by David Courtney, Ph.D.

Instrumental music occupies an important place in India. It is one of the threefold aspects of "sangeet" (vocal music, instrumental music, and dance), and has a very ancient history. Instrumental music is referred to as "vadhya sangeet".

There is a tendency for the instrumental music to follow quite closely the vocal styles. But, the degree to which an instrument follows is primarily linked to the dynamics of the instrument.

Dynamics is the quality of the loudness of an instrument. This does not mean loudness in the usual sense of the word, but rather the amplitudinal characteristics of the instrument. The flute and sitar offer a good contrast. A flute is continuously blown, therefore there is a steady sound as long as the breath is applied. Since it is possible to sustain the sound for a long time, one is able to perform all kinds of delicate ornamentation. Instruments with a long sustain tend to follow the vocal forms. On the other hand, a sitar has rapid decay. The sound of the sitar is essentially inaudible within a few seconds. Many types of ornamentation are impossible because of this quick decay. However, very fast rhythmic styles are ideally suited to such instruments.T

hese technical limitations create an artistic pressure for these instruments to develop their own approach to the music. These approaches enhance the strong points while avoiding the limitations. There are a number of instruments used in Indian music. Here is a partial list:

Sitar: The sitar is the instrument that is probably most associated with India. It attained world-wide recognition in the 60’s due to the efforts of musicians such as Ravi Shankar.

The construction of the sitar is curious. It has a long neck, approximately three feet long, that is attached to a gourd. The gourd is roughly one foot across. The total length is approximately four feet. There is sometimes an upper resonator, this too is often a gourd.

The stringing of the sitar is a reflection of both its individual technique and that of general Indian musical concepts. It has approximately 17- 21 strings. These strings are not all of the same significance. There is one main playing string upon which almost all of the melodies are played. There are 2-3 secondary playing strings upon which the melodies are occasionally played. There are three-to-four drone strings which emphasize the musical tonic (i.e. first and fifth). Finally, there are approximately 12 sympathetic strings. These sympathetic strings are almost never strummed but merely resonate whenever the appropriate note is played.

The usage of sitar is fairly broad. It is very common in North Indian classical music as well as film music and popular music; it is almost never heard in South Indian classical or folk music.

There are a number of musicians who have made the sitar famous. Ravi Shankar and the late Vilayat Khan are two notable figures.

Vina:  Vina is a very large lute-like instrument. It is often made of jackwood. There are a number of brass frets which are set into black wax on the neck. There are four playing strings, yet almost all of the playing is really upon one string. Additionally, there are two drone strings; these drone strings are usually referred to as thalam due to their usage in showing the rhythmic structure behind the music.

The vina is used extensively in South Indian classical music, sometimes in film songs, but almost never used in North Indian classical or folk music.

There are a number of musicians famous for the Vina. Chiti; Babu is perhaps the most famous.

Violin:  The violin is the same violin that is used in Western music. However the playing technique is very different. It is used in both North Indian classical, South Indian classical, film music and popular music. The only Indian genra where it is absent is  flk music.

There are a number of famous artists on the violin; Lalgudi V. Jayaraman, The late, V.G. Jog, are but a few.

Harmonium: The harmonium is not native to India. It was invented in the 19th century in France by a man named Debain. In the 19th century, it became very popular throughout the West and was subsequently carried to India. It continued as a popular inexpensive reed organ into the 20th century (a motorized air pump replaced the traditional hand pumped bellows). However by the 1960s, it began to be replaced by electronic keyboards. Today, South Asia is one of the few places which still manufactures them. The harmonium became popular in India by replacing the sarangi.

Sarangi:  The sarangi is a bowed instrument that is common in Northern India. In the 19th century it was the preferred instrument for the accompaniment of vocal music. It has a wooden body over which skin is placed. A bridge is placed over the skin and is penetrated with a varying number of strings. Some of these strings are played, some are drone, but most of them are sympathetic strings.

The sarangi has fallen out of popularity due to a number of problems. The sarangi suffers from its sensitivity to moisture; slight changes in humidity effected the pitch. It is also very difficult to play. Furthermore, the sarangi has a stigma because of its association with dancing girls (at the turn of the 20th century, the Indian dancing girl was generally considered to be little more than a prostitute.)

Tanpura (tambura):  The tambura, also known as tanpura, is a drone instrument of India. It continuously sounds the first and the fifth. This keeps the modal form well established in the mind of the listener.

Most tamburas have four strings, but occasionally one finds five, six, and even seven strings. A typical four stringed tambura is tuned to the first, the fifth, with two strings tuned to the octave.

There are several styles of tambura. Generally, we can divide them into three classes. There is the north Indian style, which is often referred to as the Miraj style. Then there is the south Indian style, which is generally referred to as the Tanjore style and there is a very small instrumental style, which is sometimes referred to as tamburi.

Mridangam:  The mridangam is a barrel-shaped drum used in South Indian music and dance performances. It is about two feet in length and about 10 inches in diameter. The right hand face has an application of metal filings, soot and a binding agent such as rice or wheat flour. Additionally, there are sixteen pieces of straw which are placed radially between the main membrane and an outer annular membrane. The combined effect of this extremely complex drum head is a very unique sound.

