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Musical Instruments: The Cultural Perspective

Vadya, khung, rusem, baram, waram, yel, batanse, pana, nei, beral, viral, Kal, badane, panai, anai, ane, enugu, yazh, kuzhal, maddalam, vedic samhitas, aghati, toonava, nadi, kanda, godha, beent, gisban, biwa, pipa, daff, sitar, padahi, murava, vangsi, kahala, ghanta, bheri, kombu, sankh, mukha veena, mohori, dholak, timila, idakka, jhanj, talam and nayyandi melam...

By: Dr. B. Chaitanya Deva

Last Updated On: Wednesday, March 14, 2007



The Cultural Perspective



Wind Instruments

Stringed Instruments

The Cultural Perspective

Before proceeding to study the history of the classes of vadya or even individual instruments it is necessary to discuss, to some extent, the cultural history of our land, its music and musical instruments. This is particularly important in view of what has been said so far. Our earlier observations would have made the point obvious: that to write an organological history, it is not sufficient to refer only to texts on music, but tribal and folk life, art history in general, linguistic movements in the country, sociological dynamics- all these and much more-have to be brought in. only then a correct perspective of the whole situation is possible and one does not get caught in static text-book knowledge. The people of a nation-their work in daily life, literature, painting, technology and their migrations-produce its history and it is to them that we should turn to understand the cultural developments of a society.

This is a book on the musical instruments of India: a very obvious and redundant statement! But the implications of such a simple sentence may not be so apparent, at first, because even at the start we found how nebulous a definition of 'musical instruments' could be, specially bearing in mind that they might have had non-musical origins and could also be used for non-musical purposes.

The next difficulty that confronts us is the phrase 'of India'. How is one to define or limit India; for unless this is understood, it may not be possible, again, to get an unbiased viewpoint. Take the harmonium, as an example. This is now Indian; but has it not been imported from Europe? On the other hand, is not the principle of the harmonium reed found in an Indian wind instrument, the khung or rusem, of tribal Manipur? With two such apparently contradictory facts clashing, how is the Indianness of the harmonium to be understood?

The temptation to trace the beginning of every instrument we use to our own soil is great. However, there are really great scholars who hold that all of them came from outside India! The truth is, evidently, somewhere between the two: that many instruments are indigenous and many are imported. Many migrate out and come back in a different form with perhaps a different name; many find their way into our country and are perhaps given our names.

This process is only a miniature picture of the larger canvass of Indian culture, much of which is local but much of which is also from beyond its borders. Can we take the political map as a standard? Evidently no. after all, what was Indian, say forty years ago, has been divided into different political regions, without any recognizable divisions in music. What about ethnic and cultural fences? This is sightly better: but we known that the Polynesian blood and racial stratum run from India to South-East Asia. Perhaps-and this is a conjecture-there might have been ethnic relations between our tribal people and the Negroes of Africa. Geographical boundaries, however, are more stable through the ages. But patterns of life become common or similar even across mountainous walls and watery expanses, due to human migrations: for instance, Kashmiri music as well as dance and so much like those in southern Russia, and in Indonesian literature, dances and musical instrument have a very large Indian content. In the face of all these currents and cross currents, we may agree, for purposes of this study, that our musical map will be bound roughly by the Afghan mountains and the Himalayas in the north, the Sindhu river in the west, the Meghalaya hills in the east and the oceans in the south, including the bay and sea islands near the main land. In this vast and ancient expanse each people have made their own contribution to the music of the country; and what we now know as our music and instruments are the gifts of all these civilizations.

We do not have sufficiently definite proofs of the earliest human races in this subcontinent. Perhaps, they were the ebony colored ones: the Negrito. Here is an area which is still dark as far as music and organology are concerned: for we have not yet explored the racial and musical relations between our tribes and those in Africa, to the extent necessary. Racial characteristics apart, similarities between the Dravidian languages and certain African tongues (Wolof) have been noted, for example:

Wolof Dravidian
Finger baram beral (Kannada)
waram viral (Tamil)
Leg yel Kal (Kannada, Tamil, Telugu)
Brinjal batanse badane (Kannada)
Water pot pana panai (Tamil)
Elephant nei anai (Tamil)
ane (Kannada)
enugu (Telugu)

These are only selected examples; and more have been found. But, what is more to the point and of relevance for us here is the similarity of a number of instruments in these geographical regions. At least ten instruments of the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi of Africa have close likeness to many of our tribal ones, particularity of Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Andhra. Is this very striking resemblance merely a coincidence, or does it lead to inferences on possible contacts between the two now separated cultures? Or were they one culture in times far in the past, later torn asunder by geological cataclysms? As far as is known Lemuria-a continental stretch form Africa, through south India, to Australia-existed in geological times; but there does not appear to be any evidence of human societies and their migrations during those ages. How then does one explain what appears to be a commonness of instruments in Africa and India, unless there later movements of societies by sea?

