Stringed Instruments of India – A Quick Guide

One of the earliest known stringed instrument is the harp found in French cave paintings and Egyptian tombs as early as 3000 BCE. For more on the history of the harp read here. The earliest reference to musical instruments in India is the Natya Shastra. This treatise (circa between 200 BCE and 200 CE) has 6000 verses in Sanskrit divided into 36 chapters. The treatise talks about vaadhya or musical instruments in chapters 28 to 34 .

Stringed instruments in Indian music can be broadly categorized as bowed, plucked and hammered.

The veena is believed to be the first known musical instrument seen in ancient texts. It is a a long necked pear-shaped lute with frets and can produce sounds in three octaves. Depending on slight structural changes the veena can be categorized as the Tanjavur (Saraswati) veena, Rudra veena, Vichitra veena, and Gottuvadhyam veena (also called the Chitra veena). The saraswathi veena is one of the most well known instruments heard in carnatic music. Here Jayanthy Kumaresh shares the story of the saraswathi veena and her own musical journey.

The sitar like the veena is also a plucked stringed instrument belonging to the lute family. It has a long neck and pear-shaped body and resembles a tanpura (with frets). The sitar which has been derived from its Persian roots “sehtar” meaning three-strings is believed to have been a creation of Amir Khusru in the 18th century modelled after the veena. It is played by striking the mezrab (metal plectrum) on the strings of the sitar. Here is Pandit Ravi Shankar playing the sitar along with his daughter Anoushka He was instrumental in introducing the sitar to the world.

The ektara is a one-stringed instrument which was used by bards and minstrels traveling through the breadth of the country. It is plucked with one finger. From the Bauls of Bengal to Sufi mystics the ektara was the drone lute for the minstrels who sang simple songs with their refrains in regional dialect.

The sarod is a fretless stringed instrument popularly heard in Hindustani music. It is believed to be the Indian equivalent of the Afghan rabab. There is another story, perhaps apocryphal that the sarod is an variant of the veena – a depiction on an old coin unearthed showing Samudragupta (Gupta king who reigned from 340 to 375 BCE approx) playing  an instrument resembling the veena. For more details on the technicalities and evolution of the sarod read here.

The violin primarily a western instrument was adapted to the carnatic idiom by Baluswamy Dikshithar in the early 19th century, the younger brother of Muthuswamy Dikshithar (one of the Carnatic Trinity composers). It is believed that Baluswamy Dikshithar had attended an western music orchestral concert organized by the British East India company and came up with the idea of adapting the instrument in carnatic music. The violin now plays a critical role as an accompanying instrument in a vocal instrument and holds it own in a solo instrument concert. Here is Lalgudi Jayaraman playing the violin in a carnatic music concert.

For more on how western music and instruments has influenced several areas of Indian music from classical to film and light music read here.

The santoor is a hammered dulcimer in the shape of a trapezoid. It is played by striking a pair of small, spoon-shaped wooden hammers. Santoor has its origins in Persia and made its appearance in Indian music from the valleys of Kashmir. The instrument commonly heard in Sufi music was introduced in Hindustani classical in the 20th century by Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. In this video Pandit Sharma talks about the instrument and his own musical journey.

The tanpura is a long necked plucked stringed instrument that provides a continuous drone. The instrument plays only the base note (adharaswara) and serves as a guide for maintaining the pitch during a concert. In carnatic music it is referred to as the tambura. For more details on the structure, history, construction of the tanpura read here. When I began learning carnatic music, the harmonium was the first instrument that I used for pitch. Then it was replaced by the shruthi box and eventually the tambura. Now the electronic tambura becomes easier when musicians travel to perform.

The sarangi is a bowed short necked fiddle heard in Hindustani music. The sound of the sarangi is believed to closely resemble the human voice. It has been a popular instrument (solo and accompanying vocal) in folk music and slowly made the transition to classical in the mid 17th century. With declining patronage by royalty and others, the instrument was overshadowed by the harmonium as an accompanying instrument. In the late 19th century Pandit Ram Narayan and others brought back the sarangi to the main stage recreating the magic of the “voice of a hundred colors” (as the name suggests) instrument due to its versatility in range. For more on this instrument read here.

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