The technique of the mridangam is very refined. There are a number of strokes which are mentally organized by a sophisticated system of mnemonics, This allows for a very interesting performance on the mridangam

Tabla:  The tabla is a pair of hand drums usedin India. The tabla is used in North Indian classical, popular music and even in folk music. However, it is not used in South Indian classical music.

The construction of the tabla is interesting. It may be conceptualized as a mridangam or pakhawaj that is cut into two pieces. There are permanent application on both drums. Since both drums are separate, it allows for independent tuning of each drum.

The technique of the tabla is very refined. It is organized by a very complex system of mnemonics known as bol.

Shehnai:  The shehnai is an oboe-like instrument which is very popular in Northern India. It is considered a very auspicious instrument and is very much used in temples and at weddings.

The overall length of shehnai is variable. It is usually one-to-two feet in length.

The construction of the shehnai is similar in some ways to the oboe. It has a double reed; in some cases it is a quadruple reed, ( i.e. two reeds on the top and two reeds on the bottom.) The body is made of wood and it has a bell made of brass. The reeds must be thoroughly soaked in water before it will make a sound.

Nadaswaram: The nadaswaram is a south Indian version of the shehnai. It is considerably larger than the shehnai, having a length of three-to-four feet. Both the body and the bell are made of wood. Unlike the shehnai which often has a quadruple reed, the nadaswaram only uses a double reed.

Tavil: The tavil is a drum that is used to accompany the nadaswaram in South Indian temples and at weddings. It is a two-faced drum. The shell is roughly spherical with two circular openings. The openings are covered with hide that has been wrapped around two large hempen hoops. The right side of the tavil is played with the fingers. However, the sharp sound comes from metal thimbles which are placed over the tips. The deeper left side of the tavil is played with a 
short, wooden drumstick.

Pungi:  Pungi, also referred to as the bin, is the snake charmer’s instrument. It is composed of a small sphere of gourd or coconut which is penetrated by two reeds. Both reeds are slit in such a way as to make a sound when air passes over them. One of the reeds is the drone, while the other other is used for the melody.

Bansuri:  The bansuri is the North Indian flute. It has been much used in folk music over the last few centuries, but within the last few decades, it has made inroads into classical music. The bansuri is constructed in a very simple fashion. It is nothing more than a length of bamboo or reed that is penetrated with holes. There is one hole for the embouchure and six to seven holes for the fingering. The length is highly variable. Its length may be as little as eight inches or as long as three feet. The length determines the key at which the flute will play. There are a number of great masters of the bansuri. The late Pannalal Ghosh and Hari Prasad Chaurasiya are two examples.

Venu: The venu is the South Indian flute. It is a length of bamboo or reed that is penetrated with holes. The length is variable, running anywhere from about eight inches up to two feet. Classical versions tend to be about 12-18 inches. The venu has one hole for the embouchure and eight holes for the fingering.

Surpeti - A surpeti is a simple drone instrument. It is a box that drones the first and the fifth. There are two common versions, one electronic and the other manual.

The manual surpeti is a small reed organ. It has a series of brass reeds which are excited as air is forced over them. It is very similar to a small harmonium except that there is no keyboard. The proper tones are determined by a series of stops.

The electronic surpeti is simply a small box that produces sound electronically. The sound is not two dissimilar to many electronic keyboards. The pitch is continuously variable through a series of knobs switches and/or buttons.

Sarod:  The sarod is basically a large version of the Kabuli rabab. It has a wooden shell that has goat skin stretched over the opening. Over the goat skin is placed a bridge upon which a number of strings are placed. Like the sitar, there are three classes of strings. There are playing strings, drone strings and sympathetic strings.

There are two styles of sarods; there is Calcutta style and there is the Dilli (Delhi) style. They differ both in the shape of the instrument, and the number of strings. The most visible difference is that the Calcutta style has a brass bell attached to the neck, while the Dilli style does not.

Santur:  The santur is a hammered dulcimer. There are numerous styles and sizes. The number of strings may be as few as 20 or over 100. Approximately 80 strings seems to be the average. The most famous exponent of the Indian santur is Shiv Kumar Sharma

Dholak: The dholak is a barrel shaped drum that is popular in folk music, film music and popular music of all kinds. The construction is much simpler than other barrel-shaped drums such as the mridangam and the pakhawaj. The faces are made of simple skin that is wrapped over simple hoops made of strips of bamboo. The right side has no application, but the left hand side has a mixture of clay, motor oil, and sand applied to the inner surface.

Pakhawaj:  The pakhawaj is a two-faced drum found in Northern India. This drum was much used in the past for the accompaniment of dhrupad and dhammar styles of singing. The right side of the pakhawaj is similar to the tabla except that the size is much larger, six to seven inches is normal. The left side resembles the head of the left-hand drum of the tabla except that there is no permanent application; instead there is a temporary application of flour and water.