The next important civilization is what is called the Dravidian, whose antecedents are still a subject of debate. We have just seen some linguistic and even probable organological affinities between Africa and our land. Could they be related racially also? According to one theory a maritime people reached in India in the second millennium before Christ and their progeny from the previous settlers became the Dravidians. There is another view that this race is a descendant of a Mediterranean one. According to still another hypothesis, the Aryan mingling with the indigenous population produce the Dravidian. Finally, some very great scholars hold the opinion that the distinctions such as Aryan and Dravidian are spurious, and there was but one kind of society in the whole of the subcontinent.

In view of such a diversity of conclusions, it is better to leave this question alone now and, for the sake of simplicity of study, treat the two separately: first, the Dravidian (?) commencing with the Indus valley complex and continuing as a substratum into later peninsular cultures, and second, the Aryan commencing with the vedic period and continuing into the present, enveloping the whole of India in a unifying mantle.

The Indus civilization, first discovered at Mohenjodaro and Harappa, but now known to extend to far flung sites reveals itself from about 3000 B.C. The musical instruments so far excavated or seen in the pictographs are not many. Castanets and cymbals have been found; a statuette of a woman carrying what looks like a damaru has been unearthed, also whistles made of clay. Seals and hieroglyphs show long drums and harps. All these leads to the inference that the music of those days was not very elaborate.

whether we can really relate the Indus culture to the ancient Dravidian one is a moot question. Even if this is established, it is doubtful if the later societies of the south retained the music of the Indus people and, perhaps, this is for ever a closed chapter. However, Tamil texts from the early Christian eras, which are the oldest written source material wee have of this region, speak of the yazh, the kuzhal and the maddalam. The yazh was a kind of harp and many varieties of it were known. Were they imported or were they entirely local? There is room for question and investigation here too, for at least in the case of the makara yazh a Greek association might be suspected. The kuzhal was a flute and the maddalam a drum.

The coming of the Aryans and their settling in the subcontinent is one of the most significant events in Indian history, granting, of course, that they were foreigners. There is no gainsaying the fact that the foundation of much of later thought, religion and art were laid by them as early as 2500 B.C.; and their hold is so strong on our minds that all aspects of our life are invariably traced to the vedic samhitas which are the recorded versions of vedic experience. For instance, all Indian music is always considered to have sprung from the rig veda and the sama veda. True, this is the oldest grammatized music that is known to us. But the contributions of strains other than the Aryan to the general pattern of Indian life and music cannot be denied; and to consider that our culture has necessarily a monolithic genesis may not be reasonable at all. As we go on further with this study it will become more and more clear that various other tributaries flowed-and are still flowing-into the mainstream to make our life pattern so beautifully varied as it is.

To return to the subject proper, vedic texts yield some information on the instruments employed in those days in rituals and entertainment. There was the aghati, probably a cymbal. Drums such as the bhoomi dundubhi, dundubhi, vanaspati were used. Among the flutes were the toonava and the nadi. Among veenas were the vana, the kanda the godha and others. Today there are only names, because, except in a couple of cases, there are not enough descriptions to allow proper reconstructions of these instruments. Here, once again, the similarity in names points to the very obvious closeness of the Aryans to other Asian cultures. For example, veena in Sanskrit (Skt.) is too much like the ancient Egyptian beent, the Sumerian gisban, the Japanese biwa and the Chinese pipa to be dismissed as fortuitous.

The invasion of India by Persian and the Mongolian armies brought in a newer stream, though contacts with these countries were centuries older. The mercantile, religious and martial connections of northern Indian with its bordering lands had been in existence from ages, and with these also were linked the exchange of music and instruments. Various flutes and drums as depicted in our own murals as well as in those of Central Asia, besides certain common words in music, bear ample testimony to this fact. But, a drastic encounter began by about the 11th Century A.D. from when what is termed the Islamic influence noticeable begins. However, it may not be correct to call all this Islamic, except for the Sufi content and spirit, just as it would not be right to think of a musical instrument as of Hindu origin, except the damaru, the veena and the venu which have definite associations with the pantheon. Be that as it may, along with the fresh ingress, developed different musical forms and quite possibly even instruments such as the daff, the sitar, the sarode and the shehnai were brought by these aliens.

While it has to be conceded that number of instruments have come to us from outside, it is equally true that quite a large number have also traveled out. The Far East received many instruments from India, mainly through traders and Buddhist monks who went on missionary work; so has the Middle West. As a matter of fact, the general consensus of opinion is that bowed instruments originated here and then migrated to various parts of the world. Again, from the 8th Century A.D. till about the 15th Yavadveepa and Suvarnadveepa (present Indonesia) were highly Indianized musically, which fact is revealed in the names of their old instruments: padahi (Skt. Pataha), murava (Skt. Muraja, Tamil murasu), vangsi (Skt. vamsi), kahala, ghanta and bheri. Today the West has taken to the sitar and the tabla without any kind of reserve.

