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.
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.
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:
- It transfers the sound energy of vibrating strings to the resonator.
- 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.
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.
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.
12 replies on “A Comprehensive Guide to Tanpura : It’s Construction, Significance and Relevance in Indian Classical Music”
Sonometer which is taught in physics used a piece of paper to match it’s tuning with a determined frequency.can we evaluate one or two frequencies of a singer and tune the tanpura with a piece of string kept on it. Off course a crude way of tuning the tanpura.secondly, Mandar will the frequency of the tanpura strings change as per raga. Again an elaborative article.would like to have a practical session of tuning the tanpura.
Certainly, we should meet sometime and do an elaborate session on actual tuning of Tanpura. Frequencies of Jod and Kharj string won’t change as per the Raga. The first string can be tuned as per the Raga. Mandar.
i am a beginner in learning classical music and as i can not reach high notes i have been given scale F to practice for time being,but A# has been set by my Guru.So now if i buy a tanpura can i tune it in both F & A#?
It is ideal to get a tampura of the scale that you plan to sing. We would suggest you wait and find your scale first, feel comfortable in it and then order an acoustic one.
I think there is an increasing tendency in the music world to assume that the quantitative equivalency between the acoustic tanpura and the electronic one is all that matters. I wonder: Doesn’t the qualitative matter too? A tanpura made from nature grown gourd, wood, etc. and played with living fingers has to be radically different from an electronic one. Also the svaymbhoo svara-s from a natural tanpura have got to be more in number and in quality form those produced by an electronic one, assuming it can be programmed to produce harmonics (swayambhoo svara-s). Finally, one or two upright tanpura-s add some visual beauty to the concert scene as opposed to a white or black little box, and now increasingly a smart-phone, in my humble view!
Indeed an acoustic tanpura is absolutely indispensable!
I have a 8 month baby. I wish to introduce him to classical music and instrumentals. I do not wish to impose music on him but I wish to introduce it to him so incase he has inclination it can be explored later. Could you guide me in how I can go about doing the same. Which age is appropriate to start the same. As of now I have been singing to him since birth and he enjoys it as much as a baby can (my guess). He gives me response to some extend and has got decent lung powder when he stretches his vocals in baby tunes.
I enjoyed your detailed article on tanpura. This is a very informative site for people interesting in understanding the science and theory behind music.
Thanks a lot for reading. Just continue providing exposure to music, let him sing along and just enjoy. Post 4 years age you may try finding a Guru.
This is a question, rather than a comment. Apart from Miraj tanpuras, one hears from old-timers about one Hemraj, whose tanpuras are supposed to have been the best made in the late-19th/early-20th century. aficionados of Hindustani music speak of him as highly as those of Western music speak of the Cremonese violin makers, Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati.
Is there any historical record of Hemraj and how many tanpura jodis he made during his career (including details of how many for males and how many for females)? I find on the internet obviously “duplicate” Hemraj tanpuras offered for sale. How do these match with the genuine ones, in terms of craftsmanship and acoustics?
Namaskar Vivek ji,
We know about the making of hemraj but not sure if you are speaking of any specific maker (a particular name). we will try to post a detailed note on hemraj tanpuras with images and description of parts and the making process.
Thanks a lot for reading and expressing here.
Hi.. I have a taanpura and with some effort, I tuned it pretty well to its scale (male B, safed 7). I could hear the overtones of madhya Re, madhya Ga, Madhya Ni, taar Saa. But nothing for Ma and Dha. Could you specify when should I be able to hear it (meaning after plucking which string?)
Glad to know that you are so passionate about a Tanpura. Coming to your questions,
Ma – One can hear a Komal Ni from the Kharaj string. It is lower than the usual Komal Ni. By same rule, one can hear a lower shade or Shuddha Ma from the string of Pancham. So to hear the Ma, listen just after you pluck the Pa.
Dha – I have heard Dha very prominently in a Tanpura that has its first string tuned to Madhyam. As you get Gandhar from Kharaj, you can get Dhaivat from Madhyam. It is Shadj-Gandhar Samvad. Rarely, I have heard Dhaivat coming from Pancham – Pa > Re > Dha.
I hope this helps.