The tambura (also called tanpura in the north) is one of the classical instruments of the stringed group. It is used all over India for drone accompaniment and its varieties are numberless. With its powerful and resonant drone, it forms a perfect base for the human voice. In appearance the tambura is like the southern veena, without the latter’s second gourd and elaborate head-piece. The bowl is usually a large one, from ten inches to one and a half feet wide. The best tamburas are made of jackwood or a hollowed-out gourd. The overall length of the instrument varies from three and a half-feet to five feet. The belly is usually slightly convex. The bridge, placed on the bowl in the centre, is made of wood or ivory. There are four metal strings, three made of steel and the fourth and lowest one of brass. The strings pass through holes in a ledge near the peg. The tuning pegs of the first and second strings are fixed at the side of the neck; those of the third and the fourth strings are at right angles to the head.
Little pieces of silk or wool placed in certain positions between the strings and the main bridge serve to improve the tonal effect and enable one to hear the overtones of each string clearly. The strings are attached directly to the narrow ledge fixed to the body. There are beads threaded upon the strings, between the bridge and the attachment to which they are secured. These beads, pushed down in the direction of the attachment, act like a wedge between the belly and the strings; by thus stretching the strings, they serve to alter the pitch as required. This contrivance renders accurate tuning easier. When played the tambura is usually held upright, the body resting upon the ground in front of the performer. Some¬ times the bowl is placed on the right thigh. The strings are gently and continuous¬ ly plucked with the fingers, one after the other, in the same order. In the south, tamburas usually have wooden bodies whereas in the north gourds are generally used. The finest tamburas are made in Miraj, Lucknow and Rampur in the north. In the south, Tanjavoor, Trivandrum, Vizianagaram and Mysore are famous centres of manufacture. Tanjavoor tamburas are beautifully carved and ornamented with ivory.
The northern veena, usually called the bin, consists of a bamboo fretboard about 22 inches long and two and a half inches wide upon which are fixed on 24 metallic frets, one for each semitone of two octaves. The frets are fixed on the stem by a resinous waxlike substance. This fretboard is mounted on two large gourds, each about 14 inches in diametre. The instrument has four main strings for playing; it also has three side strings. Of these two are on the left side, while one is on the right. The bin is held in a slanting position on the left shoulder, the upper gourd resting upon the shoulder and the lower gourd on the right knee. The strings are plucked with the fingers of the right hand, the left hand passing round the stem and stopping the strings over the frets. Originally the bin was used only as an accompaniment to vocal music. Today it is not only a well established instrument for solo playing but the innovator of a distinctive and well recog¬ nized musical style of its own. The bin player masters alap, which is an elabora¬ tion of the raga in slow tempo, jod or raga alap in medium tempo and jhala or playing in fast tempo. In these, no tala is used although the rhythm is maintained throughout by means of the chikari or side strings which also serve as the drone.
Usually serious classical music of the Dhrupad style is played on this instrument and the main percussion accompaniment is the pakhawaj. In certain musical moods, the player repeats the percussion phraseology of the pakhawaj on the bin in terms of rhythmic musical phrases. This practice is called tar par an. It is said that during the period between Amir Khusrau and Akbar, the bin had only twelve frets on which a range of three octaves could be played. Subsequent¬ ly the number of frets was increased. Haridas Swami is credited with having improved styles of playing the bin and standardised the different styles of music played on it. The bin was very popular during the Mughal period. Thereafter the art of playing it was preserved and nourished by beenkars who were descendants of the famous Tansen. The princes of north India have since then patronised many great masters of this instrument. Wazir Khan of Rampur state, who flourished in the early part of this century, was among the more recent of them. Some other famous players were Mohamedali Khan, Sadat Ali Khan, Kale Khan, Mushruff Khan, Imdad Khan, Lateef Khan and Waheed Khan. The bin is a difficult instrument to play well, and the masters of the northern bin are not very numerous.
The southern veena consists of a large body hollowed out of a block of wood, generally jackwood. The stem of the instrument is also made of the same kind of wood and the bridge is placed on the fiat top of the body. The neck is attached to the stem and is usually carved into some weird figure like the head of a dragon. Another gourd, smaller in size than the rounded part of the body, is fixed underneath the neck and forms a kind of rest or support for the instrument. Twenty- four metallic frets, one for each semitone of two octaves, are fixed on the stem by means of a resinous substance. The frets are arcs made of bell metal or of steel. The veena has seven strings in all. Four of them are main strings that pass over the feets and are attached to the pegs on the neck. The three side strings are used for the drone and the rhythmic accompaniment. These strings pass over an arched bridge made of brass. They lie flat over the top of the body and are secured to the main bridge.To play the veena, the performer sits cross-legged upon the floor and holds the veena in front. The small gourd on the left touches the left thigh, the left arm passing round the stem so that the fingers rest easily upon the frets. The main body of the instrument is placed on the ground, partially supported by the right thigh. Sometimes the performer sits cross-legged upon the ground as before but holds the veena vertically by placing the body of the instrument in front of him or on his lap. This method of playing is more popular in Andhra Pradesh.
Generally, the various parts of the veena, such as the neck, the stem and the main body are made ready separately and joined together later. But there is a type of instrument called the ekavada veena where the whole length, comprising the neck, stem and bowl, is carved out of a single piece of wood. This type of veena is greatly prized. Its tonal quality and volume are richer than in the case of the ordinary veena. The southern veena as we know it today was brought into use by a ruler of Tanjavoor called Raghunatha Naik and his Prime Minister Govinda Dikshitar who first constructed a veena with twenty- four fixed frets. Before this the veena had less than twenty movable frets which had to be adjusted as in the northern sitar. The fixing of the frets (twelve for each octave) paved the way for the development of the famous scheme of seventy-two melakartas of the Karnatak system. The style of presenting Karnatak music has grown largely round the veena technique and many of the noted south Indian musicians, musicologists and composers of the past have been veena players. The tanam, a creative type of music in the Karnatak system, is the elabora¬ tion of a raga in free rhythm in slow, medium and fast tempo. The tanam as played on the veena has evolved as a unique style peculiar to the veena.