India is certainly no stranger to music. This land of mystical beauty and a myriad cultures, also plays home to some of the world’s most exotic musical instruments. India has been closely in touch with its musical side since centuries and there are a number of instruments hailing from different parts of the country. These have evolved over the centuries and are up for grabs across Indian states, each with its own unique sound and exclusivity. However, buying traditional Indian musical instruments to suite your taste and skills isn’t easy and requires as much research as possible. Before you go trekking through web space in search for your future musical instrument, look through this quick guide outlining the most popular classical instruments created in India.
Some of the most popular Indian musical instruments belong to the percussion family. Indians love listening to the beat drop, literally. This is probably why each percussion instrument invented and popularized across India and the world has a highly recognizable distinct note. Some of the most popular percussion instruments from India are:
Widely used in bhangra, qawwali, kirtan and lavani music, the Dholak is perhaps one of the most popularly used musical instruments hailing from India. This two-headed drum usually uses a screw-turnbuckle tensioning or the more traditional cotton rope lacing. As compared to the Tabla, the Dholak is a more folk-music-centric instrument and lacks the tuning of the latter.
The Naal is often crafted from Sheesham Wood and has nuts and bolts that work as tuning keys. With a size of about 20 to 22 inches, the Naal is held horizontally by the player and both its heads are used. The biggest difference between the Naal and the Pakhawaj mentioned below is the former’s length being shorter than the latter.
Also known as the Mardal, the Pakhawaj is the main accompanying music for dhrupad vocal music, a vocal genre in Hindustani classical music. The instrument has a low, mellow tone and is rich in harmonics. The Pakhawaj performer places this percussion instrument horizontally on a cushion in front of him/her and plays it cross-legged. While the larger bass-head is played with the left hand, the treble-head is beaten with the right hand. The Pakhawaj is tuned like a Tabla and the bass side is smeared with wet wheat dough for a better and clearer bass sound. As compared to the Mridangam, the Pakhawaj is smaller in diameter.
The Mridangam is the South Indian version of the Pakhawaj. The barrel-shaped double-ended drum was originally made out of clay in the early days. These days, fiberglass Mridangams are also available, which prove to be a more durable option compared to wood and clay models. While the conventional Mridangam is 22 to 23 inches long, the maha- Mridangam is 26 inches long. The Mridangam loses its tone after being played for more than two hours and needs to be re-tuned.
As its name states, the Dhol originates from Punjab and dates back to the 15th century. This extremely catchy percussion instrument was earlier used by Sikhs during wars and was later used to celebrate harvest festivals. Each of the Dhol’s heads is made of goat skin, with one side used for bass while the other for treble. Given the fact that the bass head has a larger diameter, the Dhol is capable of producing a deep and powerful bass tone.
The Tabla was brought to India during the reign of the Persian Muslims and is used as an accompaniment as well as a solo instrument. The Tabla compromises of two drums, the “dayan” played with the right hand and the “bayan” played with the left hand. While the dayan compliments the melody, the bayan’s produces a deeper bass tone. The Tabla requires players to use their palms as well as fingers to play the instrument correctly. While the dayan can make 12 different types of sounds, the bayan makes 2.
India may be obsessed with percussion instruments, but that hasn’t kept stringed instruments from grabbing the spotlight too. These instruments have been developed through centuries to produce unique sounds. These stringed instruments are complicated and take time and effort to learn, relying completely on vibrations transmitted through their bodies to produce sound.
A trapezoid-shaped instrument, the Santoor is often made from walnut wood and conventionally has 70 strings. Santoors from the early days would at times sport 100 strings too! Santoors were used by Sufis to accompany hymns and have evolved over time. The Santoor’s mallets are to be held between the index and middle finger, with two sets of bridges and a range of three octaves.
This traditional folk instrument is considered to be the fiddle of Northern India. The Sarangi grew immensely popular during the 17th century and is mostly used to accompany vocal musicians. While the Sarangi’s three main strings are played with a bow, its 30 to 40 metal strings are played with one’s fingers. Conventionally, Sarangis are made from a single block of Tun hardwood and measure between 64 and 67 centimeters in length.
The Sarod is more than 200 years old and sports four strings used for playing the melody, two drone strings and two chikari strings. The Sarod’s lowest string is made from bronze and produces a deep bass sound. Sarods are either made from mulberry wood or teak, with the latter offering a better tonal quality.
The Veena has been around since the Indian Vedic age and has been overhauled over the centuries. Made from Jackwood, the Veena measures a length of 1.5m and sports a round body with a thick neck. The instrument has 24 frets with four metal strings and three more strings that help players maintain time and add a drone effect. The Sitar is an adaptation of the Veena and was designed more than 600 years ago. The Sitar has 7 main strings with 12 sympathetic strings. With 20 frets in all, this instrument offers a soulful and emotional tone unlike any other stringed instrument of its caliber.
India has also contributed largely to the wind instrument family, with instruments hailing from centuries ago that produce extremely soothing tones. These wind instruments are used around the world today and are known to be melodically relaxing. Commonly made out of wood, Indian wind instruments are easy to learn and are playable without the need of additional accessories.
The Bansuri is an Indian flute made of a single hollow shaft of bamboo, with 7 finger holes punched in. The Bansuri was commonly used by cowherds and mythological figures alike. Typically 14 inches in length, the Bansuri has a range of 3 octaves. The sound of this flute is generated from the resonance of the air column inside it. To play minor notes, a flautist uses the half-holing technique.
The double reed Oboe called the Shehnai is also popular in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Widely used in marriages and processions, the Shehnai maintains a sense of auspiciousness and sanctity. Made out of wood, the Shehnai sports a metal flare at its end and has a range of two octaves.
Used widely in Carnatic music, the Venu is one of India’s oldest musical instruments. This flute is similar to the Bansuri and has a range of two and half octaves. Associated with the Hindu God Krishna, the Venu is mainly used in South India and is available in various sizes.
Now that you can differentiate between a Sarod and a Sarangi, a Bansuri and a Venu, it’s time to pick out the correct instrument! Know your skills and bring home an instrument that suits your taste perfectly. Remember, a guitarist doesn’t always necessarily find it easy to play a well-timed drumroll. The same goes for Indian classical instruments!