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Tanpura: An Essential Element For Indian Classical Singers

Hi classicals,

‘I’m Kuldeep back again here, with the Tanpura in my pen this time…I mean mind this time! You might have seen or attended musical concerts, where an Indian Classical singer or a soloist instrumental player is accompanied by someone droning the Tanpura behind. Such is the importance of the Tanpura for classical singers, as it helps them a lot to get set on the scale.

Tanpura

The Tanpura is the instrument, which is regarded as an important part of classical Indian music. A distinctive quality of the Tanpura is its sound effect that is produced by the continuous playing of all the strings. It leaves an everlasting effect on the listener. Thus the Tanpura is an ideal auxiliary for Indian Classical singing, soloist instrumental player, or modal creativeness.

A supporting plucked string instrument (or drone instrument, as it is popularly called) ‘the Tanpura’ is also called as ‘the tambura’ or ‘the tanpuri’. It has its name from the blend of two words ‘tana’ means a musical phrase and ‘pura’ means complete. However, it is neither mentioned in the historical texts nor in the ancient Indian sculptures. But by the end of the 16th century, it was probably developed in the form that we see today. This can be seen in the Moghul miniature paintings.

 

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Instead of playing melody, it supports another instrument or singers, both in Hindustani and Carnatic style. It has four or five (or seldom six) strings that are plucked one after another in a continuous cycle to create a harmonic resonance on the basic note or keynote. The strings are tuned to Pa or Ma or Ni, Sa, Sa, Sa (Sol or Fa or Ti, Doh, Doh, Doh). The two strings in the centre are Sa of middle octave. The Pa or Ma or Ni and the last Sa are of the lower octave. The droning helps singers to get set on the scale and it resonates to create a musical atmosphere. 

The Tanpura is played without any changes throughout the whole musical performance. The richness of the sound that emerges from all the strings helps the singing resonance. Singers or instrumentalists can be supported by one or more Tanpuras.

Shubha Mudgal with tanpura
Famous Singar Shubha Mudgal Practising with Tanpura

Male singers have a tonic note (Sa) often at C♯ and the female singers usually have it at the 5th higher. However, as the Indian Classical music system has no fixed pitch-reference, these notes may change as per the singer’s preference.

The Tanpura is tuned to a singer’s pitch and thus provides an invariable reference point. It helps the musician stay in pitch. Properly tuned Tanpuras are just like heaven of music, as they help to find the pitch, the frequency. Tuning the Tanpura to the singer’s pitch is very much important, as it helps in perfecting singer’s pitch or soor or shruti. It is most important skill in Indian classical music.

There are three different styles of the Tanpura that are popular among Indian Classical singers. ‘Miraj style’ is the most favourite form of the Tanpura in Indian Classical singers. The ‘Tanjore style is the style of the tambura, which is widely used by Carnatic music singers. The ‘Tanpuri’ is a small Tanpura used for accompanying instrumental soloists. Tamburi is preferred for accompanying solo performances by string-playing artists. Some time few famous vocalist are also use tanpuri. I always observed Pandit Jasraj using this instrument for accompanying. In below photograph accompanist using this small tanpura in Pandit Jasraj’s Maifil (Program).

Pandit Jasraj using Small tanpuras for accompanying
                                             Pandit Jasraj using Small tanpuras for accompanying
digital Tanpura
                    Digital tanpura

Sometimes, an electronic Tanpura or ‘shruti boxes’ also are used in Indian classical music, looking just like a small radio and are easier to carry around. Though these electronic Tanpuras have a high quality, some music lovers feel that the time-honored Tanpuras offer a richer sound and should not be removed. You can download digita Tanpur files for male and female here.

If you find this article usefull please share it with your friends and tell us how and which tanpura you use for singing or practicing?

About Kuldeep Thopate

Hello Classicals, Welcome on Swarmanttra! Basically I am from engineering background but hardcore classical lover. Due to madness about classical music I try to be connect with same in various mediums, like attending concerts,endlessly reading about it,learning Mridunga,collecting records and many more other things. During these activities I gather many information about Indian music. Through "Swarmanttra" I will trying to share it with all of you. Hope you will like all this stuffs.

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10 comments

  1. Nice articles Kuldeep Dada! They are always very informative.

  2. Great thanks for this great music. I am just a ‘Kaansen’. And love to listen to Hindustani classical, mainly vocal. Great fan of Pt. Bhimsenji, Kishoritai, Firojji, Malinitai, Prabhatai, Kishoritai, Jasarajji, Ashwini, and…. lots.
    keep me in loop and post me anything about Hindustani classical music.

    Cheers,

  3. Very good information given.

  4. Very good information. Please keep on writing about classical…

  5. Thanks for the article. I am learning classical music and find articles like these very enriching to my experience. Hope to see many more to come.

  6. Just an observation: the tanpuras that Pt. Jasraj is using in the picture are actually electronic tanpuras. I have the same model at home that I use for my own riyaaz.

  7. Hi Swar Mitra Friend-Kuldeep,
    As I received your mail and subscriptions, would like to thank you for keeping me updated and connecting with this part of group of Hindustani Classical fans. Being involved with this form of Art for past 15 years and associate of SPIC MACAY, I am Glad to stay connected.
    Kindly keep me posted regarding information and events in Delhi NCR for the same if possible.

    Thanks
    Ribhu

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