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A Comprehensive Guide to Tanpura : It’s Construction, Significance and Relevance in Indian Classical Music

A Tanpura is the heart of Indian Classical Music. A painting needs a canvas, which is plain and rich. In same way, a musician cannot sing or play in the void. He needs a reference, a backdrop. A Tanpura, at a very basic and essential level serves that purpose. But, a Tanpura is not only the canvas. Often, musicians refer to their Tanpura being their Guru (Master). There are numerous stories of the love affair between Tanpura and great maestros. What is so special about this four stringed instrument which makes it so unique and so dear to sincere music practitioners? We will try to understand more about the Tanpura and en-route, will also try to find answers to some of these questions. 

Tanpura/तानपुरा : Making and Construction 

A Tanpura is a product of nature. Ideally, all the parts and components should be sourced from nature. The most important part of the Tanpura is the gourd resonator called Tumba or Bhopla / भोपळा . Made from a dried, hollow gourd, this resonator gives Tanpura the unique volume. Traditionally, these gourds are grown at Mangalwedha in Maharashtra and also in some parts of the state of Bengal.

As the story goes, centuries ago, African honey would come to India. Hollow African gourds were used as the containers to store and transport this honey. The same breed of gourds is grown in India to make Tanpuras.

As it can be seen, the Gourd is cut at half and a wooden encasing is fit on it. This casing is called the Tabli /तबली. The Tanpura usually has four strings. Some musicians use five stringed Tanpuras as well. As it can be seen, the strings are tied at the bottom to a plate (Tardan/तारदान) using a self-knotting mechanism. The other end of all the strings is tied around the tuning pegs, called as Khunti /खुंटी. Four stringed Tanpura will have four pegs whereas five stringed Tanpura will have five pegs. On the lower parts, Tanpura has beads which allow you to fine-tune the Tanpura by adjusting pressure more minutely.   

The gourd is cut and a wooden panel is fixed to it. This panel is called Tabli (तबली)
Pegs (खुंटी) on the top to tune the strings by creating or releasing tension.
Beads (मणी) at the bottom for fine-tuning.

Frequency of sound coming from a string is dependent on multiple factors, two most important being length of the string and tension in the string. In case of a Tanpura, the vibrating length of the string is equal to the distance between two bridges. Any Tanpura will have a lower bridge and an upper bridge (मेरू). While upper bridge provides resting mechanism for the strings, the lower bridge is a piece of art and plays many more other roles in the acoustics of the Tanpura. 

The lower bridge
The upper bridge

As we have seen, the vibrating length of the string is determined by the gap between the upper and the lower bridge. By observing their construction, one can easily make out that the lower bridge has a bigger role to play than just determine the length of string. Apart from that, the lower bridge serves two main purposes: 

  1. It transfers the sound energy of vibrating strings to the resonator. 
  2. By sliding a thread between the string and the lower bridge one can control the quantity of overtones present in the sound produced. 

Ideally, the bridge should be made out of ivory (हस्तिदंत) for the best acoustic performance. However possessing ivory is illegal. One can find many old Tanpuras which have ivory bridges. The second best option is horn of a Sambar / Rusa Unicolor (सांबर शिंग). Sambar is also a protected wild animal and it’s use has been banned too. Because of these restrictions the available options for bridge material are Camel bone, Ebony and Ebonite, which offer poor acoustic performance compared to the earlier options. 

The bridge of Tanpura is a piece of art. It has a complex curved profile which has rounded contours both horizontally and vertically. Acoustic richness of a Tanpura depends on how well the bridge profiling has been done. 

A closer look at the bridge. Observe the rounded profile in vertical as well as horizontal direction. The bridge is mounted on the wooden encasing and helps transmit the sound energy to the gourd resonator underneath. The hole just above the bridge helps this sound come out.

What is Javar (जवारी) of a Tanpura? 

In the image above, it can be seen that four threads are inserted between the four strings and the bridge. If that thread is removed, the tone of the Tanpura will be very muted (बंद जवारी). As one inserts the thread and gradually moves it downwards, the string starts getting lifted a bit and tone starts to open up (खुली जवारी). The tone brightens up because of the increasing number of overtones getting added due to the altered string movement.

