Instruments in Indian Sculpture

The polished, ivory-ornamented elegance of modern Indian musical instru¬ ments such as the veena, the sitar and the sarod affords little idea as to how primitive were the instruments from which they are descended.

By: Diksha Sharma

Posted on: 9/11/2020 View : 217

THE EARLY BEGINNINGS

The polished, ivory-ornamented elegance of modern Indian musical instruments such as the veena, the sitar and the sarod affords little idea as to how primitive were the instruments from which they are descended. In fact, the main families of existing musical instruments can all be traced to various devices of primitive man to make music which sounded different from his own voice. Amongst the commonly accepted main classes of instruments, namely the string, the wind and the percussion, the last mentioned has the earliest origin. Every variety of percussion instrument contributes rhythm and dynamism to whatever type of music it accompanies. Rhythm comes naturally to man, since everything in creation moves to it. It is man’s oldest impulse. The ceremonial dancing of primitive man was a great outlet for his emotions, both when experiencing pleasure and when appeasing the God he feared. The basic impulse of rhythm in him led him to standardise the various forms of emotional expression he was familiar with and to create and design rhythmic instruments. The simplest accompaniment of the dances of primitive man was provided by the dancers themselves. They marked time by stamping their feet and clapping their hands in simple rhythms. Sometimes they kept time by beating their chests, flanks and bellies with their hands. These methods might will have been the first pointers to a drum. Gradually rattles came into use. They were probably first made out of nutshellss, seeds and stones strung together or placed in a hollow gourd, and either suspended from the waist of the dancer or tied to the ankles, so that they sounded sharply in response to each movement. Such early beginnings resulted in the use of cymbals, gongs, bells, ankle-bells (ghunguru), kartal, and so on.

Another rhythmic instrument used by primitive man was the stamping pit. This was just a big hole dug in the ground and covered with bark. People stamped on this lid with their feet and thus produced a sound somewhat like the beating of a large drum. One variation of the stamping pit that emerged sometime later was that instead of being covered with bark the pit in the ground was covered with hide and beaten with long, stout sticks. Such a ‘drum’ was called bhoomi dundubhi, and 9 it was used on such occasions as the Mahavrata ceremony mentioned in the Samhitas and the Brahmanas. A casual banging on a hollow gourd or a human skull might have suggested to primitive man that sound could be amplified by the use of hollowed-out materials. Hallow bamboos or large block of hollowed-out wood covered at both ends were commonly used. The were beaten with thick sticks. It is possible that the sound of wind-swept branches striking against the stretched membrane of a dead animal first gave man the idea of stretching and covering up an open frame with skin. The duff, the khanjari, the tambourine and all drums with open frames are extremely simple in construction. The ancient instrument pataha also belongs to this category. So does the conical drum. There the skin is stretched over a pot which serves as a resonator. Such drums have been in common use all over India since very early imes. Two examples are the bheri and the dundubhi. These ancient drums still survive in the modern nagara and its variations. Without doubt it must have been a little later that barrel-shaped wooden drums covered with skin on both sides came into use. There are numerous varieties of the two-sided drum; the two that are most common and incidentally most represen¬ tative are the dhol and the mridanga. The dhol and its cousins are normally used for weddings, festivals, processions, and other ceremonial occasions. The dholak, the dholki and some other variations are smaller versions of the dhol, while the dhak is a larger version.


The mridanga also called the Pakhawaj in the north, is considered to be the most ancient of the Indian drums. This is also a highly developed percussion instru¬ ment in that it has been the accuracy of pitch and a variety of tone which are uncommon in similar instruments in any other country. The tonal superiority of this instrument is not surprising since it plays a vital role in any concert of Karnatak music. The explicitly stated rhythmic accompaniment required of the mridanga is an organic part of the music as a whole. The tabla is another type of drum with a distinctive shape. It is in fact nothing but a mridanga or pakhawaj in pieces. To overcome the unwieldiness of big drums, portable drums like the damaru, the huruk and the udukku were designed. These small drums are shaped like an hour-glass, flaring out above and below a narrow central waist. They can easily be carried under the arm and are know all over India by different names. A development from the ancient pot drum is the panchamukha vadyam, literally the five-mouthed instrument. The mouths are covered with stretched skin and tho musician plays on them with both hands.The sound produced by each mouth is different but the general quality ofthe sounds is very similar to that produced by the mridanga. Examples of this type of instrument are found at Tiruvarur and Tiruvanikkaval, both in the Tamil region. There is a sculpture in the famous temple at Chidambaram where the panchamukha vadyam features, along with two side drums. An early example of this type of drum belonging to about the 3rd century B.C. has been discovered in the exacavations at Rajgir in the north. In the earlier type of drum, tuning to the required pitch was not easy. The least dampness or change in temperature could disturb the pitch. A most important 10 development in percussion instruments was, therefore, the introduction of multiple skins and multifaced heads as in the mridanga, the pakhawaj and the tabla. Where multi¬ faced drum heads consist of two or three concentric rings of skin, it is easy to tune the instrument to the desired pitch and produce a wide variety of percussioned sounds. In India wind instruments, particularly those belonging to the horn group, are essentially meant to be played in the open air. They are the chief producers of sound on all festivals and other ceremonial occasions.

