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Archive for September, 2013

Instruments from India — 13/ From the folk & devotional world

parvathy baulsakar khan

Parvathy Baul with the ektara string instrument and duggi percussion instrument, and the late Sakar Khan on the bowed instrument kamaicha

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, Indian adaptations of other western instruments, and other instruments used in Indian classical music. This month, we feature some instruments that are played in Indian folk and devotional music.

With this, I complete the portion on different types of melody instruments. Next month,I shall conclude this series by talking of combinations of melody instruments that have worked. Then, I shall begin the series ‘Percussion from India’, which shall talk about various drums. This series will start with the extra-popular tabla.

IN this series, I have covered various instruments used in Indian music. These have been used in either Hindustani music of north India, or in the south Indian Carnatic music. Besides the classical styles, these instruments are played in film music, ghazals and fusion.

There are certain instruments, however, that find specific place in Indian folk and devotional music. Many of these are played in select geographical regions, to go along with the local forms of music, and even as an accompaniment to folk dance.

Let’s look at some of these instruments. We shall only talk of melody instruments, and the rare percussion instruments will be featured in the next series. While I have tried to cover various folk instruments from across India, there may be few which I might not have been exposed to. Readers are requested to send details of any such melody instruments,



Ektara: It is a one-stringed instrument most often used in traditional music from Bangladesh, India, Egypt, and Pakistan. It was initially played by wandering bards and minstrels from India and is plucked with one finger. A similar two-stringed and bass instrument is known as dotara.

The ektara is used in traditional Baul music of Bengal, and in Sufi and Punjabi folk music too. At the Ruhaniyat Sufi and mystic music festival organised across India, one has often seen Baul singer Parvathy Baul play the ektara while singing, and using the percussion instrument duggi at the same time.

In Punjabi music, a single-string instrument called the tumbi is used, mainly in bhangra music. It was popularised in the 20th century by folk singer Lal Chand Yamla Jatt.

Other types of ektaras used in east and north east India are the kenda, pena and bana. Among certain tribes of western India, the single-stringed tuntuna or chohokode is used.


Esraj, dilruba and sarinda: The esraj is a string instrument which is only about 200 years old. The dilruba has a similar structure, and both are played with a bow.

The esraj is found in central and east India, particularly in Bengal, where it is used as an accompanying instrument in Rabindra Sangeet. The dilruba is found in the north, mainly in religious and light classical music. It is a derivative of the taus, another folk instrument.

Pandit Ranadhir Ray was known to be a well-known exponent of esraj. The instrument was also played by music director Roshan, and by spiritual guru Sri Chinmoy.

Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar once played the dilruba in the 1930s, and in south India, Dilruba Shanmugham played it in old film music. A R Rahman also used the instrument in ‘Dil Se’ and ‘Vande Mataram’.

A similar instrument is the sarinda, which is like the sarangi but uses a different kind of bow. It is played in folk music from Rajasthan, Assam and Tripura, besides Baul music. It is primarily used as an accompaniment for folk singers. In Rajasthani folk music, the Sindhi sarangi and ravanhatta are also used.

Sadly, the esraj and dilruba have declined in popularity, almost becoming extinct, and the sarinda is used in limited forms of music.


Kamaicha: It is one of the oldest bowed instruments in the world and is a key presence in Rajasthani folk music. Made from a single piece of wood, the kamaicha consists of a spherical bowl extended into the neck, a fingerboard, and a resonator covered with leather. It usually has four main strings passing over a thin bridge and is played with a bow, producing a haunting melody.

Among kamaicha players, the late Sakar Khan is very well-known. He belonged to the traditional Manganiyar folk musician community of Rajasthan, and had performed with renowned American violinist Yehudi Menuhin and George Harrison of The Beatles, besides appearing in numerous international festivals.

bulbul tarang

Bulbul tarang: It is an Indian string instrument which evolved from the Japanese taishōgoto, and has been played since the 1930s. It has two sets of strings, one set for drone, and one for melody.

A well-known player is Kapil Sharma, Jazz saxophonist and flautist Henry Threadgill was also fascinated by the instrument, and used it in some recordings.


