The tambura is back. But where are the players?

There are only a handful of dedicated artistes who play the instrument that sets the tone for concerts

December 02, 2021 05:41 pm | Updated December 03, 2021 05:44 pm IST

R. Vaidyanathan

R. Vaidyanathan

For the past many years R. Lakshminarayanan, R. Vaidhyanathan, Latha Venkataraman and Kalyani Viswanathan have been on the most prominent Carnatic concert stages, yet most people are unlikely to know them. Unknown and unsung, they are the tambura players.

Yet, like Nisha Rajagopalan, most vocalists cannot imagine performing a concert

Latha Venkataraman

Latha Venkataraman

without a tambura player. “I practice with the tambura at home,” says Nisha, “and there is no substitute for it.” Vocalist Vignesh Ishwar agrees, “The tambura player can set the tone for the entire performance.”

Professional tambura players came into existence only a decade ago. Earlier, senior musicians would have their students strum the tambura for them or opt for the electronic versions.

Gaining prominence

Despite the many alternatives available today, fortunately we still get to see the tambura player on stage. In fact, the first thing many musicians do after accepting a concert date is to book their preferred tambura player. As more musicians show a renewed interest in the instrument, the tambura is experiencing a resurgence. Paradoxically, though, the number of dedicated artistes playing it is declining.

The late Saraswathi aka Rani Anantharaghavan was known both for her impeccable strumming and her radiant and cheerful presence. Tambura Ganesan was another such artiste. It is a fine line between a tambura player being involved and attentive to being intrusive and disturbing.

Playing the instrument might seem simple but senior musician and teacher R.K. Shriramkumar says it is not. “How it is played is critical — . keeping the fingers parallel to the strings, gliding the finger (not the nail) gently from string to string, the kalapramanam of the strumming, its regularity — every aspect is important and none of it is trivial.” He adds that the tambura player should be sensitive to the overall sound. “If the sruti in the instrument alters midway, the force applied on the strings needs to be changed spontaneously.”

R. Lakshminarayanan

R. Lakshminarayanan

With over 50 years of experience, R. Lakshminarayanan, 93, could very well be the longest serving active tambura player. He and his brother performed decades ago as a vocal duo known as the Vellore Brothers. Lakshminarayanan plays the flute and kanjira too. He has played the tambura for T.R. Mahalingam, K.B. Sundarambal, Madurai Somu, N. Ramani, T.S. Sankaran, T.V. Sankaranarayanan and others. One of the few tambura artistes who can tune the instrument completely by himself, Lakshminarayanan is able to adjust the instrument promptly if the sruti changes midway, usually even before the vocalist notices.

Jayalakshmi Balakrishnan of Naada Inbam says Lakshminarayanan’s skill elicited the praise of the late violinist T.N. Krishnan. The tambura player attributes his expertise to having been a technician at the famed Sangita Vadyalaya, assisting musicologist Prof. Sambamurthy in manufacturing tamburas, veenas and other traditional Indian instruments.

Kalyani Viswanathan

Kalyani Viswanathan

Kalyani Viswanathan, 67, who has been playing the tambura for over 15 years now, spent many years in Mumbai where she was convener at The Fine Arts Society, Chembur. When Kalyani moved to Chennai, she first began playing the tambura during the music season and now plays regularly. She enjoys experiencing the music at close quarters and often asks vocalists about pieces they have sung and ponders on interesting talas.

R. Vaidhyanathan, 73, enjoys music, having imbibed it from his father, Thirukokarnam Ramachandra Iyer, a vainika of the Karaikudi bani. He took up the tambura full time 25 years ago He has shared the stage with M. Balamuralikrishna, Bombay Sisters, P.S. Narayanaswamy, Mandolin Shrinivas and several of the current performers. A memorable moment for him is dancer V.P. Dhananjayan mentioning him in his comments after a concert. Despite suffering from fractures to the leg and back, Vaidhyanathan has kept up with tambura playing. “I come for the music which I so enjoy,” he says.

Latha Venkataraman

Latha Venkataraman

Latha Venkataraman, 69, has been a tambura artiste for 18 years and recently played at her 1,251st concert. She and her siblings imbibed music and its nuances from their father K.V. Krishnamurthy Iyer, a disciple of G.N. Balasubramaniam. Latha subsequently went on to play the tambura.

While Lakshminarayanan, Vaidhyanathan and Latha travel to concerts in autorickshaws, Kalyani drives to concerts. They usually arrive at least 30 minutes prior to a concert and are in perfect readiness when the vocalists arrive. Tambura artistes are usually paid Rs. 500 to Rs. 1,000 per concert, but even this small sum is often not promptly remitted. Most tambura artistes have other jobs or get government or NGO grants. But all of them are driven by their love for music.

R.K. Shriramkumar is so passionate about the tambura that he tunes it himself at most concerts that he is a part of. He strongly believes, as does vocalist N. Vijay Siva, that the voice takes on the character of the instrument used for sruti. “Everybody should sing to a tambura. Tyagaraja himself has extolled the instrument in multiple compositions,” says Shriramkumar. However, he laments the fact that one needs to refer to the instrument as an acoustic tambura to distinguish it from its electronic version. “It’s a tragedy that musicians have brought upon themselves by settling for electronic versions. Just as instrumentalists are expected to bring their own instruments to concerts, vocalists must be instructed to bring tamburas. Students should be encouraged to play the tambura for their gurus on stage to experience the constant give and take.”

He commends The Music Academy for insisting on the instrument for its ‘Senior slot’ concerts and hopes they will do so for other categories too. “Any music organisation should have at least two functional tamburas – for male and female srutis,” says Shriramkumar. He mentions the Sruti Music and Dance Society of Philadelphia that has acquired tamburas and the Cleveland Aradhana, which was given many tamburas by Shankar Ramachandran, the grandson of Kalki Krishnamurthy. Locally, Jayalakshmi Balakrishnan says the Raga Sudha Hall has a dozen tamburas on site in various srutis.

Electronic devices, Shriramkumar suggests, can be used as a baseline for tuning the acoustic instrument, but should not be louder than it. He is categorical, and Nisha and Vignesh concur, that the traditional tambura is irreplaceable in its depth and feel of sound and is definitely not for optics alone.

The Chennai-based author writes on art and culture.

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