Wind instruments also form an important part of temple music. The oldest ancestor of all metallic horns is the curved buffalo horn. Horns like the fcombu, the shringa and the kahala probably developed out of a megaphoneshaped instrument into which early man spoke or sang for the purpose of amplifying his voice. Out of this simple megaphone evolved the actual horn in which the air column within the instrument is set in vibration by means of the lips of the player. The rather terrifying sound of the horn was associated with all sorts of ceremonial and magical rites of primitive people. The piercing quality of its tone made it useful for giving signals—to summon an army, to announce important events and to issue public invitations for festivals and processions. The horn is played in isolation as well as in accompaniment with other instruments like drums and gongs. It possesses a rather hoarse sound and is not capable of producing many notes, No attempt has been made to play it scientifically and indeed its proper compass is not even understood. One of the earliest wind instruments to develop was the flute, called by many popular names like bansuri, venu, and murali. This is an obvious sequel to the phenomenon in nature of the wind humming and whistling through bamboos which have been bored through by bees and insects. This is a favourite image of the poet Kalidasa. The idea of producing the necessary current of air though the mouth and then blowing it through a bamboo must have followed naturally and resulted in the development of the flute. The next stage was the invention of ‘stops’ or finger-holes in the flute so tnat the player could produce both high and low notes. This invention must have been hailed as a stroke of genius. There are several varieties of flutes. Some are held vertically away from the face while others are held transversely, parallel to the eyebrow. Lord Krishna is always shown playing the transverse flute. The art of producing sound from a double reed is very ancient. The simplest example of producing sound from a reed is a blade of grass held tightly between the thumbs of both hands, as we all know from the days of our youth. When this blade of grass is folded together it becomes a ‘double reed’. When blown into, the two halves of the reed vibrate against each other. The slit between the two sides of the reed opens and closes alternatively, allowing the air to enter the instru¬ ment at intervals. This folded blade of grass or a pair of leaves tied together and attached to the mouthpiece of a pipe illustrates the principle of the double reed.

In primitive instruments of this type, which are used even now by the aboriginal tribes and common folk, the reeds are thick and of unskilled workmanship, quite different from those of the shahnai and the nagaswaram. The instruments themselves 11 are roughly constructed and produce a general tunelessness that would shock the ears of people accustomed to refined tonal variations. The nagaswaram and the shahnai are essentially open air instruments but modern experts, with their clear technique and fine sense of tone, have brought to these instruments a smoothness comparable to that of a stringed instrument and made them fit for chamber music. The first stringed instrument invented by man was the hunter’s bow. When the hunter shot his arrow, he must have noted that the bowstring produced a pleasant humming sound. If he twanged the bowstring near the cavity of the mouth, the sound was amplified. If he rested the bow on some hollow object, the resonance increased still further. The next discovery probably was that the sound varied with the length of the string. Strings of varying length must then have been attached to the hunting bow. Thus must have evolved the basic principle of the world-famous harp. The fact that a piece of skin stretched over a hollow body such as a pot produces a sound of relatively great volume when caused to vibrate was known to man very early. He used this principle to increase the volume of sound by fastening one end of the string to a drum and thus invented a kind of resonator. He gave one end of the bow the shape of a hollow boat and stretched a skin tightly over it. Several strings were merely tied round the bow shaft and could be tuned only by an elaborate process of unfastening and refastening. This type of bow-shaped veena was apparently very widely used in ancient India as it is frequently represented in sculpture dating from the 3rd century b.c. Such an instrument was called yazh in Tamil.

The yazh is mentioned in several works of Tamil literature. This indicates that the instrument was extensively used by the Dravidian people of southern India. The swaramandal and the piano are the result of a similar development. The bamboo ideichord is of very great antiquity and is used by some of the aboriginal tribes in India even today. It consists of a bamboo which is closed on both sides. Part of the wall of this tube is loosened by means of two shallow, longitudinal incisions. Under the string thus obtained, a small bridge is inserted in the centre. The string produces different tones when plucked or struck, the tube serving as a resonator. Sometimes this instrument carries more than one string; and in some cases, the bamboo tube is wholly or partially halved longitudinally so that the instrument can be laid flat on the ground. One variation is obtained by lashing together a dozen bamboos as in a raft. The instrument is found in the bamboo growing regions of India and of South-East Asia. Later on the string lifted out of the wall of the tube was replaced by a stretched string made of materials like flax and gut. Subsequently a series of such strings were stretched over a box-like resonator and the strings were plucked with the fingers. Some of the instruments in this category had as many as a hundred strings, for instance the satatantri veena and the katyayana veena. The swaramandal and the quanun adhere to the same principle. These two instruments reigned for thousands of years but could not hold their own against the impact of more developed instruments like the modern veena and the sarod. The quanun 12 became the santur of Kashmir and the Middle East where the strings are struck with small wooden hammers. The origin of the present-day piano is also traceable to these instruments. The next stage of development is the construction of instruments with a finger-board which is separate from the body. It is convenient to sub-divide this group into; one, where the instruments have a long neck, for instance the tamhura and the veena and two, where the neck of the instrument is a mere narrowing of the instrument, as in the case of the sarod and the rabab.



A prototype of the first kind is a device where a stick is insered into a small, resonating body such as a tortoise shell or a cocoanut shell and a string attached to it. By pressing the string against the neck or by touching it lightly with the fingers, the string is shortened, thereby producing a rise in pitch. The variation in the sound according to the length of the string led to the use of fretted instruments where the player could determine the pitch by varying, with his fingers, the length of the string that is to vibrate. Thus, more than one note could be produced from the same string. The frets usually consisted of gut strings tied round the neck or the finger-board as in the present-day rabab. The more primitive instruments of this group are the kinnari and its variations. The kinnari is still used in certain parts of Andhra Pradesh. The finger-board rests on three gourds and the strings are supported on crude frets made of bone or shells. The bin or the northern veena, the saraswati veena of the south, the sitar and the surbahar are examples of fretted instruments with comparatively longer necks. These are representative of the highly developed stringed instruments of the plucked variety today. Stringed instruments with short necks appear very early in musical history. They were first made out of single blocks of wood. The top was flat and the back convex. The body tapered towards the short neck. Early examples of this type are found in Gandhara reliefs where the neck with the pegs is slightly extended, the body is pear-shaped, and the instrument is played with plectrums. The modern rabab belongs to this group. The rabab remained a plucked instru¬ ment for a long time but subsequently began to be used as a bowed instrument. The belly was made of wood and covered with skin. The sides slightly pinched to give more freedom for bowing. With this modification, it became the European rebec with its curved peg box and wooden sounding board. By lengthening the finger-board, it could acquire the characteristics of the viola and the violin. But the old Indian rabab still exists in its original form, except for the pinched belly, although it is played by plucking with the fingers.


It is a popular instrument of Kashmir and is common in the rest of northern India also. The modern sarod is only a modification of the original rabab, to which a metal plate is added. This plate is fixed on the finger-board and the instrument is play with a plectrum. It is generally agreed that the earliest form of stringed instrument in India was some type of musical bow, or a hunting bow across which a string was tightly drawn. This musical bow was plucked with the finger or struck with a short stick. To increase the resonance, the back of the bow was held across the 13 mouth of the performer. Another device was to rest the end on a hollow gourd. Out of this primitive state emerged a stringed instrument consisting of a small half gourd or coconut with a skin table or cover through which a bamboo stick was passed longitudinally. This stick bore a string of twisted hair, v/hich rested on a little wooden bridge placed on the skin table. Such an arrangement consti¬ tuted the ektara of India which soon produced its close relative, the two-stringed dotara of Bengal. Nowadays the dotara has four strings. These early types of stringed instruments are still used by the aboriginal tribes of India. One of the earliest stringed instruments played with a bow was called the ravanastra. This instrument was associated with Ravana. What it looked like is rather doubtful but in some parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan, there exists even today a primitive instrument called the ravcinhatho which is used by rural people. This has two strings of different kinds, one made with a species of flax and the other of horsehair. The hollow part of this instrument is half' a coconut shell which has been polished, covered with the dried skin of a lizard and perforated below. The rajnengi bana of Madhya Pradesh, the banam of Orissa and the gogged rajen of the Saori tribes, all belong to the same family. All these instruments are held and played like the modern violin. The modern sarinda or sarangi, if traced back to its primitive stage, would be a drum-like sound box, usually half the section of a bamboo covered in front with a parchment, fitted with two or three strings aud played with a bow.

Later, the instrument was hollowed out of blocks of wood, the top covered with skin and the body extended to form a finger-board. The dotara, the chartar, the dhad sarangi of Punjab, and the chikara of Uttar Pradesh are some simply constructed members of this family of instruments. They are often suspended in front of the body and played with bows to which sometimes ghungurus (bells) are attached, so that a jingling sound accompanies the music. In the centuries that followed, this instrument slowly developed in construction and sympathetic strings were added. This resulted in the modern sarangi which is a fine instrument and is used all over northern India for the accompaniment of vocal music. In the south, the violin has come to stay. The facilities it provides for rendering gamakas and other musical effects peculiar to Karnatak music have made the adoption of the violin so complete that the southerners no longer think of it as a foreign instrument. The sitar with movable frets appeared fairly early in the north. The inven¬ tion of the dilruba and the esraj consisted in a clever combination of the sarangi and the sitar. These instruments have frets like the sitar but are bowed like the sarangi instead of being plucked with the fingers. 14 T

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