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Indian Musical Instruments in SwarMala



Harmonium is a Western instrument adapted for Indian music. It is mainly used as an accompaniement to a singer or for playing lehra in solo Tabla performance. The instrument has several octaves of black and white keys, corresponding to the equal temperament of Western music. The musician plays it with both hands, where one hand activates the bellow of the instrument, and the other hand plays using the various keys. The harmonium also has a few dedicated keys which play continuously in the background to provide a drone-like effect. This instrument poses some problem in Indian classical music, as it is an equal-tempered instrument, which does not match the unequal temper of Indian ragas. Nevertheless, is it one of the most popular instruments used for accompmaniment in Indian music.

One of the most well-known harmonium accompanist of our time is Appa Jalgaonkar.


Sarod is an Indian classical music instrument. It originates from the Senya rebab - an Indio-persian instrument played in India from the 16th to the 19th century. Although the design of Sarod has changed significantly over centuries, it has kept some characteristics of its ancestor: Sarod is made from one piece of carved wood, the neck is fretless and the bridge is seated on a skin stretched on the body of the instrument. Maihar's sarod, developped by Ustad Ayet Ali Khan, brother of the famous Ustad Allauddin Khan has 4 playing strings, played with the nails of the left hand, 2 rhythm strings tuned on the high tonic, 4 strings placed on a flat bridge near the neck, and at last 13 sympathetic strings tuned on the notes of the raga. The musician uses the end of the nails to stop the string. The right hand hits the strings (but not the sympathetic strings) with a coconut wood plectrum.

Few of the most well-known Sarod players are Ustad Alladin Khan (the Father of Maihar Gharana), Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and Pt. Buddhadev Dasgupta


Sitar has been arguably most popular Indian classical string instrument for more than a century. Stalwarts such as Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan and Pandit Nikhil Banerjee made Sitar famous in the world in the last 50 years.

Sitar is a plucked string instrument, with a shape similar to that of the tamboura but of smaller size and has frets on its neck. Its body is carved out of tun (Cedrela tuna) or teak wood and its main resonator is made out of a pumkin.

Many modifications have been brought to the instrument, such as rhythm strings (chikari/jhala) from the been or sympathetic strings. Ratna Rahimat Khan has changed the general shape of the sitar, adding a bigger resonator and thicker strings, so as to be able to play alaps in much the same fashion as those on a Veena.

Normally, a sitar has 13 sympathetic strings tuned on the notes of the raga, three main strings, tuned to tuned Ma Sa Pa, which span three octaves, and a fourth string tuned to kharja (very lowet octave) Sa. In addition to these, a Sitar has three rhythm strings (chikari/jhala), tuned Sa Sa Sa, with the first Sa in the middle octave and the last two Sa's in the upper octave (Taar).


The santoor is a Persian instrument introduced in Indian classical music. Santoor is a flat instrument made from a wooden resonating box, with 30 to 40 groups of strings, with each group consisting of 3-4 iron strings. The strings are played with two forks, made from wood or metal.

The credit of of making Santoor one of the several performance instruments of modern times goes to Santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. He has also made several modifications to the original Santoor design, to enable meend-like effects on Santoor, the lack of which was considered as a major shortcoming of the instrument for playing Indian Classical music.


Shehnai is a wind instrument. The instrument has two reeds (some say it has four reeds due to the split of the upper and lower reeds). The body is made of wood with a brass bell-shaped end. The two parts are held together by strings. The reeds used in Shehnai is made of pala grass. Spare reeds and an ivory needle with which the reeds are adjusted are attached to the mouth piece. Shehnai is a very sensitive instrument and requires a lot of skill on musician's part to play. It is considered one of the most difficult instruments to play. The sound of Shehnai is associated with auspicious occasion. As a result, it is found in temples and is an integral part of Indian weddings.

Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan is credited with bringing Shehnai out of temples and wedding halls and making it one of the mainstream Indian Classical instruments.


Sundari is a high-pitched version of Shehnai, with smaller body and reeds.


Bansuri, a.k.a. the bamboo flute, is one of the oldest Indian instruments. A favourite of popular music, it has only recently been used for classical music, becoming the instrument of musicians such as Pannalal Gosh.

Technically limited to two octaves, the flute has many drawbacks when it comes to performing a raga: the glissandos which are abolutely necessary are difficult to make on a wind instrument. The glissandos are made with a special technique: bringing the fingers near the holes of the flute; this technique allows glissandos of up to 6 notes.

In the traditional bamboo flute of North India used to be a been a soprano of fourteen inches long with 6 holes burnt out corresponding to the notes of the Kalyan that (one of the modes). Pannalal Ghosh created a larger instrument dedicated to Hindustani classical music, with a seventh finger hole to extends the range of the instrument and allows a more accurate rendition of many ragas.

The holes are in alignment, except for the last one (placed differently depending on whether the flute is to be played by right-handed or left-handed musicians). Some musicians play the last hole with the help of a bamboo key (in case of very long flutes).


Tamboura is one of the classical instruments of the stringed group. It is a common instrument in both North and South Indian Classical Music and it is found in different varieties. In appearance, tamboura looks like the southern veena but it does not have the second gourd and elaborate head-piece.

The resonance box or bowl of tamboura or tamboori is made of wood and is spherical in shape having an upper covering made out of a plain flat plank. The length of the instrument varies from 31/2 feet to 5 feet. The hollow body of the tambura has a small neck. The bridge which is placed on the bowl in the center is made of wood or ivory.