Rabab: This lute-like instrument originated from Afghanistan, and is similar to the sursingar and sarod. In India, it has been played in Sikh religious music right from Guru Nanak’s time, when Bhai Mardana played it. Among today’s musicians, Chintoo Singh Wasir plays the rabab, besides being known for his guitar.



Pungi or been: It is a wind instrument played by snake charmers. The ‘been’ is also used in religious and folk music, and by street performers.

The sound of the ‘been’ was reproduced on a keyboard instrument clavioline by Kalyanji in the ‘Nagin’ song ‘Man dole mera tan dole’, composed by Hemant Kumar. The ‘been’ is also used in religious and folk music, and by street performers.


Shankh: The shankh is a conch shell which is blown to create music in devotional music, often to the accompaniment of percussion. The sound created by the shankh is called the shankhnaad, and the instrument is used across India, both in temples and during home poojas.


Algoze: It is a pair of woodwind instruments adopted by Punjabi, Sindhi, Rajasthani and Baloch folk musicians. It resembles a pair of wooden flutes. The musician plays it by using three fingers on each side, and breathing into the flutes.


Kombu: Also known as kombu pattu, it is a wind instrument played in Kerala temple music, accompanied by different percussion instruments. It can only produce three notes — sa, pa and higher sa — but musicians show their dexterity through improvisation. One of the most famous players is Kumath Raman Nair.


Karnal: This is a large, straight brass trumpet, over a metre long, played in parts of north India and Nepal. It is used on ceremonial occasions, such as the processions of village deities.

Another trumpet used in north and east India is the ransingha, which is made of two metal curves, joined together to form an ‘S’ shape.


Besides these instruments, certain other types are found in different parts of India.

The riwana is a type of fretless lute played in Himachal Pradesh, generally with four strings, and an additional string starting from mid-way down the neck, like the American five-string banjo.

The banam is a class of folk fiddles found among the Santal people of North East India and Bangladesh. The bommbanshi or bombashi is a fipple flute found in Bangladesh, and is also played in Bengal. The kasht tarang is a type of xylophone or marimba used in north India, but is not very common.

India has a rich variety of folk instruments. Unfortunately, many of them are known only in certain states, and that too in specific districts. People from the north are normally unaware of the instruments played in the east and south, unless they happen to travel to these regions and attend folk recitals.

The beauty, however, is that there is so much richness in sounds from across India. While the classical instruments have made inroads across the country, and even abroad, the folk instruments have their own charm that needs to be devoured.


Take Five: The Motown stars

Stevie Wonder Honored With ASCAP American Troubadour Awarddiana ross

Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross

In November 2012, we started a series called ‘Take Five’, which would recommend five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. This series will be carried once in two months. The first four parts talked of British alternative rock, classical crossover, world music, electronic music and early female blues legends, respectively. This month, we look at five artistes from the famous Motown label.

THOSE initiated into international music in the 1970s or early 1980s would have had some exposure to the Motown Sound. If not for anything else, this may be because even Michael Jackson had his roots with this style.

Motown, of course, was actually the name of a record label formed by the dynamic Berry Gordy Jr. It was based out of Detroit, the Motor Town, and thus got its name. Besides Motown Records, he also set up Tamla Records and Gordy Records, besides many subsidiary labels, to avoid making payments due when DJs played too much music from one label.

While Gordy was the brain and the brawn behind the label, the term Motown Sound was also associated with songwriters Brian Holland, Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier who went by the name Holland-Dozier-Holland or HDH, and with the Funk Brothers, a group of musicians who played for most of the artistes.

As HDH wrote, produced and arranged many songs for the labels, they created a specific style which blended pop with soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues. After they split over royalty issues in 1968, Gordy continued to employ other songwriters, and kept the label going despite ups and downs. While focusing on soul and RnB, he also diversified into other genres like rock, jazz, country and hip-hop. Motown operations were taken over by MCA in 1988, and today, its music is managed by the Universal Music Group.

