Folk Instruments of India – A Quick Guide

Folk music predates all forms of music. In India there’s been a long history of folk songs in different languages. Some of the musical instruments heard in folk music have made a transition to classical and film music as well. Here’s a quick look at some of the instruments heard in folk songs.

Alghoza is a pair of woodwind instruments resembling two flutes, one of which is used for melody and the other for drone. Alghoza heard in Sindh/Punjabi folk music is also called Johri, Do Nālī, Donāl, Girāw, Satārā or Nagōze.

Chikara is a bowed stringed instrument similar to the sarangi. It is heard in the folk music of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Folk songs help people stay connected to their roots often reflecting their love for the land and customs. Despite the struggle to maintain and pass on the tradition to the next generation as the Mewati community from Rajasthan folk music continues to hold its own.

Dhak is a big drum traditionally played in festive occasions such as the Durga Puja in West Bengal. Unlike the pakhawaj or mridangam, the dhak never made an appearance outside festivities even though it was as old as these instruments. This remarkable drum is now making a comeback with a group of thirty women players and changing the history of the instrument.

Dholki is a two headed narrow drum (not to be confused with the larger dholk or dhol) popularly heard in Lavani performances. Lavani is a Marathi song and dance genre with naughty lyrics and dynamic rhythm. The performers dance to the dholki.

Dotara is a plucked stringed instruments where the strings range from two to five. It is commonly heard in the folk music of eastern states such as Assam, West Bengal, Bihar. Dotara is the instrument of wandering minstrels such as Bauls and Fakirs. Here’s a lovely video that explains how the dotara is made and performed.

Dungchen is a long horn or trumpet used in Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies. The word dungchen refers to conch-shell and produces a loud sound. The dungchen is typically used in pairs and played alternatively.

Ektara is the single stringed instrument used by minstrels and mystics who traveled the breadth of the country singing their bhajans and kirtans. For more details on ektara read here.

Ghumot is an indigenous percussion instrument from Goa made from an earthern vessel. In this article the ghumot is believed to be more than 1000 years old and is considered a heritage instrument of Goa.

Kamaicha is a stringed instrument from Rajasthan resembling the sarangi and heard in the music ensemble of the Manganiyars. It is an old instrument made from mango wood and goat leather. In this article the reason how kamaicha plays a key role in the music of the Manganiyars has been highlighted.

Kanjira belongs to the tambourine family. It was initially used in folk music and eventually found its place in carnatic classical concerts.

Maddale is a percussion instrument resembling a double sided barrel similar to a mridangam and is made from the wood of the jackfruit tree (hollowed out). The sound produced by the maddale is tonic (very distinct from that of the mridangam). Maddale along with the chande are the primary percussion instruments heard in Yakshagana, a traditional form of theatre from Karnataka.

Nagada is a pair of folk drums from Rajasthan played with two sticks. It is historically used to make public announcements and heard in wedding festivities of north India sometimes accompanying the shehnai. It is part of the naubat or nine instrument drum ensemble used in ceremonies.

Pepa is a traditional instrument of Assam resembling a horn pipe made from buffalo horn, bamboo and brass.

Pungi is a wind instrument used by snake charmers. It consists of a small gourd (which acts as an air chamber for the reeds) with a hole at the top and two pipes joined together at the bottom. The sound produced by blowing on the hole is produced by the reeds for each pipe inside the gourd. It is also referred to as been, murli, shapure bansuri. The blowing technique which involves strength and dexterity is very similar to that of using bagpipes.

Sambal is a percussion instrument from western India consisting of two drums joined in one side and played with the use of two sticks. It is the traditional drum of the Gondhali community from Maharashtra and Konkan community of Dadra and Nagar Haveli. Popular songs praising the goddess (Mahalakshmi) are sung to the beat of the sambal as discussed in this article.

Saz-e-Kashmir is a stringed instrument from Kashmir which has a pot shaped belly with three strings attached to it. The instrument which is heard in Sufi music is placed on the lap and played with a bow. Here is a traditional Kashmiri instrumental ensemble presenting Sufi music.

Thavil is a barrel shaped percussion instrument from Tamil Nadu. It is commonly heard in temples accompanying the nadhaswaram. For more details on the thavil click here.

Thonkru is a reed based wind instrument resembling a huge trumpet. It is typically heard in weddings in Himachal Pradesh. Doesn’t the sound remind us of the shehnai?

If you know of more folk instruments, do drop me a note!

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