7. The Instruments of Dhrupad

As previously noted, vocal music is generally more important in Hindustani music than are instruments. The string instrument most probably dominant in the Mughal period was the been, or rudra vina, which is the most ancient stringed instrument in India, though it is almost extinct in contemporary Hindustani music and is rarely heard today, with only two major performers surviving. The rudra vina is made of two large gourds joined symmetrically by a long, thin wooden neck, with frets traditionally fixed to the neck with beeswax, four main playing strings, and three drone strings. It is characterized by its deep, rich voice. It may be seen in numerous paintings from the Mughal period.

The solo instrument heard on this Web site is the surbahar. The surbahar was developed as a more practicable vehicle for capturing the tonal range, expressive scope, and spiritual mood of the rudra vina. The surbahar, like the vina, has a practical range of three and a half octaves; it has a wide neck, thick strings, and a single large, flat gourd. The surbahar has sympathetic strings, usually eleven to thirteen in number, that give an added resonance to each tone played on the main strings and help to create the distinctive sound of the instrument. A prominent shared characteristic of the rudra vina and the surbahar is the technique of "bending" a note by deflecting one of the playing strings sideways across a fret. In this manner, a pitch on the surbahar can be raised by up to a full seven tones on a single fret.

The sitar, though not present during the Mughal period, is currently the most important stringed instrument in the Hindustani tradition. Like the surbahar, though smaller and higher in pitch, it consists of a gourd with a wooden faceplate attached to a wooden neck, with movable frets arching over a set of sympathetic strings, and sometimes having a secondary gourd.

The rudra vina, surbahar, and sitar (as well as the tanpura—see below) all have curved bridges, traditionally made of deerhorn, across which the strings pass at a very slight angle, thereby creating the distinctive "Indian" effect of rich overtones which has led to the latter two instruments' use in a number of contexts in the West.

The pakhawaj is the barrel-drum dominant in the Mughal period, and like the rudra vina, it may be seen in numerous Mughal miniature paintings. It is made of a single piece of wood, hollowed out, with goatskin heads on either side and bound together by leather straps running the length of the drum. By means of sliding wooden pegs inserted under the straps, the right side of the pakhawaj—with its black circle of composite paste in the center of the drumhead—is tuned precisely to and resonates with the tonic of the melodic performance. The left drumhead produces its bass sound by means of a circle of moistened whole-wheat flour-like bread dough—applied to the skin.

The tanpura or tambura is the fundamental accompanying drone instrument in Indian music. It consists of a gourd body attached to a long round wooden neck, with four to six strings tuned to the main notes of the raga, always the tonic in lower and higher octaves, and the middle fifth (or fourth if the scale has no fifth), and sometimes the seventh. In performance, the tanpura accompanist plucks the instrument's strings in continuous succession—1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3, 4; etc.—throughout the entire performance, to provide the background drone so characteristic of Indian music. The tanpura in its current form is not seen in Mughal miniature paintings, though the manner of holding other string instruments over the shoulder—in which position it would be difficult to achieve any fretting of strings—suggests possibly an earlier version of a drone instrument to accompany singing.

The surmandal or swaramandala (literally, "temple of notes") is a zither-like instrument of many strings; the strings are tuned to the raga being performed and are strummed in sequence to created a kind of shimmering background effect, though individual notes may be plucked as well. Illustrations of this instrument may be found in Mughal miniature painting.

-- Brian Q. Silver

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