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Musical Instruments: Solids

Ghana vadya, ganaka, tala, danda, jaltarang, kastha tarang, kolu, dandiya, kolattam, villu, onam, dahara, laddi shah, tongten, sheku, songkong, slit drum, katola, mandapam, nal tarang, tokka, khedda, lebang gumani, moorsing, mridanga, ghata, khanjeera, moorchang, kirikittaka, omichicahuagtli, doddu rajan, kokkara, sukti vadya, raponi, kathakali, semmankalam, seemu, sree mandal, chimta, manjira, jalra, jhallari, kartal, tali, talam, elattalam, kuzhittalam, bhrattalam, brahmatalam, bortal, gilabada, jhunjuni, gejje pooje and ghatam...

By: Dr. B. Chaitanya Deva

Last Updated On: Wednesday, March 14, 2007



The Cultural Perspective



Wind Instruments

Stringed Instruments


It is not unreasonable to assume that idiophones might have been the oldest musical instruments used by mankind. Naturally, the primeval ghana vadya is the human body itself; particularly all the rhythmic acts and movements it involves in. Hands are clapped, or thighs and hips are struck with the hands to accompany dance and music. Of course, this not confined to tribal and folk music; for, the tala claps, hand movements and counting fingers are all sophisticated and grammatised versions of the primitive actions. As for more accomplished art, a ganaka was a part of the group of vedic ritual singers and such ganakas kept rhythm during the ceremonial recitation by clapping hands. Even today such tala keepers are common in Karnataka music concerts, particularly in company with instrumentalists who cannot keep the tala themselves as the vocalists can. The next step can easily be imagined: it must have been to emphasize the sound of the rhythmic beat by employing solids harder than the body-stones, sticks, and so on. Immediately, a ghana vadya has been created and instruments such as clappers, castanets, danda, bells and cymbals developed.

Ghana vadya, as they are usually constructed, are not capable of producing definite pitches that are required for creating a melody. That is why you will not find many of them in classical music. Also, most often the sounds produced by them are shortlived and hence such instruments are better suited for tala. However, there are exceptions like the jaltarang and the kastha tarang which, within severe limits, are adequate for melodic music also.

Kolu or dandaPerhaps the simplest instruments in this class are rods, rings, jingles and clappers. Sticks - danda or kolu - can be seen almost anywhere. The best known examples of the use of the rhythmic stick, colored or plain, with jingles or without, are from Gujarat and the southern parts of India. In the former, where they are called dandiya, two beautiful lacquered sticks of about thirty centimeters in length are held, generally one in each hand, and struck together to the rhythm of the dance called the dandiya ras. Similar group dances are very popular in Andhra, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu where the instrument is known as the kolu and the dance as kolattam. One striking variety of this dance is the pinnal kolattam (south India) or the gomph (Gujarat). Each dancer holds in one hand the kolu or dandiya and with the other hand a rope or a long ribbon. As the dance proceeds, the choreography is so arranged that the ribbon gets plaited into beautiful designs and on the reverse movements of dance it gets deplaited.

The villu kottu or ona villu is a small idiophone from Kerala. It consists of a coconut spathe or a thin and narrow wooden piece bent in the form of a bow, and hence the name, (villu means a bow). The 'bowstring' is replaced by a thin stick of bamboo which is beaten with another bamboo piece. Since this instrument is used in the onam festival, it is also called ona villu.

The Laddi shah singers of the Kashmir valley play a kind of jingle Johnny known as the dahara or the laddi shah.

It is an iron rod of about three quarter of a mater in length, bent like a walking stick at the top, with a small cross handle at the other end. A number of metal rings are put onto this bar which is shaken to the rhythm of the faqir's song.

Another simple instrument used mostly by certain sects of mendicants in the north is the chudiyan. A few metallic bangles are worn on the wrist; the singer holds a little wooden stick in the hand wearing the bangles and strikes them with it by a backward stroke, producing a very attractive jingle.

There are a few instruments which, because of their odd shapes and sizes, cannot be included in any simple or homogenous category. Nevertheless, they are of interest not only as strange and exotic specimens but also due to their ethnological significance.