Motown has a very interesting story, which has been wonderfully captured in J Randy Taraborrelli’s biography of Diana Ross, which this blogger just read. It has a huge roster of celebrity artistes too, and shortlisting five wasn’t an easy task. We shall thus list the most prominent ones, and mention the rest at the end.

A note: Though Michael Jackson began with Motown as part of the Jackson 5 with his siblings, he achieved solo success after signing up with Epic Records, a subsidiary of CBS Records. His is another story, and thus doesn’t figure in this list. The five that we choose are:

Diana Ross & The Supremes: Originally called the Primettes, the Supremes consisted of Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Betty McGown. Betty quit early on and the others performed as a trio.

However, Gordy got increasingly involved with Diana Ross, and was to even father her first child. With problems caused by Florence’s drinking habit, he decided that Diana sing all the leads and renamed the group Diana Ross & The Supremes. Cindy Birdsong was to replace Florence. Eventually, Diana became a solo star, but differences with Gordy made her shift to the RCA label.

Five songs to check: Where Did Our Love Go?, Stop In The Name of Love, I Hear A Symphony, Love Child, You Keep Me Hangin’ On

Marvin Gaye: He was called the Prince of Motown and Prince of Soul. Besides a string of successful solo albums, he teamed up with other Motown artistes Tammi Tarell and Mary Wells.

Marvin started singing in church at age four, and was initially more keen on jazz standards. He never imagined himself to be an RnB singer. But with the Motown Sound slowly getting its own audience, and the fact that HDH wrote his songs, Gaye changed his style, and became one of the most sought after singers for the label. He eventually quit Motown, and died a tragic death at age 44, shot by his father following a dispute over misplaced business documents.

Five songs to check: I Heard It Through The Grapevine, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (with Tammi Terrell), Let’s Get It On, Sexual Healing (post-Motown song)

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles: Besides being a singer-songwriter and frontman of the group The Miracles, Smokey was also known as a record producer in his own right. He had a long association with Motown, ever since he met Gordy in 1957 and had a say in selecting many artistes for the label.

Signed on to the Tamla label, Smokey also wrote many Motown songs, and after his marriage to Miracles singer Claudette Rogers, named his children Tamla and Berry. He pursued a solo career from the early 1970s, and was involved with the Motown group till it was sold in 1988, at which time he was its vice-president.

Five songs to check: Stop Around, You Really Got A Hold On Me, Baby Its Backatcha, Cruisin’, Being With You (first two with the Miracles, the other three solo)

Stevie Wonder: Blind since shortly after his birth, Stevie Wonder was a child prodigy who was signed on to Motown at the age of 11, and became one of the group’s biggest successes. He had his first hit ‘Fingertips Part 2’ at age 13 and has never since looked back.

Wonder became a huge commercial success in the 1970s and his 1980 Tamla album ‘Hotter Than July’ his first platinum seller. Many successful songs, his soundtrack for ‘The Woman In Red’, and collaborations with Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, and Julio Iglesias made him one of the most sought after stars in the 1980s. He continues to perform prolifically today.

Five songs to check: My Cherie Amour, Sir Duke, Ebony & Ivory (with Paul McCartney), I Just Called To Say I Love You, Part-Time Lover

Lionel Richie & The Commodores: The popular Lionel Richie started off as frontman of the Commodores in 1968. Initially, they were part of Atlantic Records before they moved to Motown as a support group for the Jackson 5. Lionel began concentrating on songwriting and soon moved to a solo career, even writing the Kenny Rogers hit ‘Lady’ in 1980.

Like Stevie Wonder, he peaked in the 1980s,following the success of his self-titled solo debut album, its follow-up ‘Can’t Slow Down’ and ‘Dancing On The Ceiling’. Today, he appears at numerous prestigious concerts, and performed ‘Jesus Is Love’ at Michael Jackson’s memorial service in July 2009.

Five songs to check: Three Times A Lady, Endless Love (with Diana Ross), Hello, All Night Long, Say You Say Me

Other Motown/ Tamla artistes: As we said, the Motown/ Tamla/ Gordy Records group had a list of many famous other artistes. The groups included the Jackson 5, the Four Tops, the Marvelettes, the Temptations, Boyz II Men and Martha & The Vandellas. Solo artistes were Mary Wells, Brian McKnight, Erykah Badu, Rick James and Teena Marie.

