Indian musical instruments are divided into string instruments (“tantru”), wind instruments (“susir”), drums (“avanda”) and gongs bells and cymbals (“ghana”). Engravings on gold coins dating back to the year A.D. 330 depict string instruments not all different from those usedtoday. [Main Source for this article: “Rough Guide of World Music”]

Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) is credited with inventing the sitar and the tabla but it is clear if he really did (see the sitar below). Regarded as the father of Hindustani music, qawwalki and khayal, he melded Persian, Hindu, Sanskrit and Islamic influences. Khusrau was a talented Sufi poet and composer. He was a disciple of the Delhi-based Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. Poems by Khusrau are the core of the qawwali repertoire.

The most famous singer was Tansen, a Rajput princess married to the Mughal Emperor Akbar. It was said that her voice was so beautiful and powerful it could ignite oil lamps. Europeans were enchanted by some of the music they heard from India. According to legend one Indian musician ripped open his instruments at Queen Victoria's coronation to prove that the "seemingly superhuman sounds he produced didn't come from a concealed mechanical device." The greatest impact of European music on India was the introduction of brass bands by the British. Brass band music is very much alive today. Most towns have several competing bands, Brass bands are fixtures of wedding processions.

The violin is the only western instruments to be completely absorbed into Indian music. The strings of the violin are tuned differently in India than they are in the West. The light tone of the second strings and the tone of the forth string lend themselves well to southern Indian music.

Sympathetic strings or resonance strings are auxiliary strings found on many Indian musical instruments, as well as some Western Baroque instruments and a variety of folk instruments. They are typically not played directly by the performer (except occasionally as an effect), only indirectly through the tones that are played on the main strings, based on the principle of sympathetic resonance. The resonance is most often heard when the fundamental frequency of the string is in unison or an octave lower or higher than the catalyst note, although it can occur for other intervals, such as a fifth, with less effect. [Source: Wikipedia]

Indian String Instruments

The “sarangi” is a fretless bowed string instrument with sympathetic strings, a broad fingerboard and double belly. The entire instrument is carved from a single piece of wood with a hollowed body covered with sheep skin. There are three or four main strings and up to 40 sympathetic strings. [Source: “Rough Guide of World Music”]

The sarangi can produce a wide variety of sounds, many linked with the human voice. It was traditionally used in vocal recitals but now is featured as solo instrument. Some claim the sarangi is the most difficult instrument in the world to play. The right hand wields the box while the left hand stops the strings with the fingernails rather than fingertips. The “tamboura” (also spelled tambura) is a 4- or 5-stringed instrument plucked in the open string position only. The strings are tuned to the main tones of the raga and provide a continuous drone accompaniment. The “ektara” is the simplest string instrument. It has only a single a string that is plucked with the fingers. The string can provide melodic or rhythmic accompaniment and has traditionally been used by mendicants and traveling minstrels. It is made from a single piece of bamboo, with a large gourd attached to it.

The “surmandal” resembles a zither and is often used by singers to accompany themselves with a drone or melody. The “santoor” is a trapezoid-shaped, hammered zither. Believed to have originated in Persia, it has over a hundred strings, organized in pairs between two bridges and struck with upward-curbing wooden sticks. It is popular in Kashmir and used in Indian ragas and film music.

The “veena” is the most important instrument of karnatak music. It is a plucked string instrument similar to a sitar except it has no sympathetic strings. It has curved musical boxes at each end that are associated with the Hindu god Shiva, regarded as both a creator and destroyer, and the Goddess Sarawati, the deity of learning and fine arts. The veena is made of a hollow block of wood, with a neck attached so that it looks like the head of a dragon. It has seven strings and 24 fixed frets. The Vichitra veena is a northern version of the veena. It has a broad stem and six main strings fastened to wooden pegs fixed to the other end. The Chitra Veena is played by a plectrum and is capable of producing delicate nuances.