Among these is the 'slit drum'. Actually it is not a drum at all, in the sense that it is not a hollow body with a membranous cover. However, since it is a percussion instrument, it is usual to call it a 'drum', in most music books. A good example is the songkong of Tribal Assam. The Ao Nagas who inhabit this area also call it tongten and sheku. The songkong is kept in hut near the moorung which is a dormitory for tribal bachelors, and at the imminence of any danger or threat, is beaten loudly by the boys. It is thus a signaling device; but as the wood with which the body is made is resonant, it is also used as a musical instrument for dances. Mills, an officer of the Indian Civil Service, who visited these Nagas in the early decades of this century, describes it thus: "Perhaps the most striking specimens of Ao handiwork are their great drums (songkong or tongten), or xylophones as they should be more accurately termed-each a huge log, sometimes 37 feet and 14 feet in girth, laboriously hollowed out through a long slit running down the length of the body of the drum.... save in the Chapvukong group (a region) every 'khel' (a part of the village) has a drum and they are remarkably uniform in pattern... One end is carved to represent what is undoubtedly a buffalo's head, with the horns lying back along the drum, though the Aos have forgotten this and regard the head simply as the head of the drum, carved as their forefathers had always carved it, and the horns as the drum's arms. The tongue of the buffalo often protrudes and turns up against the upper lip, and, as if to personify the drum still further, a human face is often carved on the tongue. In beating the drum, which lies with the slit at the top, the bucks and boys of the 'mourung' line up along it. One stout fellow gives the time with two levers which he allows to fall on to the drum, while the others drum and roll with large wooden dumb-bells which they strike on the edge of the slit..... Accordingly as it is beaten an alarm can be given, the taking of a head can be celebrated, or mere light-heartedness at some festival can be voiced." Mill's notings on this are also of interest: for he points to the fact that the slit log-drum could have originated in the beating of canoes on the sides, as is done in Fijian Papua, the beating sticks being altered paddles. It is also possible that food troughs and brewing troughs (vats) similar to the songkong, including the ladles, could have been turned into this instrument.

A portable version of the 'slit drum' is known in some parts of the country. It is a bamboo piece of nearly 45 centimeters in length, with a slit or sometimes the bark being thinned out at a part between two nodes. Since dry bamboo is naturally hollow, no scooping is necessary and found in the north east is called the tak dutrang.

Another variety is the katola used by the Abuj Marias of Madhya Pradesh in their dance and music. This is also of wood, hollow and trapezoid, somewhat like a winnow in shape and size. The longer side is open as a narrow slit through which, of course, the scooping out of the inside could be done. The idiophone is suspended from the neck of the player who uses sticks to beat the instrument.

Musical pillars and icons are examples of architectural and sculptural genius which could create out of stone as well as metal, forms that are not only of visual beauty but also musical value. There are a number of temples in the south which have lithophones and metallophones which, on striking, give out regular tones: that is, they are musical instruments made of stone or metal. Fine specimens of such pillars may be seen in Hampi (Karnataka), Tadpatri and Lepakshi (Andhra), Madurai, Tirunalveli, Alagar Koil, Tenkasi, Curtalam, Alwar, Tirunagari and Suchindram in Tamil Nadu. The mandapam (congregational hall) of the temple in Tirunaveli is of perticular interest: it has pillars each with fifty pillarets! A musical statuette of Lord Ganesa has been found in Tanjavur; and in Nanguneri, Tamil Nadu, there are beautiful large statues of Manmatha and Rati, the god and goddess of erotic love. It is, of course, not definite whether these pillars and icons has any really musical functions, because the sound they emit have no definite pitches as required in our music, nor is their quality very rich; also, the way they are constructed, specially when in clusters, is not conductive to efficient playing. One could, therefore, consider them more as curios, though scientific studies are now going on to determine their tone colors and pitches.

One sometimes meets the kastha tarang in modern ensembles and orchestras. Most probably this is an alien instrument given an Indian name; for we have no tribal or folk counterparts from which this could have developed. The kastha tarang, as is found now, is a set of a number of wooden (kastha) slats of varying lengths and thickness fixed more or less loosely on a frame. Under each kastha a tube of determined length and diameter is attached, to give proper resonance and volume to the sound. These wooden bars are arranged in a row of interesting pitch and struck with a pair of sticks for playing the melody. The beginnings of this instrument, called xylophone in English, are found with African forest dwellers. In its simplest prototype, a woman sits with her legs stretched straight and wide apart in front of her; and across the two legs are placed a series of stone slabs which are beaten to give a passable tune. A more sophisticated construction is seen in the gambang of Indonesia, wherein well tuned wooden pieces replace stone slabs and are fixed onto a frame. In the same country they have metal xylophones-metals bars instead of wooden ones-called the saron. Indian musicians sometimes play the nal tarang in which metal tubes (nal) are employed instead of flat bars.

