Musings about music… Tanpura: the ultimate accompanist

Home / My Blog / Musings about music… Tanpura: the ultimate accompanist

Years ago when I first started learning music, after the 1st yr. or two my guru in Hubli, R.G Desai, had a tanpura made for me in Miraj. My own tanpura! I was learning how to tune it. I broke a string and cried bitterly because I thought I had done irreparable damage to it! My teacher taught me how to change the strings and all was well.

The tanpura hand-made using a specially grown gourd, wood and strings, is an instrument to beat all instruments. It has no frets like the sitar, no bow like the violin. It has 4 or sometimes 5 strings that play a drone when the strings are plucked sequentially. The 1st string plays the Mandra Pa or Ma; The 2 middle strings the madhya Sa and the last string plays the mantra Sa. The drone supports the vocalist. With experience the musician hears increasingly rich overtones. This supports the vocalist. What you get out of it grows as your perception matures.

The tanpura note is like a silken thread in softness and pinpoint in accuracy. In comparison, the harmonium note is broad more like a line drawn with a magic marker. Technical advances have made wonderful electronic and digital tempuras that can self-tune and change at the touch of a button. These save us a lot of time in tuning and transporting cumbersome real tanpuras. Inspite of this, tuning of a mechanical tanpura should be an essential skill for all musicians. Let us not forget the artisans and craftsmen we endanger in this specialized cottage industry if we forget how to use real tanpuras.

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