T is for Tanpura not Sitar; it’s Good to Know the Difference
Today I’m going to write about Tanpuras (or Tamburas), and in subsequent posts, about Sitars and Veenas because these instruments are often confused with each other. In my highly prejudiced opinion, every Indian who is able, i.e. has access to this knowledge, should know the difference between these instruments. The Tanpura is the backbone of Indian music, Sitars have brought it fame, and the Veena is one of the most ancient instruments in the world. After all we can recognise pianos, and will probably be able to tell that an organ is not a piano, though it may look similar and though we may not be able to name it.
I know that for those not interested in music this may be boring. On the other hand it is likely to be boring even for those who are interested in music, because this is very basic. But I hope those who are not interested, or vaguely interested, do read this post and forgive me for being a little obsessive about wanting us to at least recognise the different instruments if not to hear them. There may be concepts that are difficult to understand, if you want, you can explore them further by clicking on the hyperlinks, or just ignore them for the time being and simply get used to what the instruments look like and sound like so you can tell the difference. There are many video clips (hurrah for youtube!) and it’s not necessary to play them for their full length or to play them at all-they are for the purposes of illustration only.
It’s probably not your fault if you don’t know the difference between these instruments-all three look similar, they have many variations (particularly Veenas), and Indian classical music has often been inaccessible to various groups of people; Gender, caste, social status, language, religion, class and education have all acted in complicated ways to exclude people from learning it or knowing about it. Or it may simply be that one just doesn’t know about it, so let me evangelise (imperfectly).
Tanpura or Tambura:
All Indian classical vocalists, of the well-known styles of Indian classical music i.e. the North Indian style of Hindustani music (further subdivided into the quite distinct Dhrupad and Khayal styles) and the South Indian Carnatic style of music are accompanied by a Tanpura or Tambura (there are other less well-known forms of Indian art music that I shall not refer to here). The instrument is called Tanpura in the North and Tambura in the South. Instrumentalists are accompanied by Tanpuras too, though they often use a smaller version called a tanpuri or tamburi.
There are “male” and “female” Tanpuras-female ones can be smaller and they can be tuned to suit male and female voices (the tuning depends on the strings-so a female can use a “male” Tanpura, with strings suitable for her pitch)
Here is a picture of a North Indian Tanpura:
Picture credit: binaswar.com
And here is a picture of a South Indian Tambura:
Picture credit: chandrakantha.com
Though they might look big and heavy, they are actually quite light and quite fragile.
The North (Miraj) and South Indian (Tanjore) versions are constructed slightly differently and produce a slightly different sound though they perform the same function, that is to provide a “drone” to help the musician sing in pitch (sruti). Maintaining sruti, or singing in pitch is very important and therefore the Tanpura is absolutely essential in Indian classical music. Essentially, the Tanpura sings a recurring melody.
Everyone has a natural pitch. When learning Indian classical music, one chooses one’s “Sa,” called adhara shadja, the basic tonic note-every other note is sung relative to this note. Thus maintaining the basic “Sa,” the fixed reference point is very important, and that is what the Tanpura does (this is different to Western music).
Tanpuras usually have four or five strings. The first string is tuned to Pa (the natural fifth from the adhara shadja), the two middle ones are tuned to the higher Sa and the last, which is the bass string, to the tonic, Sa, an octave lower. The tuning of the first string may change, depending on the raga/ragam (e.g. there may be a raga/ragam without Pa) or an extra string that plays the seventh, i.e. Ni, is added, but we will not get into that here.
Nowadays one gets electronic sruti boxes and electronic tamburas that are much easier to carry around, that look like small radios. Though these are very good and have reached high standards, some people (including yours truly) feel that the traditional Tanpuras and Tamburas provide a richer sound and should not be done away with. Learning to tune a Tanpura is also considered essential in training one’s ear. For a technical view on why traditional Tanpuras sound better see this article.
Here is a link to a podcast by the Carnatic musician Vidya Subramaninan and Devesh Satyavolu that explains, very simply, the functions of the shruti box, the electronic tambura and the traditional Tambura. Vidya sings out the notes of the Tambura-this will help in understanding what’s been said above about how it is tuned.
Here is a video where you can see how Tanpuras are played and hear the rich sound of well tuned (North Indian) Tanpuras clearly. The singer is Ustad H. Sayeeduddin Dagar who sings in the Dhrupad style. He starts off here with a Sanskrit chant:
Here is a video of the Khayal singer Ashwini Bhide Deshpande. I’ve chosen this video because you can see her fingers on the Tanpura strings:
And finally, here is a link to a video of a South Indian Tambura being played, that I couldn’t embed here.
A Tanpura is usually held straight up in front of the singer or tanpura accompanist (people can tend to lean it towards their bodies or put it in their laps) or flat down on the floor, whereas a Sitar is usually held diagonally across the body. More on the sitar in the next post.
Updated to add: Here is a video I just found with an explanation of the function of the Tanpura: