The tanpura (or tambura, tanpuri) is a long-necked plucked string instrument found in various forms in Indian music; it does not play melody but rather supports and sustains the melody of another instrument or singer by providing a continuous harmonic bourdon or drone. A tanpura is not played in rhythm with the soloist or percusionist: as the precise timing of plucking a cycle of four strings in a continuous loop is a determinant factor in the resultant sound, it is played unchangingly during the complete performance. The repeated cycle of plucking all strings creates the sonic canvass on which the melody of the raga is drawn. The combined sound of all strings is very rich in harmonics that will enhance the resonance of the tones sung or played to the accompaniment of a fine tanpura.
The name tanapura is derived from tana, referring to a musical phrase, and pura, which means “full” or “complete”. Hindustani musicians favour the term ‘tanpura’ whereas Carnatic musicians say ‘tambura’; ‘tanpuri’ is a smaller variant used for accompanying instrumental soloists.
How to play Tanpura?
Tanpuras form the root of the ensemble and indeed of the music itself, as the tanpura creates an acoustic dynamic reference chord from which the ragas (melodic modes) derive their distinctive character, color and flavor. Concerning its history, A. D. Ranade states: “The first unambiguous reference to the tanpura is in Sangit Parijat (1620). It is neither mentioned by the earlier texts nor does it find a place in sculptures”. Stephen Slawek notes that by the end of the 16th century, the tanpura had “fully developed in its modern form”, and was seen in the miniature paintings of the Moghuls. Slawek further suggests that due to structural similarity the sitar and tanpura share a related history.
An electronic tanpura, a small box that imitates the sound of a tanpura, is often used in contemporary Indian classical music performances instead of, or in addition to a tanpura, primarily in Carnatic music, though this practice is controversial amongst aficionados of high level Classical music. A 2006 article in the performing arts magazine Sruti notes: “Any model electronic tanpura produces a sound that is necessarily artificial, which is the opposite of artistic. The electronic substitute has no artistic value and has nothing to teach us but repetitive unnatural boredom.”
The body shape of the tanpura somewhat resembles that of the sitar, but it has no frets – as the strings are always plucked at their full lengths. One or more tanpuras may be used to accompany vocalists or instrumentalists. It has four or five (rarely six) metal strings, which are plucked one after another in a regular pattern to create a harmonic resonance on the basic note or keynote.
Bridge and strings
The overtone-rich sound and the audible movement in the inner resonances of tone is achieved by applying the principle of jivari which creates a sustained “buzzing” sound in which particular harmonics will resonate with focused clarity. Jiva refers to “soul”, that which gives life, implying that the tanpura embodies an “animated” tone quality. To achieve this effect, the strings pass over a table-shaped, curved-top bridge, the front of which slopes gently away from the surface of the strings. When a string is plucked, it has an intermittent periodical grazing contact with the bridge. When the string moves up and down, the downward wave will touch a far point on the curve of the bridge, and as the energy of motion of the string gradually diminishes, these points of contact of the string on the bridge will gradually shift as well, being a compound function of amplitude, the curvature of the bridge, pitch, string tension and time. When the string is plucked, it has a large amplitude. As the energy of the string’s movement gradually diminishes, the contact point of the string with the bridge slowly creeps up the slope of the bridge. Depending on scale, tension and pitch, this can take between three and ten seconds.
This dynamic process can be fine-tuned using a cotton thread between string and bridge: by shifting the thread, the grazing contact sequence is shifted to a different position on the bridge, changing the harmonic content. Every single string produces its own cascading range of harmonics and, at the same time, builds up a particular resonance. According to this principle, tanpuras are attentively tuned to achieve a particular tonal shade relative to the tonal characteristics of the raga. These more delicate aspects of tuning are directly related to what Indian musicians call raga svaroop, which is about how characteristic intonations are important defining aspects of a particular raga. The tanpura’s particular setup, with the cotton thread as a variable focus-point, made it possible to explore a multitude of harmonic relations produced by the subtle harmonic interplay in time of its four strings.
Tanpuras come in different sizes and pitches: larger “males”, smaller “females” for vocalists, and a yet smaller version is used for accompanying sitar or sarod, called tamburi. Male vocalists pitch their tonic note (Sa), often at C♯; female singers usually a fifth higher, though these tonic notes may vary according to the preference of the singer, as there is no absolute and fixed pitch-reference in the Indian Classical music systems. The male instrument has an open string length of approximately one metre; the female is three-fourths of the male. The standard tuning is 5-8-8-1 (sol do’ do’ do) or, in Indian sargam, PA-sa-sa-SA. For ragas that omit the fifth tone, pa, the first string is tuned down to the natural fourth: 4-8-8-1 or Ma-sa-sa-Sa. Some ragas require a less common tuning with shuddh NI (one semitone below octave sa), NI-sa-sa-SA. With a five-string instrument, the seventh or NI (natural minor or major 7th) can be added: PA-NI-sa-sa-SA (5-7-8-8-1)or MA-NI-sa-sa-SA (4-7-8-8-1).
Tanpuras are designed in three different styles:
Miraj style: the favourite form of tanpura for Hindustani performers. It is usually between three to five feet in length, with a carved, rounded resonator plate (tabli) and a long, hollow straight neck, in section resembling a rounded capital D. The round lower chamber to which the tabli, the connecting heel-piece and the neck (dandh) are fixed is cut from a selected and dried gourd (tumba). Wood used is either tun or teak; bridges are usually cut from one piece of bone.
Tanjore style: this is a south Indian style of tambura, used widely by Carnatic music performers. It has a somewhat different shape and style of decoration from that of the miraj, but is otherwise much the same size. Typically, no gourd is used, but the spherical part is gouged out of a solid block of wood. The neck is somewhat smaller in diameter. Jackwood is used throughout; bridges are usually cut from one piece of rosewood. Often, two rosettes are drilled out and ornamented with inlay work.
Tanpuri: small-scale instruments, used for accompanying instrumental soloists. It is two to three feet long, with a flat bed-pan type wooden body with a slightly curved tabli. It may have from four to six strings. Tamburi are tuned to the higher octave and are the preferred instruments for accompanying solo performances by string-playing artists, as the lighter, more transparent sound does not drown out the lower register of a sitar, sarod, or sarangi.