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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Musical Instruments of the Indian Subcontinent

The music of the Indian subcontinent is usually divided into two major traditions of classical music: Hindustani music of North India and Karnatak music of South India, although many regions of India also have their own musical traditions that are independent of these.

Both Hindustani and Karnatak music use the system of ragas—sets of pitches and small motives for melody construction—and tala for rhythm. Ragas form a set of rules and patterns around which a musician can create his or her unique performance. Likewise, tala is a system of rhythmic structures based on the combination of stressed and unstressed beats. Within these rhythmic structures, musicians (1996.100.1) can create their own rhythmic patterns building off the compositional styles of others.

One of the main differences between North Indian and South Indian music is the increased influence of Persian music and musical instruments in the north. From the late twelfth century through the rise of British occupation, North India was under the control of a Muslim minority that was never able to extend its sphere of influence to South India. During this time, the music of North India began to acquire and adapt to the presence of Persian language, music, and musical instruments, such as the setar, from which the sitar got its name; the kamanche (1998.72) and santur, which became popular in Kashmir; and the rabab (alternately known as rebab and rubab), which preceded the sarod. New instruments were introduced, including the tabla and sitar (1999.399), which soon became the most famous Indian musical instruments worldwide. Legend has it that the tabla was formed by splitting a pakhavaj drum in half, with the larger side becoming the bayan and the smaller side the dahini. The barrel-shaped pakhavaj drum, which was the ancestor of both the tabla and the mrdangam, has been depicted in countless paintings and prints. New genres of music were formed as well, such as khyal and qawwali, that combine elements of both Hindu and Muslim musical practice.

Hindustani classical music is known largely for its instrumentalists, while Karnatak classical music is renowned for its virtuosic singing practices. Instruments most commonly used in Hindustani classical music are the sitar, sarod, tambura, sahnai, sarangi, and tabla; while instruments commonly used in Karnatak classical music include the vina, mrdangam, kanjira, and violin. The use of bamboo flutes, such as the murali, is common to both traditions as well as many other genres of Indian music. In fact, many of these instruments are often used in both North and South India, and there are many clear relationships between the instruments of both regions. Furthermore, often instruments that are slightly different in construction will be identified by the same name in both the south and the north, though they might be used differently.

Throughout its history, the peoples of India have developed numerous systems for classifying musical instruments, many of which were based on morphological characteristics. The ancient Hindu system divided instruments into four categories: stretched (strings; 2008.141.2a,b), covered (drums; 89.4.165), hollow (wind; 1986.12), and solid (bells; 89.4.154). This system is widely known to be the inspiration for the Western system of instrument classification put forth by Mahillon in 1880, which renames these groups—chordophones, membranophones, aerophones, and idiophones—basing the distinction on the way in which sound is created and not exclusively on construction.


A note on spelling: All terms used for Indian musical instruments and musical concepts are common transliterations of the original terms. Subsequently, there are numerous possible methods of rendering the same term in English and inevitable discrepancies in spelling. The spellings adopted here are the ones used by The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2001).

Kanjira (Khanjari)
The kanjira is a frame drum of South India. It consists of a skin (usually iguana) stretched and pasted on a circular wooden frame. There are often three or four slots in the side of the frame, in which bell-metal jingle-disks are suspended from metal crossbars. The name kanjira is related to the khanjari and kanjani of North and East India and Nepal. The kanjira is tuned to various pitches by wetting the skin. It is held at the bottom of the frame by the left hand, which also varies the tension of the skin, and is beaten with the fingers of the right hand.

The kamanche is one of the world’s earliest known bowed instruments. It has been altered and changed as it has traveled to other parts of the world (1998.72). Some argue that the kamanche is the predecessor of many other stringed instruments such as the rabab, the sarangi, and the Chinese erhu.

The mrdangam is an elongated barrel-shaped drum found predominantly in South India (1986.467.18). It is derived from the pakhavaj and is used as the primary rhythmic accompaniment in Karnatak music as well as in religious Kirtan music. In the east (Bengal, Odisha), this barrel-shaped drum is known as the khol.

The murali is a transverse flute made of bamboo. It is used in a variety of musical genres and is often associated with the Hindu deity Krishna.

The pakhavaj is a barrel-shaped drum with two heads, each of which contains tuning paste, or siyahi. The history of the pakhavaj is unknown, yet as the predecessor of both the Hindustani tabla drums and the mrdangam of Karnatak music, it served as the primary accompaniment for much of Indian classical music. It appears in the musical iconography of Hindu religious painting and in the artworks of the royal Muslim courts of the Mughal empire.

