Percussion Instruments of India – A Quick Guide

The word rhythm comes from the Greek word rhythmos which means a regular recurring motion. Rhythm forms a critical component of a trifecta with melody and lyrics in Indian music.

The mridangam is the main percussion instrument heard in carnatic music. The word mridangam comes from the two Sanskrit words mrt (clay) and anga (limb). The mridangam is made from hardened clay. In Sangam literature (6th century BCE to 3rd century CE) the instrument was referred to as tannumai. The instrument which resembles a barrel is played by striking both sides using the two hands. The sides of the mridangam (playing surfaces) is made of animal skin (goat, cow, buffalo) while the body is made from the wood of the jackfruit tree. Prof Trichy Shankaran demonstrates how the mridangam is played.

The ghatam is a large clay pot with a narrow mouth. The playing technique involves placing the instrument against the stomach and striking the fingers and palm over it. An interesting article on the ghatam and how it got a second leash of life in the concert platform can be read here. Watch how three ghatam giants come together in this concert.

The kanjira belongs to the tambourine family and was popularly heard in bhajan and folk music. It was introduced to the carnatic scene by Pudukottai Manpoondia Pillai in the 19th century who refined it suitably to play along with the mridangam. The kanjira is an additional percussion instrument supporting the mridangam. The circular frame of the instrument is made from the wood of the jackfruit tree (similar to the mridangam) while it is covered on one side (the playing side) with the drumhead made of monitor leather skin. Here is an interesting kanjira quartet concert.

The thavil is a barrel shaped drum heard primarily in temple music, folk songs and as an accompanying instrument for classical nadhaswaram concerts. It is a cylindrical shell made out of a block of jackfruit wood with animal skin membrane stretched out on both sides. It is played by striking the two sides with the instrument placed on the lap or hung by a cloth strap from the shoulder. Watch this interesting percussion exchange of two thavil players.

The morsing or the Jew’s harp is an additional percussion instrument supporting the mridangam in a carnatic concert. It requires enormous lung power and breath control. To read an interesting article on how the morsing draws artists and audiences in carnatic music and its future as an instrument click here. Watch how Pirashanna Thevarajah demonstrates how to play the morsing.

The pakhawaj was the percussion instrument that was initially heard in Hindustani concerts. It is a barrel shaped drum and a variant of the mridangam, an older instrument. The Punjabi gharana was one of the well known music schools that popularized the instrument which could play the shabads of Gurbani (in the Sikh tradition) in the drupad style. Here is an article that helps to understand the reasons why it lost out to the tabla and how it is being revived. the intricacies of the pakhawaj and the various taals that can be played on the instrument here is an interesting article that features an interview and a video recording.

The tabla is the main percussion instrument heard in Hindustani music. It is believed to be a creation of Amir Khusru who was instrumental in introducing the khayal. The tabla has two drums – the bayan or left drum and dayan or right drum. The dayan is the one with the higher pitch. Ustad Zakir Hussain demonstrates how the tabla is played.

The manjira is a pair of hand held small cymbals heard in festive occasions and folk performances. The two cymbals are played together with the left hand holding one cymbal while the other produces the sounds by striking the cymbal held. Manjira is also known by several names jalra, khartal, gini and is made from bronze, copper, brass or zinc. The cymbals are connected by a cord that passes through the hole in each centre. Manjira is commonly heard in bhajan and kirtan performances. Here is Ghatam Somnath Roy demonstrating how to play the manjira.

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