Sitar and Sarod

The “sitar” is the most famous Indian musical instrument. Used mainly in Hindustani music, it is a plucked stringed instrument with a metal fingerboard, movable frets, main strings, sympathetic strings, a teak neck and a seasoned gourd resonating chamber. It was invented for in the 13th century by Amir Khusrau. Its name comes from the Farsi word “seh-tar”, which literally means "three-stringed."

Modern versions of the instrument have six or seven main strings, of which four are played and the two or three others provide a drone. In addition there are eleven to nineteen sympathetic strings. The two sets of strings are fitted on different bridges. Sitars come in varying size. Some have an extra gourd at the end of the neck that helps to amplify the sound further.

The main playing strings are the first two and occasionally the forth string. They provide the melody and are plucked with a plectrum which is worn on the index finder of the right hand. Twenty or so bars and frets along the hollow neck can be moved to conform to the scale of particular raag. The strings can be pulled from side to side over the curving frets to create subtle pitch variations and provide the “gliding portamento”—gradual sliding from one note to another—so characteristic of Indian music.

"The sitar's invention had earlier been attributed to court musician and administrator Amir Khusrau," Indian musicologist S.D. Pillai told AP. "but our research has shown that while he lived in the 11th century, the sitar was actually invented in the 17th century by a musician with a similar sounding name."

The “sarod” is a traditional northern Indian string instrument that looks like a cross between a lute and a sitar and has a banjoey sound. Smaller than a sitar, it is unfretted and has 25 strings: with some strings for melodies and some for droning. It is widely used in Hindustani classical music and is known for its deep, rich tone and distinctive sound.

The sarod has a metal fingerboard and two resonating chambers (a large one made of goatskin-covered teak and a smaller one made of metal at the other end of the freeboard). Ten strings (four of which carry the melody) are plucked with a coconut shell fragment. The rest are sympathetic strings under the main strings.

The “subahar” (who mane means "spring melody") is a essentially a bass sitar. The neck is wide and longer than the sitar and the frets are fixed. The larger, longer strings produce a deep sound that can be sustained a long time. It less flashy and has a lower voice that the sitar.

Indian Wind Instruments

Flutes are associated with Krishna, who is often shown playing one and entertaining his milk maidens with them. The ancient frescos at Ajanta and Ellora depict flute players. The basic Indian flute is made from a piece of bamboo and has a hole at one end for blowing into and six finger holes at the other end. “Bansuri” is word used to describe a wide variety of bamboo flutes. Some are blown at the end and some are blown at the side. Even though most have a range of two octaves or less, some are used as concert hall solo instruments. [Source: “Rough Guide of World Music”]

A “shehnai” is a single-reeded instrument that resembles a large oboe. Made of smooth, grained wood, it is narrow at the top and wider at the bottom. It usually has six holes but may have up to nine holes, some of which are stopped with wax for fine tuning for a particular raag. The word “shehnai” is a combination of the Persian words “shah” (king) and “nai” (flute).

The shehani is traditional instrument for wedding music and festival music and is widely used in classical and light classical music. It is often accompanied by a droning second shehnai. Great breath control and circular breathing skills are required to play this instrument, particularly for long passages and music with a fast tempo.

The “pungi” is the traditional double flute used by snake charmers. The “satara”, a double flute with one flute providing a drone and the other playing the melody, is favored by snake charmers in Rajasthan. A “surnai” is a loud folk oboe. A “kombu” is a C-shaped wind instrument made of brass or copper and is often played in religious processions.

Tablas, Drums and Percussion Instruments

“Tablas” are traditional Indian hand drums, usually played in pairs with fingers and palms and tuned to the main tones of the raag. The word tabla is a shortened form of “tabla-bayan” (meaning on the right of the bayan). Most popular in northern India, it was reportedly invented by Amir Khusrau, the same man who invented the sitar. [Source: “Rough Guide of World Music”]

The head of a tabla is made of skin with a circle in the center made with a paste made from iron fillings and flour. The pitch can be lowered or raised by pulling on the straps stretched over the body of the drums by leather braces. Expert tabla players can produce a seemingly infinite variety of timbre and pitch with their instruments, which are tuned to the dominant notes of the raag by knocking the tuning blocks, held by braces at the side of the instrument. The body of drum is wood.

