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"Rabab, pakhawaj, and rhythmic ankle-bells play the Unstuck (celestial) music", (Guru Arjan)

Saaj is a Punjabi word commonly used to refer to musical Instruments. Right from the Vedic times, musical instruments were used in India. Ancient sculptures and temples show different kinds of drums, whistles, flutes, harps, gongs, and bells. During the many following centuries, these rough instruments were developed and refined into the forms in which we see them today. Some of the instruments are now decorated with ivory, silver, gold and peacock-feathers. Some of the instruments have facilities for playing delicate gamaks. Musical instruments are made by skilled craftsmen who have knowledge of musical sounds. The important towns where these instruments are manufactured are Lucknow, Rampur, Madras, and Tanjore.

Nowadays, many musical instruments are used, as for example, tanpura, sitar, harmonium, veena, sarangi, sarode, been, bansari, flute, tabla, pakhawaj, mridanga, dholak, etc. Some of the instruments are of foreign origin, but Indians have adopted them, as for example harmonium and clarinet. Musical instruments perform one or more of the following functions: (a) to give the rhythm, (b) to provide that tonic note in the form of a drone, and (c) to accompany the vocal sound point by point [1].

These instruments can be divided into two categories: svaravad (note instruments), and tal vad (rhythm instruments). The first category of instruments are those which produce svaras (notes) e.g. sitar, sarod, bansari, harmonium, etc. Tal vad includes those instruments which produce rhythm, e.g. tabla, mridanga, pakhawaj, cymbals, etc. Indian musical instruments are of four kinds:

  • (1) Tat vad (stringed instruments)
  • (2) Sushir vad (wind instruments)
  • (3) Avanad vad (leather or percussion instruments)
  • (4) Ghan vad (idiophones).

Tat vad

These are instruments with strings. When the strings are touched or played upon, they vibrate and produce different kinds of notes. Tat vad is sometimes called tantra vad. The stringed instruments are of two kinds: tat and vitat. Tat vad consists of those stringed instruments which are played by fingers directly or with a plectrum, e.g., tanpura, veena, sitar, rabab, been, sur-sringar and sarod. Vitat vad consists of those stringed instruments which are played with above, e.g., sarangi, dilruba, taoos, and asraj.


This covers instruments in which notes are produced by air columns. In such instruments, either the air is blown with the mouth as for example bansari, clarionet, shenai, flute, or through the bellows as in harmonium and organ.

Avanad vad

These are percussion instruments which produce sound when dried animal skins, tightened by leather braces or cotton straps are struck. Mostly such instruments are used for producing tals (rhythms) and that is why some people call them tal vad. This category includes mridanga, tabla, pakhawaj, dholak, nagara, dhadh, kanjira, and damru.

Ghan vad

These are idiophones of self-sounding instruments which combine the properties of vibrator and resonator. Some of them are struck together as cymbals, clappers and khartal, while some are struck singly as bells, gong, chimta (a pair of tongs) and jaltarang (cups of water producing different notes). Some are shaken like rattles and manjira. These instruments are made of wood or metal or both. In addition there are earthen pots like matka or ghatam. Some of these instruments are useful for rhythm only, e.g., manjira, jhanjh, and khartal.

As mentioned above, tat vad, sushir vad, and partly ghan vad come under the category of svara vad, as for example tanpura, sitar, bela, sarod, bansari, shehnai, harmonium, organ, piano and jaltarang. Avanad vad and partly Ghan vad come under the category of tal vad, e.g., mridanga, tabla, pakhawaj, damru, manjira, khartal and jhanjh.

Stringed Instruments

Some of the stringed instruments are described below, along with instructions regarding how to tune them.

1. Tanpura/Tamboora

This is one of the oldest and popular instruments used for accompaniment of vocal music. Being a stringed instrument, it is remarkable both for giving support to the notes of vocal music and as a drone.

There are four strings in the tanpura. The first to the left is of steel. Sometimes in a tanpura is used for accompanying a male voice, the first string is of brass or bronze. This string is called oancham because it gives out the note of P. This is tuned to the P of the madhya saptak when accompanied by a harmonium. In the raga in which P is forbidden (as for instance in Malkaus raga), this string is tuned to M shudh. In the first place, the two middle strings of steel should be tuned to S of the male singer. The fourth string is of brass or bronze. It is tuned to S of the mandar saptak. (In the case of a female voice the S is set to fourth of fifth black reed of the harmonium). Some tanpurashave five to six strings. The normal tuning is P S S S. If there is no P in a raga, then tune M S S S. In case of the fifth string, the tuning will be as such: If there is N in the raga, then P N S S S : if there is no N in the raga, then P S S S S: if there is no P in raga then M S S S S. In case of a 6th string, the tuning will be as follows: If there is NI in a raga, then P N S S S S: if there is no N in a raga, then P S S S S S; if there is P in a raga, then M S S S S S.