Subsidiary companies signed on Gladys Knight & The Pips, the Four Seasons and the Elgins. The group also had the rock subsidiary Rare Earth Records, which promoted the brilliant group Rare Earth, known best for its song ‘Get Ready’.

That’s some catalogue, really. Berry Gordy remains one of the biggest entrepreneurs in American music, having developed such an outstanding roster of artistes.

Need to promote younger Hindustani classical music talent

sawani shendemanjusha

Sawani Shende (left) and Manjusha Kulkarni-Patil

FOR the past couple of weeks, I have been trying to catch the newly-launched InSync music channel early in the morning or late at night. The brainchild of violinist and event organiser Ratish Tagde and his company Perfect Octave, the channel shows what it appropriately calls ‘music to experience’, focusing on Indian classical music, ghazals, Sufiana, folk, fusion and specific film music based on classical ragas.

So far, I have been mainly able to watch the Hindustani classical programmes, besides a few film and devotional songs. And the first reaction is that this is the first television channel which promises to regularly show the best talent the country has to offer. Besides well-known names like vocalists Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra, Mohan veena exponent Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and flautist Rakesh Chaurasia, what’s really creditable is that it provides a perfect platform to a lot of younger or lesser-known names.

It was a special delight to hear singers Sawani Shende on raga Charukeshi, Vijay Koparkar on Todi, Gayatri Joshi on Bageshri, Ruchira Kedar rendering Kedar and Manjusha Kulkarni-Patil singing a Kabir bhajan, and sitar player Vinayak Chittar play Bhatiyar. All of them are extremely talented, though probably not as well-known as some of their contemporaries. And InSync is an ideal channel to showcase their potential.

The channel obviously maintains the right balance between the known names and the lesser-known ones. Plans are to organise 40 to 50 shows over the next year, and telecast them.

Over the past decade or so, there have been individual programmes, channels like etc and shows like Idea Jalsa which have contributed to showcasing Hindustani classical music. But this is the first time followers will receive a daily dose of their favourite genre. Its focus on young artistes is truly welcome.

FOR some strange reason, there has been a rather erroneous impression that the future of Hindustani classical music is bleak, and there aren’t enough young musicians to carry forward the legacy of the earlier masters.

The truth, however, is that one finds more than adequate talent across the country. Some of them are below 30, and others in their 30s and 40s. They have their own small groups of followers, but are yet not as recognised as some of their contemporaries.

When you talk of musicians below 50, known artistes that many people instantly think of are vocalists Rashid Khan, Jayateerth Mevundi, Sanjeev Abhyankar and Kaushiki Chakraborty, flautists Ronu Majumdar and Rakesh Chaurasia, sitar players Niladri Kumar and Anoushka Shankar, santoor player Rahul Sharma, sarod players Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan, and tabla player Anuradha Pal, besides some other names. All of them are prolific and some of them absolutely brilliant, no doubt.

But then, there are also so many musicians who are just not known among the majority of audiences. They play at smaller venues and less-glamorous festivals, often in the presence of only 50 to 100 people. They don’t get the media footage that the others do, even though they are equally talented.

This trend can clearly be attributed to the way things have been functioning in the Hindustani classical music scene for quite some time. And much of this has to do with the ‘star culture’ that has permeated the system, and the tendency of some musicians to market themselves better.

Whether it’s the organisers, record labels or the media, the overall tendency — barring a few healthy exceptions — has been to highlight only a select few. Let’s specifically take the existing classical festivals as an example.

Every October till the following February, many large music festivals and some big one-off events are held in various parts of India. Most of these concerts are extremely well-attended and offer the highest quality of music. But if one notices the line-up of artistes, one sees more or less the same names repeatedly. In a bid to attract more audiences, organisers ensure that each festival features at least three or four ‘crowd pullers’.