The “mridangam” is a double-headed drum used mostly in southern India. It is made from a hollow block of wood and has animal skin hides at both ends. A wide variety of tones can be obtained by striking different parts of the instrument. It is a common instrument in south Indian classical music.

The “pkhavaj” is similar to a “mridangam” but slightly larger. It produces a deep, mellow sound. It is often used to accompany dhrupad singing and kathak dancing. In the old days it was made of clay; modern version, though are usually made of wood. It has two parchment heads, each tuned to different pitches. It is tuned like tabla and contains a center made from a paste made with boiled rice, iron fillings and tamarind juice, which helps produce the lower notes and has to be replaced after each performance.

Other percussion instruments include: the “dhol” (or “dholak”), a large barrel-drum played with the “surnai” in certain kinds of folk music and light classical pieces; and variety of bells, gongs and cymbals; and “kattal”, Indian castanets, often played with a harmonium.

Musical Instruments Used in Southern Indian Music

The “veena” is the most important instrument of Karnatak music. It is a plucked string instrument similar to a sitar except it has no sympathetic strings. It has curved musical boxes at each end that are associated with the Hindu god Shiva, regarded as both a creator and destroyer, and the Goddess Sarawati, the deity of learning and fine arts. The veena is made of a hollow block of wood, with a neck attached so that it looks like the head of a dragon. It has seven strings and 24 fixed frets. [Source: “Rough Guide of World Music”]

The “nadasvaram” is a difficult-to-play, oboe-like instrument that is nearly four feet long. It is believed to have been derived from the pungi, the instrument used by snake charmers. It has a wooden mouthpiece, a gourd with two bamboo or metal pipes that produce the sound. It is an important instrument in temples music and Karnatak music.

The “mridangam” is a double-headed drum used mostly in southern India. It is made from a hollow block of wood and has animal skin hides at both ends. A wide variety of tones can be obtained by striking different parts of the instrument. It is a common instrument in south Indian classical music.

The “ghatam” is a large clay pot used as both a water cooler and a percussion instrument. The “jaltarang”, a water xylophone, is made up of 18 different size cups with different amounts of water arranged in a semicircle and struck with a stick. The chenda is a hollow cylindrical drum made of soft wood and covered with cowhide. It is the chief accompaniment on Kathakali and is played in many temples in Kerala

Indian Musicians

Indian musicians in a group are often members of the same family or a small school, with teachers playing the most complex instruments and advanced pupils playing the second most complex instruments. The term Ustad is often used to describe a master or teacher.

Famous post-World War II sitar players include Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee and Vilayay Khan. Masters of Indian music include Ravi Shankar, Kishan Maharaj and Bismillah Khan. Indians into music argue among themselves whether or not these artists have gone commercial.

Sarod playing was greatly improved by Ustaad Allaudin Khan. Two of the most respected players of the instrument today are his pupils Ustad Ali Akbar and Ustad Amjad Aki Khan. The most well-known players of the sarod are a pair of teenage brothers—Amaan Ali and Ayaan Ali Bangash—who have appeared at Carnegie Hall and Prince Charles’ Highgrove estate.

Allah Rakha (1919-2000) was regarded as India's best tabla player. He played with Ravi Shankar and jazz drummer Buddy Rich and influenced he Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart. His eldest son, Zakir Hussain is also a respected tabla performer. Zakir Husseun has played tabla with Van Morrison, the Kronos Quartet and jazz guitarist John McLaughlin.

Famous Indian composers include Shankar Jaikishe, a duo that popularized many classic ragas; C. Ramchandra, who fused Latin music with the Maranthi style music; S.D. Burman, who was influenced by Bengali folk music.

Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar (1920-2012) is a sitarist known best for his association with the Beatles and is sometimes called the godfather of psychedelic and trance and world music. The son of an eminent Brahmin scholar and barrister, he was born in Varanasi in 1920. He began his musical career playing in a famous troupe with his brother, Udar Shankar, who first introduced Indian music to Western audiences. Ravi developed into a virtuoso sitar performer as a pupil of Ustad Allaudi Khan, regarded by many as India's greatest musician.

Shankar kept busy by performing, teaching, composing, conducting and producing music for orchestras, films and ballets. He was director of All-India Radio after 1949 and has won awards for his film scores at the Berlin, Venice and Cannes film festivals. Shankar first visited America in 1938 with his brother's troupe. Over the years he won three Grammy Awards.

Shankar composed India's second most popular song, after the national anthem—“Saare jahaan se achchaa hindostan hamaaraa” ("Our India is better than the whole world." To commemorate independence, Shankar composed the music for a ballet based Nehru's book “The Discovery of India”. Gandhi attended the performance and Nehru told him, "It's better than the book."

Book: “Raga Mala”, Shankar’s autobiography, edited by George Harrison.

Ravi Shankar, the Beatles and Nora Jones

Shankar taught Beatle George Harrison how to play the sitar. He also collaborated with Andre Previn, Yehudi Menuhin and Philp Glass. He first performed in front of a rock audience in 1967 at the Monterey Pop festival. He later said, “I was so scared and found myself thinking, how can I play in front of people with long hair and beads and who all looked stoned?”

George Harrison was influenced musically and spiritually by Ravi Shankar. Harrison once said that he was drawn to Shankar because he was the first person Harrison had ever met who wasn’t trying impress anybody.

Shankar appeared at the famous August 1971 Concert for Bangladesh with George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton in New York City. When the crowd erupted into applause while Shankar was warming up, the sitar-player said, “Thank you. If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you’ll enjoy the playing more.”

Anoushka Shankar is the daughter of Ravi Shankar and India singer Sukanya Rajan. She is also a sitar virtuoso. At the time she was born Ravi was separated from his first wife and was having an affair with a dancer named Kamela. Shankar and Rajan were eventually married and headed to California when Anoushka was six. She was nominated fore Best World Music artists the in the same Grammies that Nora Jones won. Ravi and Anoushka Shankar tour the world and perform together.

The American light pop singer Nora Jones is the daughter of Ravi Shankaar and Sue Jones, an American dancer, producer and concert promoter .The two of them had a nine-year relationship. Ravi had little to do with Nora’s upbringing. The two had no contact between the time Nora was 8 and 18. Ravi calls Nora by her middle name, Getali, which means “musical bee.” Nora Jones’s debut album “Come Away with Me”, a kind of poppy, easy-listening jazz record, sold 8 million copies. She won five out the eight Grammys she was nominated for in 2003. Some deejays find her style of music so laid back they call her Snorah.

Qawwali Singers and Instruments

Qawwali singers are always men. Part of the reason for this is tradition. Another reason is the belief that women don't posses the stamina to properly sing qawwali. Most qawwali singers some from families of qawwali singers. If a singer has no sons he passes the music on to his nephews.

Qawwali singers learn their crafts beginning at an early age. They memorize poems from the classic repertoire and do certain exercises to train their voice. When they are good enough they join the party (musical group), first as response singer and later, if talented enough, as a soloist. Talented singers form their own parties.

The harmonium (a hand-pump accordion-like instrument) produces a droning sound that supports the melody. The harmonium replaced the “sarangi”, a fretless sitar-like instrument that required constant retuning and was deemed unsuitable for live performances. The rhythm is provided by “dholaks” (heavy, double-headed drums hung from the shoulders and played with the fingers) and tablas, played with a flat palm as opposed to the finger technique favored in Indian music.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997) was considered the greatest “qawwali” singer of his generation. He was praised by Western artists such as R.E.M. and Peter Gabriel, and worked with Ry Cooder, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Peter Gabriel. According to Newsweek Ali Khan "sang of god and love in a voice with seemingly infinite range and startling flexibility." He won a Grammy in 1996 for music for the film “Dead Man Walking”.