The tokka of Assam is a primitive ghana vadya put to both musical and non-musical uses. A bamboo piece of about a meter in length or less is slit lengthwise, leaving one end intact. At this end, the sides of the tube are carved out to make a handle. The tokka is held here and is either rattled or beaten on the other hand, the slit portions clashing against each other. While the instrument is used in folk music and dance it is also a hunter's tool. For instance, in parts of Mysore a smaller variety is employed by elephant hunters. During the elephant hunt, locally known as the khedda, a number of men, each having a small clapper, surrounded the glades where the animals live in the wild. They then begin to beat and rattle the clappers vigorously, shouting all the while. The elephants get scared and start running. But the hunters, stationed in a big circle round them, begin to close in and finally drive the prey into special pens.

A kind of tokka, with the addition of strings has already been briefly described; this is lebang gumani of Tripura.

MoorchangA small rod idiophone of fine musical value is the moorsing or the moorchang which in English is called the jew's harp or the jaw's harp, though there is no resemblance to the harp at all. This diminutive instrument seven to eight centimeters in length in a folk instrument found in places such as Rajasthan and the Brij districts of Uttar Pradesh. But in the south it is very frequently used in concert music as a kind of rhythmic auxiliary to the mridanga, ghata and the khanjeera. While in its simpler forms the instrument is made of bamboo, such as the gagana of Assam and certain tribal specimens, the more common variety is of iron, shaped somewhat like Lord Shiva's trishul, the three pronged trident. The main frame has an angular base which does not complete ring project into two prongs and free at the distal end is a thin tongue which is a little longer than the forks. The player holds the moorchang with the palm of one hand and prongs are held firmly between the teeth. The tongue or lamella is now plucked with the fingers of the other hand. The mouth of the player acts as a resonator and by altering its shape as well as controlling oral breathing, extremely fine, delicate tonal shades are produced. In Hindi literature the instrument is also referred to as the mukha chang, evidently because it is held in the mouth (mukha = mouth), for instance in the poems of Chaturbhujdas and Surdas. The Sanskrit text, Sangeeta parijata of Ahobala also calls it mukha chang.

The kirikittaka or its varieties is one of the most primitive instruments we have. This is referred to in English as the scraper, rasp or stridulator and was earlier mentioned in connection with the evolution of musical instruments. We noted too its very close likeness to the fire-making implement. The scraper generally consists of a main body on which there are dents against which is rubbed a rod, generating a weird sound. Scrapers are of course not confined to India but are known in far flung areas of the globe. In China they have the yu in the shape of a tiger; its spine is notched. The omichicahuagtli is a bone rasp found in Mexico. In our own country there are many different types: the ruga braiya, the doddu rajan, the kokkara and so on. All these are tribal instruments and except the kokkara which is an iron tube, are made of bamboo. About fifty centimeters in length, they are hollow pieces of bamboo with a series of crosswise serrations on the surface. The wall of the instrument is often slit to some length to give the stridulator more resonance. Sometimes this is also achieved by attaching a gourd, as in the ragabd rajan of the Saravas. With these people this rajan has a special significance. Verrier Elsin describes it as "a special kind of rasp... used at marriages... The serrated bamboo is fitted to the stem of a gourd drinking-dipper and is decorated with peacock's feathers. The members of the bridegroom's party go playing on it to the bride's house, where the youth fills the gourd with wine and hands it to his father-in-law. The older man drinks, refills the gourd and hands it back saying: 'Today I give you my daughter. If I change let this gourd, this bamboo and peacock-feathers witness against me.' The scraper seems to have been of particular use in tribal and folk dances, more specially related to exorcism and certain Saivite dances. For example, the Andhra warrior-writer, Jaya, of the 13th century, describes in his Sanskrit work, Nritta ratnavali, a desi nritya (a nonclassical dance), called the Siva priya which was performed by the devotees of Siva during festivals dedicated to Him. The dances, who were of both sexes, smeared themselves with holy ashes and wore rudrakasha bead garlands. Along with the mridanga, the karata (trumpet), the kirikittaka (which was synonymous with sukti vadya) was played to accompany the dance. It is described as a metal tube nearby eight centimeters across and about a little more than a meter in length with one end shaped like a serpent's hood. Its surface, cut into notches, was rubbed with a kona (a rod). The description in books and the visual illustrations in sculpture tally, but do not conform to the meaning of the name sukti vadya, sukti meaning a cowrie. But more often than not it is rare to see to a cowrie in the examples and specimens that one comes across whether in texts, sculptures or actual instruments. However, the raponi of Assam is really a sukti vadya. It is simply a bamboo stick, not a tube, of a meter's length with serrations along it. This is held somewhat like the violin. In the same hand a cowrie is also clasped in the palm and moved up and down rapidly over the notches. Excellent sculptures of kirikittaka players can be seen in a number of Hoysala temples of Karnataka, of about the 13th century. Simpler rasps are found in the Ajanta and Ellora wall paintings and reliefs, which are datable between the 5th and 7th centuries A.D.

