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Keeping in tune

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The Economic Times, March 3, 1990

Mohan Nadkarni records the fascinating story of their genesis, evolution and innovation in this part of the world.

Although it is almost universally recognized that world music is basically vocal, the history of the genesis, evolution and development of instrumental music in India is seen to run parallel to that of vocal music. The primitive man expressed his emotions in rhythmic form and thereby created dance and music. It can even be said, that rhythm is man’s primeval impulse, and his own hands and feet served him as his first musical instrument, by means of which he clapped his hands and stamped his feet to keep time.

Indian instrumental music recognizes four kinds of instruments – tata chordophonic), sushira (aerophonic), ghana (idiophonic), and avanaddha (membranophonic). The latter two groups, which fall into the percussion category, are of earlier origin. Originally estimated to number over 500, each instrument has a specific name, shape, size construction, tonal quality and technique of playing. Equally varied are the materials used in their making – ranging from jackwood, blackwood, gourds and bamboo to the skin of sheep and lizards.

The story of Indian instruments is one of assimilation, rejection, adaptation and creation. In the process, instruments like the veena and the flute have essentially remained unchanged. A few including the key board type have almost gone into oblivion, either because they did not suit India’s musical genius or because they could not lend themselves to the changing styles of our classical tradition. Some others attained the status of solo classical instruments, and scores are still to be found in use in the quaint and primitive forms among the tribal and rural folk even today.

The earliest evidence of instruments in our part of the world has come from the Indus Valley digs which dates back to nearly 3000 B.C. The information is mainly derived from illustration on pictographs and seals. Some of the actual remains have shown terracotta rattles and bird-whistles. A wide variety of harps, almost always bow-shaped are seen from hieroglyphs, while lyres are not in evidence. By long drums and those shaped like an hour-glass have also been detected.

Meanwhile, research into the antiquity of our music instruments still continues. The discovery, made only a couple of months ago by three West German archaeologists of what have been identified as ‘acoustic stones’ in a remote village in Orissa, is apt to arouse considerable interest among our musicologists. There are twenty of these ‘acoustic stones’ representing ‘sound plates’ of the pre-historic musical instrument known as ‘lithophone’, or ‘marimba’ in Africa, ‘gambang’ in China and ‘xylophone’ in Europe.

Today, barely 60 musical instruments can be said to be in use in the Hindustani and Carnatic parampara together. The last few decades have witnessed a further depletion in the popularity of north Indian instruments like the veena, the surbahar, the rabab, the dilruba and pakhavaj, to name but a few. The shehnai, sitar, sarod and the flute are the only instruments that dominate the classical concert stage of Hindustani music. The sarangi’s place as an accompaniment has been practically usurped by the harmonium which Tagore once called the “bane of Indian music” with its keyboard outfit and tempered scale.

Side by side, the santor, the Kashmiri folk medium and the Western guitar have emerged as classical solo instruments in their own right in recent years. Interestingly, it is believed that at an early stage, the Indian katyayana veena, the swaramandal and the mattakokila veeena journeyed westwards and became the santoor of the Middle East and the clavichord and the harpsichord of the West. These very instruments, it is also believed, finally evolved into the modern pianoforte.

With the introduction of orchestration in recent years, a large variety of Western musical instruments are also being harnessed for creative purposes. These are employed for creating new combinations of swaras in musical compositions and conjuring new musical effects. The names of these western imports are far too many to permit individual mention here. Besides, orchestration in raga music is, by and large, still in its infancy, though the quest towards finding wider avenues of musical expression continues.

The sarangi’s place as an accompaniment has been usurped by the harmonium which Tagore called the bane of Indian music.



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