Contacts with the West have brought certain changes in our music in general but discussing them here may be out of place. However, there are a few facts worth noting which are pertinent to the present subject. The first is, of course, the influx of certain instruments. The violin is one. It will be of interest to know that in all probability the first bowed instrument, which might have been the parent of the violin, was Indian. But the violin as it is now found in our country came to be used in classical music about a hundred years ago, though there are sculptural evidences of violin-like instruments, probably as early as the 10th Century A.D. It is generally agreed that Baluswami Deekshitar of Madras adapted it to Karnatak music in the 19th Century. He might have learnt to play it from the European bandmasters stationed in Fort St. George in Madras. His family's disciple, Vadivelu, was a great master of this instrument and was honoured by the Maharaja of Travancore with the gift of an ivory violin. It has now come to stay as a major instrument in south India, and a few Hindustani musicians have acquired a degree of competence in it. The clarinet has also found a place, to some extent, in serious music, though it is really used in popular and light music, and in street bands. It has not found favour with the more sensitive connoisseurs perhaps, because of the presence of keys to close the holes. Whereas in Indian oboes (the shehnai and the nagasvaram) the holes are closed with the fingers thus obtaining a variety of finer pitches and gamakas, the mechanical keys in the clarinet make this impossible. The most ubiquitous invader is the harmonium. Since it easily carried about, requires no tuning and is not very expensive, it has been used extensively in folk music, light music and Hindustani classical music; though Karnatak classical music has so far kept it out of bounds. But the fact remains that its very structure makes it incapable of producing accurate pitches (srutis) and ornaments (gamakas) which are some of the most beautiful ingredients of our music.

A major new dimension introduced from the West is orchestration. Not that India did not have group playing; but orchestration and harmonization are new practices. Instrumental ensembles were known as the kutapa in Sanskrit; they are called mela (melam) in south India. Today, such instrumental ensembles were known as the vadya vrinda, familiar to all of us over the All India Radio which maintains some of the biggest vrindas (group). As early as 200 B.C. Bharata described in detail the kutapa for his drama. He gave full instructions on how to arrange it (kutapa vinyasa): the places for the veena players, the drummers, singers and so on. We still have a number of such ensembles of various types and sizes with us. The panchamaha-sabda was already referred to. There are the pancha vadya of Karnataka, Kerala and Orissa comprising some or all of the following instruments: kombu (horn), sankh (conch), mukha veena or mohori (oboes), dholak, timila and idakka (drums), jhanj or talam (cymbals), depending on the region. The nayyandi melam of Tamil Nadu and the karaga mela of Karnataka are also very popular. Besides these are the temple kutapa such as the ashtadasa vadya which may not really have eighteen instruments as the name implies. A common sight, and sound, are the weeding bands in large as well as small towns, with quite a few Western instruments-the trombone, the trumpet, the accordion, the kettle drum, etc. instruments in the police and armed forces are almost entirely foreign.

Except the last mentioned, all the other instrumental troupes play Indian music; but orchestration as borrowed from the West is an entirely different matter. As understood at present, this means that the music is based on chords (a set of notes sounded together) and harmony (a sequential arrangement of chords), most often involving transposition (changing the scale by playing the same notes, but with a shift of the tonal base). While all these are of great importance to harmonic music and of great beauty, they are alien to the Indian musical genius. But, and this is a significant qualification, a process such as transposition kills all the finesse of musical intonation which is the very life of raga. Similarly, the technique of harmonic music eliminates all gamakas which add so much refined elegance to the rendition; it is also doubtful if intricacies of tala are possible with such music. Now these are elements which we cannot afford to lose, at any cost; and under these conditions, can orchestration be accepted as a creative stimulus to raga music?

Orchestration has certainly given us new dimensions in sound: tonal mass add color which have been of great utility in programmatic music-where music is meant to illustrate, emphasize or even imitate certain actions and events (thunder, running water, patter of rain, etc.) in films, dramas and ballets - though vadya vrindas produce music without such programmatic references. Sometimes such music is of a high order and quite often based on raga patterns and folk tunes. As such this can be good Indian music, but definitely not good raga music.

This brief survey of the cultural history of our instruments brings into focus the dynamic nature of all social processes. It reveals the highly electric nature of Indian society and the hazards of a journey in the monorail of textbook study. Our society, like any other, today is the confluence of many tributaries and should be viewed as such. Only, the problems in India are much more complicated due to the great age of the civilization, the wide and uneven spread of the land and the multifarious races that have gone to the making of our life.


Karnatak Music, Fort St. George In Madras, Indian Oboes, Folk Music, Light Music, Hindustani Classical Music, Western Instruments, Raga Patterns, Folk Tunes, Individual Instruments, Cultural Perspective, Cultural Developments Of Society, Polynesian Blood, Meghalaya Hills, African Tongues, Ruanda-urundi Of Africa, Damaru, Indus Culture, Egyptian Beent, Sumerian Gisban, Japanese Biwa, Chinese Pipa