While it’s absolutely fair if they think that way, and while it’s always a pleasure to hear the known names every time, one would be even more delighted if some of the lesser-known and younger musicians are given a chance to perform at these extravaganzas. Instead, they get the smaller festivals or individual concerts which attract limited crowds and lesser publicity.

Talking of publicity, one instantly thinks of the role of the media. Barring a few publications, coverage of most younger artistes is restricted to listings of their concerts, followed perhaps by a short one-paragraph bio-data, Here too, some of the better-known names are given more prominence, as their pictures are larger and they are interviewed too. ‘Star children’, or children of famous musicians, get more mileage.

As far as television is concerned, barring InSync channel and the occasional programme on Doordarshan, and shows like Idea Jalsa, most music television is hell-bent on only showing Bollywood or popular music, or over-dramatised song ‘n’ dance reality shows.

The same goes with radio. There was a time when classical fans looked forward to All India Radio recitals, but now, the time devoted to Hindustani classical has come down, and the lesser-known artistes rarely get a chance. The media thinks in terms of only one genre, which is Bollywood.

To come to recorded music, the industry has been going through a rough patch. Most of the bigger labels, and even some smaller classical-specific companies, have cut down on the number of new Hindustani releases. They are banking on the rich catalogue they have accumulated over the years, specially focusing on the older masters and some of the more recent stars. Their recording of younger artistes has been rather erratic, and even when done, marketing has been low-key.

While this is the general state of affairs, some musicians get more footage because they are public relations champions, or because they dabble in fancy fusion projects to attract attention. One also hears of the existence of lobbies and groupism, in that some musicians try to push only a select few disciples or followers, or are so strong in certain cities that they try to ensure only musicians from that city get opportunities. Those in the thick of things are aware of such incidents, and the ones to suffer most from this is the young, upcoming artiste.

THERE have been some positive signs too, as some concert organisers have made concerted efforts to promote younger musicians. Pancham-Nishad has been organising the Aarohi festival for over a decade, and has featured some really good artistes. This year’s line-up featured vocalists Dhanashree Ghaisas, Aditya Khandwe, Krishna Bongane and Sonal Shivkumar, sitar player Chintan Katti, sarod exponent Pratik Shrivastava and tabla players Ojas Adhiya and Yati Bhagwat. Not one of them is famous, but yet, they are really good.

Similarly, Banyan Tree Events started Swara: The Tree of Life two years ago, with the aim of having one younger musician and one senior artiste each evening, in concerts held in the smaller cities. Some years ago, Durga Jasraj’s Art & Artistes organised a day-long concert in memory of late sarod monarch Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, where the focus was only on young musicians.

Besides these, there are many other organisations and venues which do their bit to promote lesser-known artistes. Understandably, the scale of these events is much smaller in comparison to the big-star festivals, but at least they play their role in giving a chance to people whom one normally doesn’t hear.

A couple of other instances come to mind. To begin with, at the recently announced nominations for the Global Indian Music Academy (GIMA) awards, it was heartening to see some different names like vocalist Sangeeta Bandopadhyay, flautist Paras Nath, sarod player Abhishek Lahiri and tabla player Parthasarathi Mukherjee in the list of Hindustani classical nominees. This was alongside some of the biggest names on the circuit.

Recently, one also came across some publicity material sent by Lucknow-based Sangeet Milon for its ‘Classical Voice of India 2013’ competition, inviting entries in three age groups up to 24 years, to sing either khayal or dhrupad/ dhamaar.

Spic-Macay, one of the main bodies which has been educating youngsters about Indian classical music, has initiated ‘Naad Bhed’, a national reality show on television in association with Doordarshan and All India Radio, inviting entries in both Hindustani and Carnatic music. Efforts like these will surely help discover talent in Hindustani music, just like Indian Idol Junior did for children singing film songs.

What one sees in all this is that while there has been some strong individual effort in this direction by certain organisers and groups of people, in the overall perspective, things have been haphazard or sporadic. On the one hand, it is natural to push the stars and better-known names, and one isn’t complaining against that. But on the other hand, it is important to pay greater attention to the equally talented, yet less fortunate lot of younger talent. InSync channel is a great move in that direction, and one wishes more people follow suit.

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