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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.

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The Trinity of Carnatic music- Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Tyagaraja, Syama Sastri

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”

Copyright Harikrishnan

Copyright Harikrishnan

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.



9 Comments

  1. Ruchita wrote:

    It’s beautiful! Makes me want to learn how to play it!

  2. Sindhuja wrote:

    Wow! Would be really interesting to see it used in kutcheries!

  3. gunjan wrote:

    Call me old school.. but i still prefer my long pumpkin shell made tanpura.. there is something more tactile about it.. the feel of keeping it next to your ears..
    I have never used a shruti box or an electronic tanpura to sing, but i have heard them play and i still think the tanpura has its own charm..

    • -Our ancesters had done every thing after much research&an amazing fore-thought.

      Once I heard Veena Gayatri saying that the Veena symbolises human torso & earlier it was held upright& played.And the points of ascending& descending coincided with the various NAADIS i.e Manipura,Svadishtana ect in the human body,& when those chords were played the respective NAADIS were activated.

      May be there is some such co relation exists when the original Tampura was designed.We need to ask the SAMPRADAYA singers.

      • Abhiram V wrote:

        An Instrument, whose sound automatically grabs the attention of anyone who is listening to indian classical music(esp the foreigners, who recognise this as the sound of india when it comes to music… this is how they recognise it “that sound that keeps going on and on in the background… toin toin toin…”

        Very Interesting point that you have mentioned about the veena. I think there must be something similar to the tampura as well.

        Very nice article and love the blog…Keep up the work!!! :-) :-) :-)

  4. junuka wrote:

    hey, very nice magazine.congrats.
    This is a very pleasant ‘roopa’ of the utility based electronic box. Though much magic of the sound and experience happens because of the room that pumpkin provides and minute fine tuning of notes according to the raga being performed (which u can not really do in electronic version, but i do not know if its possible in this one).also the tanpuras make a canvas,to be felt…plucked..with different pressures..the weight..your body resonates with it!
    But I loved this one for its aesthetic presence, its beautiful.Can you record its sound and put it here?(if available?)

  5. Smart design…but I too (as Gunjan has commented) love the “real” tanpura because of its organic and lively sound next to my ear…and the feel of strings in my finger…this might be for them who wants a quick fix and easy fame in music(without touching the base of its enviornment)…some instruments are staple to Indian classical music/ art…and we better let them untouched to keep the charm alive from the aggression of electronification of life and art.

  6. mandakini wrote:

    Firstly, kudos to Hari for daring to re-design something that is so invested with the codes and strictures of sa venerated tradition like Indian Classical Music. It is not easy to open up years of tradition to change.

    I agree with Junuka about ‘the canvas a tanpura makes’. There is something to be said about the tactility of the vibrations and the constant rhythm one creates by plucking the strings in a traditional tanpura. A rhythm and sensation, the musician internalises. It has a meditative quality, the act of sitting cross-legged, playing a tanpura. A lot of it has to do with the quality of sound. The fine-tuning that is possible in a ‘flesh-and-blood’ tanpura is not achieved with the electronic one, even with its many settings. And lets not forget, that the wooden tanpura and its strings would respond to heat and moisture and the sound would change. Students of classical music spend a good many months learning how to play and tune a tanpura and in the process are able to identify subtle variations in pitch, scale and notes. So the ‘pumpkin with a long neck’ does more than just produce a steady drone to sing to.

    Shreyas makes a point when she says that the making of musical instruments itself has been a revered craft. How does that stack up against a product which (i assume and correct me if im wrong) would be manufactured en-masse.

    I would like to know what Hari thinks of these issues as a designer. Also these images don’t give a sense of scale, playing posture etc so one doesn’t get a sense of the experience such an instrument would provide.

    Hari’s exploration provides a wonderful possibility for a fruitful dialogue between a long-standing tradition and its contemporary self, which to survive and prosper needs to evolve.

    I want to know more :)

  7. kaa wrote:

    This statement is remarkable, “The original posture itself had a lot of drawbacks.” God knows how many thousands of musicians have sat through that posture. Most of these traditional designs would have gone through the “fittest survive” cycle of organic design. Also did Hari get this insight from the musicians?

    Secondly any conversion of one kind of energy to another looses some info. In the traditional instrument, the metal vibrations create sound. Simple one step transformation, so minimal loss. In the redesign, the vibrations would be first sensed by a sensor. Converted into electrical signals. Then digitally processed, (think of something like an audio card in a pc), and then reproduced by the speakers. So the loss in information is at least at three places.

    Nothing can get as much fidelity as analog. period.

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