Tanpura: the base of Indian music
There have been many musical instruments which have added to the beauty of Indian music but Tanpura or Tambura is the one which is the base of our melody. For centuries now, it has incessantly been providing the basic note or the key note to the vocal as well as the instrumental music. Its accompaniment provides a kind of drone effect which enables the vocalist to establish the tonality of different ragas around the drone of this enchanting instrument. In this essay, let us go deep into this instrument and discover its implied features.
The origin of the instrument
Although Tanpura has been providing the basic accompaniment to the vocalists as well as the instrumentalists for centuries now, yet there has not been much effort to look into the historical aspect of it. Many scholars suggest that there was a Gandharva in the name of Tumbru who discovered this instrument. Others claim that there was a Tamburi Veena which might have been behind the origin of Tanpura or Tambura. Some other musicologists differ from the aforesaid view and submit that it has come to India from Iran. Some even go on to say that it has come from the Greek Lyre. Many scholars insist upon the fact that there are the resemblances of this musical instrument in the wall painting as well as the inscriptions of the pre-medieval period. Therefore it cannot said to be of a foreign origin. There are divergent views. However all the scholars converge upon the fact that this is a unique instrument in our music. It looks to be especially made for our matchless music. That is why, it could not have come from outside. Let us assume that it is an Indian instrument, suitable to the requirements of our music. Tanpura has been used by the musicians for around two centuries for sure; we have found references in different books of Pt. Bhatkhande and Pt. Vishnu Digambar Paluskar of Tanpura or Tambura. Hence it can be stated without any reasonable doubts whatsoever, that this instrument existed in India before the advent of the aforesaid scholars.
The structure of Tanpura
Traditional Tanpuras are made of pumpkin and Teakwood. Firstly, a pumpkin of the suitable circumference and diameter is obtained. Then it is cut from its upper side and all the pulp is taken out so that it gets hollow. Then it is dried up. It goes through many processes in order to give it the perfect shape. One such process is that it is cut from the front and is covered with the teakwood of the suitable thickness. Then a bar is attached to the uppermost portion. This bar is called the "Daand". This is made of teakwood and it is also hollow. On the top of the Daand, there are four wooden "Khoontis" which are used to hold and tighten the strings. The four strings are attached to the bottom of the gourd with a screw. The wooden structure covering the gourd from the front is called "Tabli". A Bridge is put over it. This is made of the horn of a turtle or dear but gradually, this practice is discouraged as the animal-protection movement is growing. Now-a-days, it is made of some synthetic material. The surface of the bridge is given a suitable shape through a process called "Juvari". The four strings pass through the bridge and are attached to the aforesaid Khoontis. On the upper side of the Daand, there are two strips. The strings are put over these strips so that a perfect distance is maintained from the Daand. The strings can be tightened/loosened as desired. The first string is called "Pancham Ki Taar" and it is tuned in the Pancham of Mandra Saptak. Second and third strings are called "Jodi Ki Tar" and are tuned in the Shadja of Madhyasaptak. The last one is called "kharaj" and is tuned in the Shadja of Mandrasaptak.
There are two kinds of Tanpuras available: one, the Male Tanpura and the other, the Female Tanpura. The former is fifty-five to sixty inches long whereas the latter has the length of forty-five to fifty inches. The first one is tuned in C major and above and the other one is tuned in G onwards. At the bottom of the strings, there is a bead which is used to make minor tuning adjustments.
Tanpura is a cumbersome musical instrument. The artists face many problems as they have to travel from one place to another in connection with their performances in different concerts. The problem gets much more aggravating when it comes to the foreign visits. The artists are concerned with the safety of the instrument as the cargo has to be taken separately. Generally, they think it better to have the instruments with themselves. However, during the journey through the Air, it is not possible. This instrument is so delicate that the slightest jerk can spoil it. In 1980's, keeping the problem of mobility of the instrument in view, many manufacturers experimented with new innovations and one of them came up with a smaller version of the instrument which was named as "Riki Tanpura". This was around forty inches in length and hence provided some relief to the users. In this version of Tanpura, the whole body of the instrument was made of seasoned teakwood. The pumpkin gourd disappeared. Thus, the Riki Tanpura got to be stronger and easy to move. More experiments were conducted on the instrument and a new version was brought about combining the Swaramandal with the Tanpura. This version of Swaramandal Tanpura had 15 additional strings so as to tune them in the performing Raga according to the choice of the artist.
Experiments and the innovations continued on the instrument and many more modifications were tried. However, the remarkable change was seen as the electronic and the synthesized versions of the instrument came up. Now an electronic version of Tanpura is available with many different models to choose from. There are several new features which were not available previously. But most of the artists of Hindustani music, especially, the vocalists do not like the electronic version as the tone of the instrument is not natural but the synthesized one. In the south Indian music however, it is broadly recognized and extensively used during the concerts. In North India too, the instrumentalists are gradually are coming to terms with it. During practice sessions, artists/learners of Hindustani music use the electronic version more often than not.
Finally, after describing the different types of tanpura, let us now focus our attention at its salient features which make it a unique and very relevant musical instrument in the context of Indian music.
The very tone of Tanpura is so fascinating that it attracts our attention as the instrument is played. Its sound creates the environment which is suitable for the creation of Indian music; be it through vocal cord or through the instruments. Secondly, it supports the voice of the vocalist. It not only provides the tonic note or the basic note to the singer/instrumentalist, but it also improvises the tonal quality of the singer. Thirdly, besides the musical notes which are produced by its strings, its specifically adjusted Bridge helps creating numerous overtones which, in turn, help in finding all the seven notes of the octave which are used in our music. Thus, it helps choosing the proper notes by the singers. Those who use Tanpura while singing have this feeling that it helps developing a proper musical voice as more and more practice with it helps the singer to find the perfect tone through the numerous overtones. These overtones help develop a perfect voice-culture. As the learners of the present era are substituting the original tanpura with an electronic version or with the Harmonium, the tonal quality of such singers lacks the depth and the voice culture which is essential for Indian music.
To conclude, it can be submitted without any disagreement from the music lovers that the traditional Tanpura is better than its electronic version. That is why; the vocalists should use the traditional one as comprehensively as possible.