura artistes through handsome compensation but that is not enough to reverse the trend.

So, what are the solutions?

Malladi Brothers think teachers have the power to change it. “As performers-cum-teachers, we should practise with the traditional tambura and teach music with the same to the students. There are gurus who teach students how to tune and play tambura for 15 months and only then begin regular music classes,” they say.

Teachers and performers consider playing the traditional tambura early in the morning both calming and even therapeutic and must be part of a student’s training. Pantula Rama believes that a musician's personal tambura is invaluable and irreplaceable as it comes to life during the long years of sadhana. “Musicians should maintain old tamburas — either their own or inherited — as an extension of the body itself. Sabhas should maintain tamburas of different srutis, make it a point to have traditional tambura for each concert, and have a panel of music students and artistes well trained in this art,” she says and adds that good remuneration and respect on a par with other accompanists will encourage tambura players.

Malladi Brothers have an interesting take: “At least those music students, who cannot make it as concert musicians could be trained by the teachers to be expert tambura players, who can do it as a part-time job. This will not only help the cause of music but also ensure that these students can continue in a field they have entered with passion. Sabhas could suggest that the artistes use only the traditional tambura in concerts. Finally, local teachers should train every student in tambura tuning and playing and encourage them to accompany visiting musicians. Our father, professional vocalist Malladi Suribabu, accompanied many legends. We too played the tambura for top musicians during our school days,” they explain.

This writer has often wondered why the tambura player’s name is not regularly mentioned in concert invitations along with that of the other accompanying artistes. Maybe, sabhas, organisers and artistes should think on these lines.

Is it time to start tambura academies? Or at least special certificate course only on tambura tuning? Or should tambura artistes have an association of their own to ensure good remuneration?

Radha Bhaskar has some good news: “We, at Mudhra, are thinking of organising a workshop on tambura tuning and playing. Madurai G.S. Mani has offered to conduct it,” she says.

Ravikiran says that AIR should restore the importance of a separate category for the tambura player.

The number of music festivals at various government and private academic institutions has grown over the years. Students of these institutions should be compulsorily trained in this art and encouraged to provide tambura accompaniment. It would give them a great opportunity to be with senior artistes and also provide valuable stage experience too.

Tambura on the brink

Bridge to the past

For Bombay Jayashri, it is a unique relationship with the tambura. Her association goes back to her childhood. “The house would be filled with Omkara naadam as my father sat with his tambura in perfect sruti alignment. That left a deep impression in my mind. My grandfather and mother were also tambura lovers,” says Jayashri, who even wrote a poem, ‘Tambura My Sakhi.’

Naturally, it led to a collection of her favourite instrument — Miraj, Thanjavur, Trivandrum... she has them all. “I buy them in pairs,” she laughs. “My grandfather's tambura is hundred years old. When my parents got married, GNB gave her a Thanjavur tambura,” she recalls. Jayashri has passed on her love to her students as well. “It is a divine sight — when the stage has two perfectly aligned tamburas – Lakshmi and Saraswati. ‘Fifty per cent of your concert is done if you have well-tuned tamburas. Your singing is only the other half,’ my guru Lalgudi Jayaraman would say,” she remembers.

Jayashri believes that it is the tambura, which inspires the musical phrases when she sings. “As I hold it close to my ear, I find myself completely cut off from the world. The raga draws me in. May be I’m imagining it but my music is an extension of my tambura.” Jayashri has names for her collection. “They are so close to my heart, I thought it was rude to identify them as the light brown, dark brown, white cedar, etc. So they have names — Mithra, Kamakshi, Kathyayini and so on.”

Does she not find them unwieldy especially when travelling?

“They are delicate. So I don’t carry the antique ones. I have compact ones, which I can carry as hand luggage. But I would never travel without one,” she explains. “Tambura is my constant companion – a bridge to my past, keeping the memories of my childhood alive.”

Therapeutic effect

By Rama. Kausalya

The Tambura is considered a queen amongst the Suri vadhyas such as Ektar, Dotar, Tuntina, Ottu and Donai. Although tamburas are traditionally made at certain places, the Thanjavur Tambura has a special charm, which makes it a favourite. They are beautifully ornamented like the Thanjavur Veena. Veena Asaris are the Tambura makers too but not all are experts the reason being it requires a special skill to make the convex ‘Meppalagai’ or the plate covering the ‘Kudam’ or ‘Paanai.’ The making and fixing of the Meppalagai must be done with utmost care.

There are two ways of holding a Tambura. One is the “Urdhva” — upright posture, as in in concerts. Placing the Tambura on the right thigh is the general practice. The other is to place it on the floor in front of the person who is strumming it. While practising or singing casually, it can be placed horizontally on the lap, the Kudam on the right side.

The middle finger and index finger are used to strum the Tambura. Of the four strings, the ‘Panchamam,’ which is at the farther end is plucked by the middle finger followed by the successive plucking of ‘Sārani’, ‘Anusārani’ and ‘Mandara’ strings one after the other by the index finger. This exercise is repeated in a loop resulting in the sruti resonating entirely and creating a wholesome musical atmosphere. Playing the Tambura also needs special skill since the plucking should give a sustained sruti guide to the main performer.

The Tambura which gives the sa-pa-sa Sruti notes is pure therapy to the mind and soul. Sit in a quiet place with eyes closed and listen to the notes of a perfectly tuned Tambura — the effect is therapeutic.

Tambura makers rarely get orders. If they did, the preference is for instruments 50 years old since the wood used then was well seasoned and of great quality.

Except a few, the current generation is for electronic sruti accompaniment, including Bluetooth. Portability is the obvious reason for the choice. Besides few music students are taught to tune and play the tambura. Beyond all this what seems to swing the vote is that the electronic sruti equipment with its heavy tonal quality can cover up when the sruti goes astray.

During the middle of the last century, Miraj Tamburas (next only to the vintage Thanajvur) were a rage amongst music students, who were captivated by its tonal quality with high precision and the beautiful, natural gourd resonators.

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 5:00:31 AM |

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