There are four metal strings attached directly to the narrow ledge fixed to the body of the tambura. Three of the strings are made of steel and the fourth and lowest one is of brass. The strings pass through holes in the ledge which is near the peg. The tuning pegs of the first and second strings are fixed at the side of the neck and the other two strings are at right angles to the head. There are beads threaded upon the strings, between the bridge and the attachment to which they are secured. These beads act like a wedge between the belly which is slightly convex and the string, when it is pushed down in the direction of the attachment.

There is a slight difference in the northern and southern varieties of tamboura. In the south, tambouras usually have wooden bodies whereas in the north gourds are used.

The tamboura is held upright while playing. Sometimes the bowl is placed on the right thigh. The strings of the tambura are gently and continuously plucked with the fingers, one after the other. Little pieces of silk or wool is placed in certain positions between the strings and the main bridge to improve the tonal effect.

The finest tambouras are made in Miraj, Lucknow and Rampur in the north. Tanjavoor, Thiruvananthapuram, Vizianagaram and Mysore are famous centers of manufacturing tamburas in the south. Tanjavoor tamburas are beautifully carved and ornamented with ivory.


The Tanpura is an accompaniment instrument, similar to Tamboura, but has a different tonal quality. Like Tamboura, it is also a drones instrument. However, the sound of Tanpura is quite shallow. The Tanpura is usually smaller in size with a smaller gourd and a wooden neck. It has four or five strings, with the strings wound along the pegs for coarse adjustment. The ivory beads on the other end are used for fine adjustments to the string tension. Due to the portability of Tanpura, it is an instrument of choice for musicians while away from home. Tanpura is normally held horizontal (flat) on one's lap, with the gourd on the right hand side. The strings are played using two fingers of the right hand.


Tabla is one of the most famous instruments of India. It is said that drums appeared as early as 6-7th century AD. Drums are seen in the Pushkaras depictions in the Ajanta sculptures.

The most interesting part of Indian drum is the loading of the leather surfaces, the right face carries a permanent loading. The tabla consists of two drums the 'bayan' played with the left hand and the 'dayan' played with the right hand. Bayan is made either of clay or copper while dayan is usually hollowed out of a block of wood. Both are covered with the skin fastened to leather hoops which are stretched over the body of the drum by means of leather braces. Cylindrical block of wood are wedged between the braces and the wall of the tabla. Wedges can be pushed up or down to lower or raise the pitch. The application of a mixture of flour and water to the left head of the dayan lowers the pitch and gives the dull bass sound. This plaster is always scraped off after use. In bayan, the plaster is mixed with iron fillings and it is applied once for all.

Tabla has a light and sweet sound. Therefore it is well suited for accompanying kheyal, thumri and other soft instruments like sitar and sarod. Dayan can be tuned accurately, but bayan has an infinite pitch. It can be tuned accurately to an octave lower than tabla. The drums are kept erect on the ground and played with the fingers. Sound is produced by striking the center with full hand or the tip of fingers and press the bass of the palm towards simultaneously sliding it over the drum head. Tabla has a highly developed technique of playing. This instrument is capable of producing almost all the patterns of rhythms that a musician can conceive of.


Pakhawaj is a double-sided drum used in Indian Classical music, mainly in Dhrupad accompaniment. It has a characteristic deep sound and as a result, is used by many light musicians in their compositions to render special effects. A smaller variety of Pakhawaj is Mridangam, which is the main accompaniment instrument used in the South Indian (Carnatic) Classical music.

The body of the Pakhawaj is made of one piece of tun (Cedrela tuna), or shisham wood (Dalgergia Sissoo). Hollow, the body has two apertures of different size, one, small, that will generate high pitched sounds and another, wider, for low pitched sounds. The walls of the instrument are 2/3 centimeters thick and give it stability in the low frequencies.

The goat skin, coupled to the high pitch aperture or dayan (right in Hindi because it is played with the right hand), has a thick black disk made of flour, ferric oxid powder and starch stuck to its centre to allow the emission of harmonics. The skin coupled to the bass operture (bayan, or left) is regularly coated in its middle with plain flour paste to give it a perfect tune. The two skins are stretched together by leather strips.

The amazing musicality of the pakhawaj comes from the expression of bols or specific strikes from one or both hands. About twenty bols follow the poetic structure of dhrupad.


The Dholaki is a very popular percussion instrument used in folk music. The Dholaki is a two-sided percussion instrument, with one end (Dayan, literally meaning right) used to play pitched sounds, and the other end (Bayan, literally meaning left) used for bass sounds. The Dayan has a coating in the center, made from a mixture of tar, clay and sand (dholak masala) which lowers the pitch and provides a well-defined tone.

The body of the Dholaki is created from a single piece of wood, with walls that are 2/3 centimeters thick, and the playing surfaces are made from animal skin. The two skins are stretched together by iron clad. The dholaki is the main accompaniment instrument of the Qawwali and other folk music genres.


Manjeera (also known as Jhanj or TaaL) is a simple side rhythm instrument normally used in accompaniment of Bhajans and other forms of devotional music. It consists of two small semi-conical discs made from brass, held together by a cottone string. The two discs are struck on each other rhythmically to play different patterns. The strokes have two main sounds - open and closed. The pitch of the Manjeera sound is dependent upon its diameter, weight and the quality of brass.

1 Parts of the information provided above is extracted from Makar Records, Webindia123.com.

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