Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


Annapurna Devi on surbahar and (right) vocalist Kishori Amonkar using a swarmandal

IN September 2012, I had begun a monthly series on Indian musical instruments. The aim was two-fold: one, to make Indian readers aware of certain artistes they might not have heard before, and secondly, to expose relatively new audiences, mainly from the West, to the melodic or rhythmic beauty that various Indian instruments offer.

In this series, I shall not go into too many technicalities and playing styles. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style. However, while I have tried to name all the main musicians, the lists mentioned are by no means exhaustive or complete. In all parts of the series, I shall use a similar format to maintain uniformity, and some portions on the concert structure may be repeated verbatim if needed.

The earlier parts of the series talked about the violin, sitar, bansuri, sarangi, different types of veena, sarod, santoor, shehnai/ nadaswaram, harmonium, Indian adaptations of the guitar, and Indian adaptations of other western instruments. This month, we feature other instruments used in Indian classical music.

Just to note, some readers have requested a piece on the tabla, India’s most popular percussion instrument. However, this series aims to complete the melody instruments first, before going on to types of drums. Hence, that wish will be fulfilled sooner than later.

SO FAR, we have talked of melody instruments that are commonly played in Indian music today. There are other instruments too, which one has seen classical, devotional, film and folk music.

In this part of the series, we shall talk of the balance classical melody instruments, which can be divided into two categories. The first comprises those which were earlier played in classical music, but are not too common these days. These are surbahar and sursingar. The second includes instruments used as accompaniment in classical music, like the tanpura and swarmandal. The other accompanying instruments, harmonium and sarangi, have been covered separately before, as they have attained a status in solo performance as well.

Let’s look at these instruments in detail.


imrat khan

Ustad Imrat Khan on surbahar

Surbahar: A bass version of the sitar, it used to be commonly played about 60 or 70 years ago, but today, is seen much less than most other instruments. It has a lower tone than the sitar.

Typically, a surbahar has four rhythm or chikari strings, four playing strings, and 15 to 17 unplayed sympathetic strings. It has two bridges, with the playable strings passing over the greater bridge. The instrumentalist plays the strings using a metallic plectrum, the mizrab, which is fixed on the index finger of the player’s right hand.

A concert usually begins with the rendition of a classical raag, the melodic mode used in Indian music. The first piece comprises a three-part movement beginning with the slow alaap, increasing tempo with the jod and reaching an energetic climax with the jhala.

The instrumentalist may then play compositions in the same or any other raag. Here, tabla accompaniment is provided, though in the dhrupad style, pakhawaj is played.

There are conflicting views on who invented the surbahar. Some researchers believe it was invented around 1825. Though its creation is generally attributed to Ustad Sahebdad Khan, some musicologists believe Lucknow-based sitarist Ustad Ghulam Mohammed invented it.

Well-known surbahar players include the great Ustad Imdad Khan, his sons Ustad Inayat Khan and Wahid Khan, and his grandson Ustad Imrat Khan, who has done some excellent recordings on the instrument, Though Imrat’s brother Ustad Vilayat Khan also learnt the surbahar, he was better known as one of the greatest sitar players ever.

Annapurna Devi, daughter of the legendary Baba Allauddin Khan and first wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar, is also known for her adeptness at surbahar. She however stopped performing in public.

Another old-timer was Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan. Contemporary players include Irshad Khan and Buddhaditya Mukherjee, Ravi Shankar’s disciple Kartick Kumar also gives surbahar recitals, besides being a prolific sitar player.

The popularity of the sitar in the 1950s is said to have led to the falling demand for the surbahar.

Sursringar: It is like a sarod but larger in size and providing a deeper sound. It is also older than the sarod. A typical sursringar has four main strings and four chikari strings, and is played with a mizrab.

Well-known sursringar players were Maihar gharana doyen Baba Alauddin Khan and Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra. Among the recent players, Joydeep Ghosh has made a name.

Just like the surbahar was affected by the sitar’s popularity, the sursringar is said to have been replaced by the sarod.


What sursringar looks like


prabha atre

Vocalist Prabha Atre with a tanpura

Tanpura: Popularly known as the drone instrument, the tanpura or tambura is one of the most important instruments as it is used as an accompaniment in both Hindustani and Carnatic forms, in vocals and in instrumental music.

The tanpura is a long-necked lute whose body shape resembles a sitar, but has no frets. Ideally, it has four strings, though some tanpuras have five strings too. While instrumentalists normally use one tanpura or a smaller ‘tamburi’, vocalists prefer two or even three tanpuras as an accompaniment.

The name is said to be a combination of ‘taan’, which is a musical phrase, and ‘poora’, which means completion. Some vocalists prefer to play the tanpura themselves, whereas others have disciples or professional tanpura players play it in the backdrop.

Some musicians also use a electronic tanpura, which is easier to carry around while travelling. In Carnatic music, the shruti box which is similar to a harmonium is also used to provide the drone. However, in both north Indian and south Indian music, purists prefer the standard form of the tanpura, which provides the perfect ambience.

pandit jasraj

Vocalist Pandit Jasraj with a swarmandal

Swarmandal: Also called the surmandal, this is an Indian harp or Indian zither used by some vocalists. While Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustad Salamat Ali Khan used it in the past, others to use it include Pandit Jasraj, Kishori Amonkar, Ajay Pohankar, Rashid Khan and Ajoy Chakraborty.

The advantage of the swarmandal is that can produce a large number of notes in succession. It can have between 21 and 36 strings, depending on what the vocalist wants.

Interestingly, even the Beatles were fond of the swarmandal, and used it on songs like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘Within You Without You’, ‘Across the Universe’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’.

These were some of the other instruments used in classical music. Besides them, a huge variety of instruments is used in Indian folk, devotional and even film music. The next part of the series will focus on some of these gems.


Comments on: "Instruments from India — 12/ Other classical gems" (2)

  1. shankar shenai said:

    Excellent article. May God bless you all and always.

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