SeemuPlates of various shapes and sizes are very common as musical instruments, again in tribal and folk music. Except in the Kathakali band nearly are they ever used in devotional singing. Here again there are many varieties though, they are all almost invariably made of bell metal which is a particular variety of bronze. The simplest ones are of course just plain metal discs beaten with sticks, held in the same hand or with the other hand. Examples of such instruments are the thali of north India, the jagte or jagante used by the dasa (dasari) mendicants of Karnataka and Andhra, the chenkala or chennala played in the Kathakali ensemble; the last is known as the semmankalam in Tamil. All those mentioned so far are just plain surfaces. But the seemu found in the north-eastern provinces is a large gong with a small boss (a convex bulge) at the center. The instruments have a pair of holes pierced either at the circumference of the plate or on its raised rim and though these a thread is passed. This is held in the hand so that the plate hangs vertically and is beaten with a stick. Like the seemu, quite frequently thalis may have raised rims; these are really eating plates converted to musical instruments. Such thalis may merely be placed on the ground, with the rims touching it and struck with the hands.

ChimtaA folk instrument from Rajasthan, the sree mandal, has a number of plates tied onto a metal frame, the whole contraption being about a meter and a half in height. The plates being of varying thickness and diameters, they give out tones of the different pitches in a musical scale. One could even call it a thali tarang, analogous to kashta tarang, nal tarang and so on. Strangely, a very similar instrument is known in China where it is called the yun lo.

The chimta seen in various parts of north India is a jingle johnny with small platelets. It is an iron fork, a meter long, on the arms of which are fixed loosely sets of small disca of brass. (Chimta literally means a pair of tongs.) The instrument is shaken or beaten against the palm rhythmically in accompaniment to bhajans, folk songs and dances.

Manjira or jalraYou have only to give a plate a convex bend to make it a cymbal. And depending on the sizes and material there are innumerable varieties of these: from the midget manjira or jalra of five centimeters diameter to the bortal of Assam measuring thirty centimeters across; these are made of bronze or brass. The concavity is also of varying degrees, from flat plate-like ones to deep bell shaped instruments. The names are equally numerous: jalra, jhallari, kartal, tali, talam, elattalam, kuzhittalam, are commonly applied to smaller types while the larger cymbals are called jhanj, jhallari, bhrattalam, brahmatalam, bortal and so on. The instrument is found everywhere in the country with itinerant singing parties, harikatha artistes (who tell the story of the Lord in song and tale), devotional congregations, dancers and beggars. As for history, the earliest known specimen is from the Indus excavations and the near contemporary vedic texts wherein the cymbal is referred to as the aghati.

Bortal or brahmatalamBells, of course, are as ubiquitous as cymbals and could well be thought of as deeper cymbals. The difference naturally lies in the mode of playing. Where as it requires two cymbals to be clashed against each other-rim against rim, rim against a surface or flat surfaces of each piece-bells are single concave bodies shaken (with a beating tongue inside) or struck on the rim with a stick. There are some balls where the rim is stroked producing a continuous high pitched sound. It quite possible that the first bell shaped instruments were dried fruit shells and floral buds. Seed rattles are used very often by tribal people; for example the gilabada of the Andhra Chenchus is one such instrument. It is a dried fruit and a few of them are tied together and shaken in rhythm. The Baigas of Madhya Pradesh tie a set of dried pumpkins to their waists when dancing. The pump of the fruit having withered away, the seeds become loose and, when shaken, produce a beautiful sound like that of a rattle. The kaniyari fruit is used by the Oraons. Hundreds of dessicated shells of kaniyari or champa are tied to a long bamboo pole with feather decorations; this pole is stamped on the ground while dancing. One other folk rattle is the coconut shell into which a few seeds or stones are dropped and sealed. Usually a handle is also fixed to the coconut and shaken. All these primitive and natural rattles must have been the beginning s of more sophisticated metal and wooden ones commonly met with as children's toys such as the jhunjuni, khul-khula, khunkhuna and gilki. (8)