Each musician will position the thread so as to obtain a tone that they consider ideal. Some musicians prefer muted tone while some appreciate the bright one. After being used for a certain period (couple of years for ivory, 6 to 10 months for other materials), the strings make a dent on the bridge which results in a compromised sound. When this happens, the bridge has to be removed and should be rubbed using a sand paper to remove the dents. Care should be taken that while doing this, the bridge profile is not affected.    

The dent made by string on the bridge.

How is a Tanpura Tuned?  

Tuning a Tanpura is a process that one has to learn by observing the Guru. Here is a flow of the process for the sake of the conceptual understanding of the tuning process.  

The two middle strings, called Jod / जोड  are tuned to the Sa (षड्ज). The last string is tuned to the Sa of the lower octave (खर्ज). The first string is usually tuned to Pa (पंचम).  The tuning of first string depends on the Raga and the musical preferences of the musician. Based on these considerations, the first string can also be tuned to Ma (मध्यम) or Ni (निषाद).

The tuning process starts with tuning one of the two middle Shadja strings (Jod). Typically, the one adjacent to the first (Pancham) string is tuned first. To tune the first string, reference note should be a Shadja, taken either from harmonium or a Sur Peti. Sur Peti offers uniform frequency and amplitude of the sound and hence, is preferred over harmonium which is subject to fluctuations due to inability of the person to press the bellows consistently at uniform pressure. Tanpura must be kept horizontal during the initial tuning process as one needs to press the Khunti (tuning peg) inside its slot while rotating the peg.

This ensures that the peg does not come back to its initial position and remains in the tuned state. It is best practice to first tune the string almost correct and get the Javari right before tuning it to further precision. While working on the Javari, one has to first clean it thoroughly to ensure that all the fibers between the bridge and the string have been removed. 

It is preferred to use a fresh thread each time. If you wish to use the same thread, take it out and re-insert it to ensure that a different portion of the string is sandwiched between the board and the string (if this is not done, the portion of string which is already squeezed and flattened will not give the correct tonal quality). Start moving the thread slowly in downward direction and keep on plucking the string after each movement to study the sound. One has to attain a perfect balance between the closed (Band) and loud, sonorous (Khula) sound. Ideally, the sound should have some resonance and should last long enough to exist till the sound of next string comes to full glow. After this kind of Javari is attained, one should move back to tuning the string to complete accuracy.

Once the first string is tuned properly, the Sur Peti can be turned off as the first string can now be used as the reference. Same procedure and sequence as tuning the first string is followed while tuning the second one. Their tuning as well as Javari has to be uniform. They should sound interchangeable, exactly same!

After tuning the Jod, one moves to the last string, which is Kharja. The procedure which is followed is same as the first two strings, one just has to be extra careful with the Javari as this string is thick and produces a wider sound which is not as pin-pointed as the other strings. After Kharja, finally one moves to the first string- Pancham. If the first three strings are tuned properly, one can clearly listen the harmonic Pancham and just has to match the Pancham from the string with the one which is coming out from other strings (the audible overtone). The sequence to be followed is the same – tuning to almost perfection, then Javari and then fine tuning.

Once all the strings are tuned, one should keep the Tanpura vertical with resonator (Tumba) completely touching the ground and listen to it carefully. If there are slight mismatches, those should be corrected.

What All is Heard From A Tanpura? 

Though a Tanpura has just four strings, it produces many overtones across multiple octaves. From a well tuned Tanpura, all the seven Shuddha Swaras are audible along with a few flat notes. As one gets better at listening to Tanpura, the singing or playing automatically improves.  

Anecdotes and Legends 

Ustad Abdul Karim Khan is well known for his love for tanpuras. Because of him, a large number of Tanpura makers shifted to Miraj. Miraj today is well-known globally for its skilled Tanpura makers. It is also said that Karim Sahab would make his Kurtas from the same fabric which he used for Javar of his Tanpura so that he would always have the threads for doing his Javari. 

Pt. Kumar Gandharva had quite a few times cancelled his concerts because he could not tune Tanpuras to his satisfaction. Kumarji would often say, “I am not singing. I am just showing you what the Tanpuras are showing me.”

Pt. Vijay Sardeshmukh was well-known for tuning Tanpuras most accurately in the recent times. 

Guruji, Pt. Vijay Sardeshmukh talking to Tanpura makers at Miraj.

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