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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.