The New Tanpura
It is a common joke that all Tamil Brahmin children are trained in either classical dance or music. I was no exception. Although I did eventually leave music after a few years, many of my childhood memories involve my music class. All our music books had an image of the Trinity of Carnatic music, each with a Tanpura in their hands. I have never practised with a Tanpura, my teacher preferred to conduct our classes with a Shruti box; and a few years later my new teacher had sitting next to her the electronic tanpura (which, honestly, I never quite liked). When I read about Harikrishnan’s redesign of the Tanpura, I was keen to know more.
(left) Harikrishnan’s redesigned Tanpura.
The Tanpura is a drone instrument used in Indian classical music. It is a long-necked plucked lute; a stringed and fretless instrument used in both Hindustani and Carnatic styles of music. As with many things in our country, the making of musical instruments was considered a craft. Generations of craftsmen would specialise in creating the instruments that are played by classical musicians, so regional variations are many, even in a simple instrument like the Tanpura.
The Tanpura supports and sustains the melody of the singers and other instrumentalists by providing a dynamic harmonic resonance field based on one precise tone, the basic note or key-note—the Shruti. No serious classical musician would even consider singing without a tanpura, acoustic or electronic.
The role of a Tanpura player was , therefore, associated with some prestige, as singers usually selected their best student to play the Tanpura for their recitals. The Tanpura was a very important tool that helped sensitise ones ears to music and traditionally singers trained with one. With the advent of the electronic tanpura in the 80s, most musicians preferred it over the traditional Tanpura for the convenience of size, portability and costs. While the electronic tanpura scored over its predecessor with its compact size, it neglected the learning-by-doing obtained from actually playing the Tanpura and also eventually eliminated the role of the Tanpura player in recitals.
Although not a musician himself, Hari says he has been inspired by Yamaha’s approach towards designing musical instruments.
“The industry of electronic Indian musical instruments is very technology driven and points that a designer would look at, like the different sensory aspects and appeal of the product, is largely ignored and not counted in their process,” says Hari, “I looked at the playing postures and the finger movements that the musicians use when they play the Tanpura. The original posture itself had a lot of drawbacks. The spherical resonator for example is not the most stable shape for an instrument that is held upright on one’s lap. I looked at points of the instrument which come in contact with the human body while playing and tried to create a more stable but similar posture through my design”
A similar product designed by Radel has been in the markets for a while, but if I were to buy an electronic Tanpura, I would rather get one that looked as cool as the electronics inside it, than something that resembles a life-size toy that runs on batteries. Hari’s design, despite having an overly simplified form for my own personal taste, does achieve its purpose of bridging the gap between the electronic and acoustic Tanpura (in terms of function), while maintaining the tactile and emotional relationship between the instrument and its player; and looking like a redesign as well.
Indian classical music is highly structured but it is also about adapting, personalising and re-interpreting. By creating a design that carries many memories of the traditional Tanpura, Hari has in a way made it his own re-interpretation of a craft. I am unaware of what exactly the production process is for these electronic classical instruments, but in the ideal world in my head, it would involve craftspeople as well.
Harikrishnan is a 5th year student of Product Design at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. He can be reached at harikrishnan23(at)gmail(dot)com.