Does the digitised tambura manage to hit the right note?

Aesthetic appeal: Visually, there is something elevating about a beautifully carved tambura resting against an artiste's profile. — File Photo: S. Thanthoni

Aesthetic appeal: Visually, there is something elevating about a beautifully carved tambura resting against an artiste's profile. — File Photo: S. Thanthoni  

The four strings of the tambura that provide sruthi or the basic swara (pitch) for musicians are considered the life force for any melodic exercise. Fixed in jack wood to enhance the naada, yesteryear musicians were stuck to this pitch provider because there were no alternatives.

Electronic versions

But with technology giving us electronic modules of the same, we see a digitised avatar occupying the concert platforms. From transistor technology-based ones to those with microcontrollers with embedded software, Bangalore engineer Raj Narayan of Radel Electronics has released 18 electronic versions of several musical instruments that are being constantly upgraded.

While many are comfortable with the electronic gadget while practising, how does it feel to have an object there on the concert stage, bereft of human touch, minus the aesthetics of the real thing?

‘A compromise'

“The digital tamburas are handy for travel, but only a compromise. It's like decaffeinated coffee,” says vocalist Aruna Sairam.

“Digital versions are comfortable to use, but only a tambura can bring in a tranquil aura.”

“We use both to get an effect. If it is only the tambura, sometimes we don't hear the strings resonating as an open-air ambience often drowns it, thanks to decibel levels. So a good tambura along with a digital one can strike a good balance,” says Sriram Prasad of Malladi Brothers.

Doyen R.K. Srikantan says: “We were used to visualising a stage only with the traditional tambura both for aesthetics and aural synchrony. There is an art to playing the tambura, we were told, not just wielding one. But we get dependent on those who have to play it for hours. Technology assists us to meet urban demands.”

There is demand

“Dr. Balamuralikrishna was the first to use the electronic tambura in 1979, and suggested a fine-tuning option for various notes,” says Mr. Raj Narayan, “while K.V. Narayanaswamy asked for a carry case. Several north Indian musicians wanted five- or six-stringed versions, prominent among them being Begum Parveen Sultana. And Ustad Amjad Ali Khan appreciates the ‘handy technology', which making it easier for foreign tours”.

Constant upgrading

But isn't this digital movement incompatible with tradition? “No,” says Raj Narayan categorically. “Musical instruments have undergone improvements and innovations over the centuries. The early veena was just a long bamboo with a few frets. “The acoustic Saraswati veena was developed in the 18th century.

Ultimately, it is the music that is important. My innovative satisfaction lies in the fact that the digital versions are but handy tools to preserve a rich tradition. It makes pursuit of the art more practical.”

Thing of beauty

Even so, visually there is something elevating about a beautifully carved tambura, with its mesmeric resonance, being plucked in perfect timing by a resplendently turned out artiste.

And if it is the main artiste who is handing the tambura, nothing matches the picture of his or her face resting against the magnificent tambura, lost in sadhana. Bits and bytes can't beat such chemistry.

Recommended for you