It is said that Shastriya Sangeet is not possible without the presence of the tanpura, the four-stringed drone instrument containing the cardinal notes Sa and Pa. It is ‘nirgun’ or formless, having no melodic structure of its own. Like water, it takes on any colour that is put into it by the accompanying raga which is ‘sagun’, has a specific nature, or attachment. The tanpura enables the singer’s voice to be precisely pitched, thereby creating the desired raga. Tanpura and raga are therefore bound together inextricably, each complementing the other, like water in a pot.
The tanpura follows the principles of natural harmonics, from which raga is created. The basic condition for music is ‘anurannan’, vibration or echo following the utterance or striking of the sound . The singer has to listen intently to the vibration of the tanpura’s string and merge his/her own voice to it until the two become one. In dhrupad, this merging of the voice into the echo of the perfectly pitched tanpura is given utmost importance. Awareness of ‘sur’ is the key to singing. The singer sings, and the tanpura sings along with him/her, like water taking the shape of the pot into which it is poured.
When tuning a tanpura:
- – the mind should be ‘sthir’, still and peaceful,
- – the instrument should be a good one,
- – the temperature should be stable and
- – natural ‘samvad’ (consonance) should be there.
- – The 2nd string, the ‘taar saptak’ Sa, is tuned first.
- – The 3rd string is tuned likewise to match so their echos merge.
- – The 4th string is tuned to ‘madhya saptak’ Sa.
- – The 1st string, Pa or pancham is tuned the last.
The fine tuning, with the stretching of the beads is done next, in the position (vertical or horizontal) in which the tanpura will be held for playing.
The ‘jawari’ tuning with the thread which creates the resonance for each note is done last, again in the same position that the tanpura will be played in.
A fine, discriminating ear is required to listen to the echo of each note and match or merge it to the next.
All the sounds should merge perfectly into a resonant whole.
When playing the tanpura:
- – The body and instrument must be naturally aligned, without imbalance and strain.
- – Both should be held steady and relaxed all through the recital.
- – From the elbow, the hand should be held straight, with the elbow placed on the circular part, well inside the edge.
- – The strings should be played at a point about 60% of the way up the length of the instrument.
- – The strings should not be struck or pressed, rather, they should be ‘teased’ (‘chhedna’) with the soft, fleshy edge of the middle and index fingers, next to the side of the nail.
- – Before the echo of the last string is over, the previous three strings should be played again so there is a concentric, unending continuity of the echoes.
- – Like a pulse, the speed of playing the tanpura should be regular and steady all through the recital, regardless of the tempo of the rest of the music.
The tanpura has the quality of becoming a mirror for sound, says Ramakantji. When any image is set at a proper angle before a mirror, it gets reflected. In the same way, any sound in the form of ‘sur’ or ‘shruti’ properly set in accordance with the tanpura, starts blooming in its reflected sound from the tanpura.
A copy of any ‘sur’ can be heard in the tanpura, in the same way as a copy of any image can be seen in a mirror. But while the image is reflected as it appears, the tanpura’s reflected sound envelops and makes luminous the singer’s ‘sur’.
If the tanpura is perfectly tuned and the singer’s voice perfectly pitched, then the two combine to create a continuum, prefixing or suffixing the other, the tanpura even offering, to a perfectly attuned ear, the note suggested in the natural flow of harmonics, but as yet unsung. It is this meditative bonding and dialogue between the singer and the ‘sur’ that gives the tanpura its special place in dhrupad.
Mumbai, 1st Aug ‘09
From lecture notes of Pandit Ramakant Gundecha, Bhopal, 4th March ‘09