The Tanpura

Any discussion about the swara will be incomplete without understanding the significance of the tanpura. This age old instrument provides the background screen of swara for the artist, almost like the canvas of a painter.

This string instrument, which generally looks like the sitar, has four strings. These strings are normally tuned to the mandra pancham, shadja, shadja and the kharja shadja respectively. The first string could be tuned to the madhyam ( or nishad) depending upon the raga. There are two separate mechanisms to tune the pitch of each string, one for coarse and the other for further fine tuning. The overtones of each string can also be adjusted by a deceptively simple mechanism, controlling the harmonic content. This is known as adjusting the Javari, which can be khuli, i.e. open, enhancing the higher harmonics; or Bandh, i.e. closed, suppressing the higher harmonics.

The strings are plucked one after the other at a defined tempo, forming an awartan, which is repeated continuously. The resultant is a screen of multiple notes, rich in harmonics. Various other notes emanate out of the harmonics, besides the four basic tuned swaras. The Pancham gives out the Rishabh and Shuddha Nishad, while the kharja Sa gives Gandhaar and the komal nishad. The artist thus actually hears all these notes, which are purely of natural origin, and which the artist uses as a reference for tuning himself. For an artist, the tanpura is his Guru in his quest for the perfect swara, and becoming one with nature.







Tuning the tanpura and playing it properly is in itself an art, which at least every vocal artist learns and tries to master over years of training. The hardness or softness of the pluck, as well as the tempo and spacing of the plucks can vary the harmonic content.

Over the last few years, we have seen the emergence of the electronic tanpura (and now computer programs and mobile apps). This was initially developed for riyaz accompaniment, but now seems to have found its place on the stage during performance too. Even with all the technological prowess at hand, the tanpura is an extremely complex instrument to replicate electronically, and the various models available in the market are mere approximations, some good ones, others not so. These machines are so very handy and convenient to carry, and user friendly due to its one touch tuning,  that they have become quite popular. The down side of all this development is that an average beginner does not get the chance to really go through the process of understanding the tanpura, and learning to tune and play it.

The Gandhar or the rishabh or pancham emanating out of the tanpura belong to what we call the natural scale, as these are purely a part of the harmonics of the base sa. These are the notes we use to form the saptak of the seven notes from the sa to the higher sa.

Is this the scale that the entire music world uses? We will go on to find the answers…..

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