2. Sitar

Sitar literally is a form of the Persian word-sihtar-which means three strings. In the beginning, there were only three strings, but now seven strings are used.

The components of a sitar are similar to those of the tanpura. It has a toomba, tabli, keel, dhurch, dand, gulu, atti gahan and sirra like the tanpura. It has however seven khootiyan (pegs) and one manka (bead). The sitarhas seven strings.

The first string on the left is made of steel. It is called Baj-ki-tar. It is tuned to M of mandar saptak. This is the string which is more frequently used in playing the sitar. The second string is made of bronze and is called jori-ka-tar. The string is tuned to S of mandar saptak. The third string is made of bronze.

This is also jori-ka-tar. The string is also tuned to S of mandar saptak like the second string. These two strings are tuned in the very beginning like the tanpura. The fourth string is made of steel. This is tuned to P of mandar saptak. The sixth string is made of thin steel and it s called chikari. It is tuned to S of mandar saptak. The seventh string is also made of thin steel and is also called chikare. It is tuned to S of Tar saptak. Some people tune the seventh string to the pancham (P) of madhya saptak.

3. Mikrab

This is the plectrum made of steel or brass which is worn on the right hand index finger. When the plectrum plays on the strings, it produces vibrations which causes different notes. When the plectrum touches the first string, the sound produced is of D and on the second is that of R. Some sitars have ab extra toomba (gourd) at the end of the neck or midway. The sitar is played with the following gat (sequences):

  • (a) Alaap: It corresponds to the vocal style of the raga.
  • (b) Jor: This is the playing of the raga on the sitar in medium tempo after the alaap and without tal.
  • (c) Jhala: Playing on the chikari strings in quick tempo which like D R R R - is called jhala. The first string gives the note of D, and the final chikari give the tone of R.
  • (d) Asthai and Antra: Asthai is fixed composition of the raga. The antra is the compliment to the asthai. In the improvisation of the raga, after asthai and antra, meend (gliding) and jamjam/murki (trill) are played frequently. Tans are also played.

Nowadays sitarists generally play in khayal style. Sometimes thumri style is also used. Like khayal singers, instrumentalists will play in drut laya (fast tempo). They will play a new asthai and antra, generally in teental and then improvise at a very fast tempo until the performance reaches an exciting climax. This section is called drut gat (fast composition) and is climaxed by a fast jhala piece.

The sitar is very delicate instrument and as such it is to be kept and maintained with care and caution. The following points need to be noted:

  • (a) The sitar should be kept covered, preferably in a cloth cover or a plastic bag.
  • (b) The sitar should be kept lying on the floor, the frets facing upwards. It can also be kept standing in a corner.
  • (c) The sitar should be cleaned frequently with a piece of soft cloth.
  • (d) The strings should be periodically loosened so as to reduce the tension on them.

4. Venna

Perhaps the oldest stringed instrument belonging to the seventh century is the veena. There are various kinds of veena, but mainly they belong to two categories: north Indian and south Indian. The north Indian veena is called vachitra veena and has no frets. The south Indian veena is more complicated and is called saraswati veena. As the name implies, this instrument is supposed to be the favourite of Saraswati, the goddess of learning. Some of the veenas have the painting of the goddess on the body.

There are also other types of veenas with motifs of peacocks or crocodiles or some animal. The veena has seven strings of brass. Four strings are tuned to S, P, S, P and the remaining three are drone strings tuned to S P S. The south Indian veena has twenty-four frets fixed by wax. It may have one or two resonating gourds. It can be played with fingers or with a plectrum. There is also a superior kind of veena carved out of one piece of wood. The veena is played in a horizontal position as it rests on the lap of the player.

5. Sarangi

The sarangi is a popular stringed instrument of North India. It has been in use from the thirteenth century. It can be played either solo or as an accompaniment of khayal or thumri or folk-song. The body is of teak wood and the lower part is covered with skin. The upper part containing the pegs is jointed to the lower part. Generally, there are three strings made of cat-gut and re tuned to S, P, S in mandar saptak. In some cases, first string may be of metal. Some sarangis also have few sympathetic strings under the main three strings. It is held in a vertical position and played with a bow which is different from that used for a violin.

6. Rabab

This stringed instrument was used in Punjab, but Guru Nanak used it s an accompaniment for Gurmat Sangeet (Sikh sacred music). It was played by his disciple named Bhai Mardana (1459-1519) who originally was a mirasi (Muslim musician). It is similar to the rebec of Persia. The rabab has a piece of hollow wood at the top and a hollow circular wooden belly covered with a sheep skin at the bottom. There are two bridges, one in the middle and the other at the tip. The two bridges support six gut strings which are manipulated by six pegs at the top. Some rababs have a wooden toomba (gourd) at the top. It is played with a traingular wooden plectrum. Its sound resembles the human voice and it can play some gamaks. The effect of the drum-sound produced by it is very pleasing; it is eminently suitable for devotional music.

7. Sarinda/Surinda

This instrument closely resembles the sarangi. It is about two feet long, and its bottom is oval. The upper part is left open and a small part of body is covered with a parchment. It has three cat-gut strings which produce notes of S, M, P. The upper ends of the strings are tied up to the pegs and lower ends to the hook below. It was used by the Sikh Gurus and their bards. It is played with a bow. Sometimes small bells (gungroos) are attached to the bow to produce rhythmic jingle along the notes.

Wind Instruments

1. Harmonium

The harmonium is popular kind of sushir vad. The word harmonium is derived from the Greek word "harmony" which is the basis of western music and implies simultaneous sounding of several notes or the accompaniment of a melody by chords.

The harmonium has the appearance of a box out of which music can be produced. It is a reed-blown instrument like a large harmonica with mechanical bellows and keyboard. It is said that the harmonium was first produced in Paris in 1840 by Alexandre Debain. He devised a bellows worked by the player's feet to force air into a wind-chest and then through channels opened or closed by means of a keyboard. The notes are produced by reeds made of steel. The bellows is either worked by feet or hand. When the keys are touched and bellows is inflated, the air passes through the inner reeds and produces twelve notes (seven shudh, four komal and one teevar).

The harmonium has either single reed or double reeds. In case of double reeds, two notes of the same type, in two saptaks are produced simultaneously. Generally, a harmonium has three or three and a half saptaks. This instrument is very easy to handle and is very popular in North India. The beginner can easily play it and learn both vocal and instrumental music. The instrument has fixed notes and its tones cannot be changed. The harmonium can be used also an accompaniment of a vocalist. Any svara (note) can take the place of S and the raga played accordingly.

The twelve notes of the harmonium are not natural notes but are a tempered scale. In the saptak, the difference between S and R and again between R and G and so on has been(figures) to consistent and equal degree. The main defect of this instrument is that it has twelve artificial notes though they correspond to the twelve natural notes (as for instance on a sitar). With the accompaniment of harmonium-notes, the svaras of vocal music also tend to be artificial.

By playing the harmonium, the human voice becomes artificial, because according to the tradition of Indian classical music, the real notes of 22 shruties should be produced. There are certain notes in classical music which cannot be reproduced by the harmonium, for example _G_ in raga tod, M in raga Lalit, etc. Therefore, practice of svaras on the harmonium tends to make the svaras unnatural or unreal. Many classical singers frown at the use of harmonium.

For Strange ways condemns the use of the harmonium and regards it as a serious means of Indian music. He remarks "Besides its deadening effect on a living art., it falsifies it by being out of tune with its itself." [2]

It is not good to practise svara-sadhana (note modulation) on the harmonium. It is better to practise the svaras on the tamboora. When the strings are touched, they vibrate and the note continues to sound for a while, but in the case of the harmonium, the tone starts for a while, but in the case of the harmonium, the tone starts with inflation of the bellows and when the bellows stop, the note comes to an end.

Meend (glide from one note to another) and gamak (delicately mixing svaras in a raga) are not possible on a harmonium and as such, richness and excellence of melody is unavailable. This instrument is not good for accompaniment of vocal music, because it cannot reproduce the various delicate shades of vocal music. It is better to use a sarangi or bela (a kind of violin) for the accompaniment of vocal music.

2. Flute

This is very old and common wind instrument found all over the world. It belongs to the category of sushir vad (wind instrument)

In India, the flute is made of wood; however, some special flutes of ivory, brass and silver are also used on special occasion. The vedas refer to the flute as venu. In North India it is known by different names like bansari, murali; in South India it is called pillam kuzhal, pillam grovi, and kolalu. The common flute is about a foot long and has a mouthpiece and few holes. The length of the flute and the number of hole differ from one region to another.