GilabadaIt does not require much imagination to see that by imitating these natural buds in metal we get bells. Ankle bells-the ghungroo of the north and the gejje of the south-have such bud-like shapes and the course of evolution is evident. Even bells used in worship at temples or by many folk dancers-particularly the devil dancers-are just metal cast in the shape of a flower, the tongue of the bell obviously suggested by the floral pistil. Because ghungroos and bells are difficult to make so that they produce definite pitches and qualities, they have not found an important part in our art music. Nevertheless, ankle bells are a must for dancers and are symbols of their profession; almost totemistic in association. When a dancer makes his or her first professional debut, the tying of the ghungroo is an indispensable ceremony, referred to as the gejje pooje in the south.

While bells normally have not been accepted in serious music, there is one instrument which has this shape and is fairly popular, though mostly in 'orchestras', this is the jaltarang. It consists of a number of China bowls, the number depending on the notes to be played. These very, in each is poured a certain quantity of water to further adjust the pitch to the required exact value; hence the name jaltarang (jal = water, tarang = wave). The water-filled cups are arranged in a semicircle with the player sitting in the center. He has one small bamboo stick in each hand and strikes out the melody by beating on the rims of the bowls. One cannot be very sure of the 'Indian-ness' of this instrument, as there is very little historical evidence. It is said that Alexander, on his way back to Macedonia from India, took with him some jaltarang players; this fact however, has to be substantiated. Vatsyayana's Kamasutra speaks of an udaka vadya (water instrument) which, according to same, might have been the jaltarang. Vatsyayana exhorts: "A female, therefore, should learn the Kama Shastra (The Act of Erotics), or at least a part of it, by studying its practice from some (confidential) friend. She should study alone in private the sixty-four accomplishments are known to most students of Indian art and the author lists the various accomplishments which include singing, playing on instruments, dancing, writing, drawing, tattooing, decorating the bed room, and so on. Among the arts, (besides the above) to be learnt along with diligent study of the Kamasutra is "playing on glasses filled with water". This is, however, the translator's phrase and the original has no such statement, it only says udaka vadya. But the Sangeeta Parijata of the 17th century and also Hindi poets of about a century earlier mention this instrument directly.

The earthen pot is an instrument which is popular both in folk as well as classical music. The folk varieties are made of clay or metal and go under names such as matki, gagri and noot. The last mentioned is found in the Kashmir valley as also in Sindh, and is indispensable in choruses and ensembles performing cchakri, rauf, soofiyana kalam and other music so typical of this part of the country. The noot is an earthen pot and is placed in front of the player on the ground or on the lap with the mouth up. The singer, who uses the noot for rhythm, beats it on the mouth and the sides in simple but very attractive tala. The ghatam, often heard in Karnataka music concerts, is much like the noot but is an improvement made out of special clay, carefully kneaded and uniformly fired. The ghatam player sits on the floor with his shirt open; the mouth of the pot is held close to his stomach, the body of the instrument resting on the lap. It is never beaten on the mouth. Further, by manipulating his abdomen, the player can elicit various volumes and tonal colors out of the ghatam.

Throughout the descriptions so far, one fact may have been noticed and that is, that the vast majority of ghana vadya finds a place in tribal and folk music and there are not many 'solid' instruments used in sophisticated concert music. Also, it would have been observed that few of them are melodic, most of them are rhythm keepers. This is not surprising, for Indian classical music demands a great accuracy in pitch which is almost impossible to obtain in these instruments. Raga music is not only enriched by, but has come to depend on ornamentations or gamakas which cannot be produced on Ghana vadya. Melodic music, moreover, lives on long sustained notes which, again, are not obtainable on idiophones in general. Bound by these limitations they have, therefore, rarely made the grade.


Musical Statuette Of Lord Ganesa, Lebang Gumani Of Tripura, Sangeeta Parijata, Nritta Ratnavali, Hoysala Temples Of Karnataka, Sree Mandal, Yun Lo, Jhunjuni, Khul-khula, Khunkhuna, Gilki, Ghungroo, Ghana Vadya, Oldest Musical Instruments, Dandiya Ras, Laddi Shah Singers, Ona Villu, Songkong Of Tribal Assam, Musical Instrument For Dances, Chapvukong Group, Tak Dutrang, Abuj Marias Of Madhya Pradesh, Musical Pillars