The rabab is a stringed instrument with a skin-covered resonator that can be bowed or plucked depending on performance tradition. It is found in various forms throughout North Africa, the Near East, South Asia, and Central Asia. Similar to the way the setar and the vina were adapted to eventually become what is known today as the sitar, the rabab was adapted to become the sarod. However, there are many musicians in India today who still play the rabab, and it is quite popular in several music genres.

Sahnai (Shenai)
The sahnai is a double reed instrument of North India and Nepal. In South India, a double reed instrument called the nagasvaram is used. Both instruments have seven equidistant fingerholes and no thumbhole. Frequently, the instrument’s flared open end is made of metal while its body is made of wood or bamboo; however, they are not exclusively made in this fashion.

A sarangi is a bowed stringed instrument with a skin-covered resonator (89.4.200). The typical sarangi is made by hand, usually from a single block of tun wood about 66 to 69 centimeters long (46.34.43). The three playing strings are made of goat gut, and the sympathetic strings (usually as many as thirty-six, though the number varies) of brass and/or steel. However, the design of sarangis varies from region to region (1982.143.2). For example, the Nepalese sarangi is generally much smaller than its Indian counterpart, and not all sarangis have sympathetic strings.

The sarod is a relatively new instrument to South Asia, having been around for less than 200 years. The sarod is a plucked stringed instrument with a skin-covered resonator and sympathetic strings. Like the sitar, it is primarily used in Hindustani music and is accompanied by the tabla.

The word setar means “three strings.” Other instruments in this family include the two-stringed dutar and the single-stringed ektar. As Indian musicians adopted the setar, they added more and more strings. Early sitars, which evolved from the setar, have six strings, while more contemporary ones include six playing strings and thirteen sympathetic strings. A Persian setar in the Museum’s collection is a miniature that was made primarily for the purpose of decoration. Many such instruments exist in India.

The sitar is easily India’s most famous musical instrument overseas, having been popularized in the West by George Harrison of the Beatles, who studied with Ravi Shankar, one of the greatest sitarists of the twentieth century. The sitar has its roots in both the Persian setar as well as in the vina. Like many stringed instruments used in classical Indian music, the modern sitar (1999.399) has sympathetic strings that sound only when one of the primary strings is struck on the same note. These strings, which are never played by the performer, resound in sympathy with the playing strings, creating a polyphonic timber that many have come to associate with India through the popularity of this instrument. It is interesting to note, however, that the addition of the sympathetic strings is a relatively recent development in Indian music starting in the late nineteenth century (89.4.1586). The use of sympathetic strings is known to have existed in other parts of the world prior to their initial use in India.

The tabla is actually two drums played by the same performer. Both drums have compound skins onto which a tuning paste, or siyahi, is added to help generate the wide variety of tones these drums can produce. The bayan is the larger of the two drums and is generally made of metal or pottery. The siyahi on the bayan is off-center, which allows the performer to add variable pressure on the skin, changing the pitch of the instrument with the palm of his or her hand while striking it with the fingertips. The smaller drum is called the dahini, or sometimes referred to as the tabla. Dahini are usually made of heavy lathe-turned rosewood and provide much higher pitch sounds than does the bayan.

The tambura is a long, stringed instrument made of light hollow wood, with either a wooden or a gourd resonator. It is typically used in accompaniment with other instruments, providing a drone pitch. Some of the tamburas in the Museum’s collection are not full-sized instruments, but rather miniatures created for their aesthetic appearance. The artistic craftsmanship on the inlay in these objects is beautiful. India has a long history of creating musical instruments as decorative objects, and that tradition is represented in the Museum’s collection.

Along with the pakhavaj, the vina is one of the most commonly depicted instruments in Indian iconography. The vina has taken many forms in both South and North India. In North India, it was called the bin or the rudravina, and was the predecessor of the sitar. It was often built of two large gourd resonators connected by a piece of bamboo, with frets held on with wax. Most of the vinas depicted in iconography are rudravinas. In the South, the vina—or saraswati vina—continues to be the most popular stringed instrument in classical music. In its basic shape, the vina is a hollow wooden stringed instrument with two gourd resonators (though there can often be more than two or sometimes only one gourd resonator). The gottuvadyam, or chitravina, is another important instrument in Karnatak music. Unlike the rudravina and the saraswati vina, the gottuvadyam has no frets and is played with a slide using a method similar to that of the Hawaiian slide guitar.