The popular flute in South India is called mukhaveena, which is a double-reeded pipe with seven holes. The bigger f lutetype instrument is called nagaswara. A new instrument of the wind-family is the shehnai. The oboe-like double reed instrument is supposed to be auspicious and is played to celebrate a marriage or festival. Shehnai concerts have become popular these days. Bismillah Khan and his group of shehnai-players have own the hearts of western audiences in Europe and America. It is possible to play alaap, tans, thumris, and light tunes on the shehnai.

Percussion Instruments

1. Tabla

Tabla falls under the category of avanad vad (percussion instruments). It is an ancient indigenous tal vad. It consists of two drums standing upright. Bharata mentions the procedure of applying the paste on the drum. However it became popular during the Moghul rule because it was, and even today is regarded as a fit accompaniments for khayal and thumri compositions.

The drum with the black paste called siyahi, played by the right hand, is the real tabla, because its tone-range is roughly and octave. The drum played with the left and is the bass or the drone counterpart and is called dugga or duggi or bayan. Tabla requires a lot of practice for reproducing different tals, especially half hatras. According to Danielou, "The drummer of our Indian village is in no way technically inferior to the most celebrated concert musicians."[3] Allah Rakha and Samta Prasad are two well-known tabla players who have delighted both Indian and Western audiences.

Tuning the Tabla

A Tabla-player keeps the two drums in front of him, the real tabla on his right and the duggi on his left. The right drum is tuned to S or P. In the raga in which P is omitted, it is tuned to M. A small hammer is used for tuning, the cylindrical wood-pieces under the straps. If the tabla is to be tuned down, the gitki (wood-piece) is pushed up. After hammering on one gitki, the next one to be set is on the opposite side. In this manner, all the gitkies are hammered and while hammering them, the tabla is struck with the hand to find out if the svara of the tabla matches with the base note of the instrument which the musician is using.

After the gitkies are set up, the gajra (top-skin) is adjusted in case there is still some minor tone variation. The duggi or the left tabala is adjusted with the gajra. In some sets of tabala, the duggi has also some gitkies which are adjusted in the same manner as those of the right drum. In case there is no black paste (siyahi) on the duggi, it should be covered with atta (wheat-dough). The dough should be removed or gently scratched after use. The right tabla can prodice a variety of complicated rhythms, while the duggi can produce a variety of complicated rhythms, while the duggi can only produce the main outline of the particular tal (rhythm). An expert tabla player (tablachi) can even play half matras skillfully.

2. Mridanga/Pakhawaj

The mridanga is an ancient instrument of avanad vad and is also called tal vad. It is said that Lord Shiva used to do Tandava Nirtya-cosmic dance with the help of this instrument. Bharata calls it pushkar vad. This word was adapted as Pakhawaj. As such, mridanga and pakhawaj are practically the same.

Pakhawaj was, and even today is, popular as an accompaniment of dhrupad and dhamar. The mridanga was formerly a clay-drum but now it is made of wood. The structure of the pakhawaj resembles that of the tabla, the main difference being that the tabla consists of two drums, while the pakhawaj is one long barrel-like drum with skin-covers on both unequal sides. The left side is smaller than the right side. The pakhawaj is tuned like the tabla.

There are two ways of playing the mridanga. It can play twenty-five varanas, both primary and secondary as follows: Primary varnas: Ta, Ta, Di, Thu, Na, Dha, Dda, Draday, Thee, Ga, Rivrar, Jhem. Secondary varnas: Ran, Ka, Ga, Rran, Dhou, Dhi, Lan, Thace, Dan, Dhi, Ki, Ti, Thrar.

3. Dholak

The other popular drum instrument is called dholak or dhavul. It is like the mridanga, but its two sides are equal in size. It is about two feet long and one foot in diameter. It can be played with hands or with sticks. It is used for hymn-singing, folk music and folk-dance. The left side is like bass and other side can be tuned to a high pitch by tightening the cotton-rope braces. The other drum-type instrument are nagara, tasha, kajira, and damru.

4. Dhadh

It is small two-sided wooden drum. Some call it the damru. It is about 10 to 12 inches in length with a narrow waist in the middle. The parchments are held by cotton straps. It is held in the left hand and played with the right hand.

See Also

External Links


  • 1. Ranade, G.H., Hindustani Music, p. 75.
  • 2. Fox Strangeways, The Music Hindustani, p.163.
  • 3. Danielou, A., The situation of Music and Musicians in the countres of the Orient, p. 3.
  • 4. Ibid., p. 66
  • 5. Pulications Divisions: Aspects of Indian Music, p. 103.
  • The above article adapted from "Indian Classical Music And Sikh Kirtan" by Gobind Singh Mansukhani (M.A., LL.B, Ph.D.), 1982