Ali Khan was a native of the Punjab. He was born in Faisalabad Pakistan on October 13, 1948. His family had been singing mystical Sufi poetry set to music for 600 years. His father was a famous classical Qawwali singer who sang with his brothers in a famous party. Nusrat's father wanted Nusrat to be a doctor or other kind of professional—anything but a musician. Against his father's wishes, Nusrat listened to his father's classes and practiced on his own. At the age of nine he already displayed extraordinary talent.

In 1965, a year after his farther’s death, Nusrat began singing professionally. He studied classical music and then joined a party led by his uncle. Another uncle taught him the art of qawwali. In 1971, after his uncle died, Nusrat began developing his own style. He listened at length to recordings of his father and uncles and speed up the tempo of his singing to make it more audience-friendly.

Nusrat quickly established himself as the greatest qawwali singer of his generation. He performed widely in Pakistan and India and toured Europe and the United States. As a young man Nusrat dreamed that he would become a Qawwali and perform at a shrine in which no Qawwali had ever performed before. In 1979 that dream came true when he became the first Qawwali to perform at Hzratja Khwaja Mohin-du-din Chishto in Ajmer, India.

Nusrat weighed 105 kilos and always carried a small handkerchief to wipe the sweat that accumulated on his brow during performances. He died of cardiac arrest at the age of 49 on August 16 1997. Newspapers in Pakistan and India took time out from commemorating their 50 years of independence to praise him.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Performance

Nusrat usually performed while sitting down on rug surrounded by piles of books filled with religious and romantic poetry. A poem dating back to the 14th century was the oldest song in his repertoire. New ones were added all the time. Nusrat's party often composed songs while they performed. They usually select a poem and then choose a raag and taal to go with it. By improvising the party finds out what works and what doesn’t. The song is continually improved over a series of concerts.

Nusrat's group often performed requests that the audience demanded, and sometimes repeated a particular phrase an audience liked over and over to establish the Sufi state of ecstacy. Concerts in Pakistan usually begin with classical songs and then move onto songs that emphasize the words. The audience often chants the lyrics and go into a trance.

Nusrat moved his hands and body as he sang, sweating a lot and frequently mopping his brow. He did this both to convey emotion and to provide conductor-like cues that the members of his party picked up on. Nusrat sang with "acrobatic agility" and a "raw, impassioned tone" according to the New York Times: "Whether he was repeating a refrain with ever-increasing intensity, streaking through elaborate zigzagging lines, letting loose a percussive fusliade or sustaining a climatic note, he made music that united virtuosity and fervor.”

Nusrat recorded music for Indian films and had his music remixed with techno beats. His fans shouted, threw money and leaped in the air in ecstatic burst when he sang. In a typical performance, drums, hand claps and harmonium push his voice ever upwards

Other Qawwali Performers

Badar Ali Khan, Nusrat's cousin, is credited with modernizing qawwal by shortening the slow preludes, making the music more up beat and getting right to the passionate call and response passages. Describing him, Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times, "Mr. Khan made each song a magnificent vocal display. He swooped upward with his voice, growling rawer as it rose; he traded percussive syllables with his drummer; he bounced syncopated syllables against the beat. Three other singers in the party answered him with falsettos that reached higher and higher."

Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is Nusrat’s nephew and designated successor. He played with Nusrat and did some of his improvisations when Nusrat’s health began to fail. Rahat has a higher and thinner voice than his uncle. He has released his own albums. Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwaku is another group that features two other Nusrat nephews. Their voices are more similar to Nusrat’s and the material they do is regarded as accessible to Westerners.

Other qawwali performers include the Sabri Brothers (since Haji Ghulam Farid Sabrib died in 1994 the group has been led by Maqbool Sabri) and Munhsi Razi-ud-din Ahmed and his sons. Abida Paveen is regarded as one of the premier Sufi singers. Pareles wrote "her voice has a low, husky edge and it rose to a sustained high that hovered virtually without vibrato...She was a master of dynamics and timing, stringing together her songs in long medleys that went from calm, fervent declamations to high-flying lines.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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