August 2003




August  2003 



 Ancient musical
 instruments of India

 Robert Blackwill &
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Gyan Marwah

Music instrument4-f.jpg (272304 bytes)
A band of ancient instruments

Interestingly, South Indian classical music has remained more or less unchanged because, unlike the North, it did not came under the influence of any invader. Instruments like veena, gottu vadyam, mridangam and nadaswaram have not become extinct or undergone any alternation in their shape or size.

North India came first under the sway of successive invaders from the Slave Kings to the Sultanates and from the Mughals to the British, all of whom brought in their own music and grafted it into pure Hindustani music and also introduced a number of new instruments. The shetar from the Middle East was redesigned as sitar. The sarod was a derivation of the rabab. Many Muslim instruments like the santoor, shehnai, tabla, pakhawaj, surbahar and sursinghar were, over the years accepted into Hindustani music.

" The decline of Indian music also began during the Mughal era. Aurangzeb abolished court musicians saying that music was profane. This was a turnaround from the Hindu culture which had attributed music to the Brahmins because of its divine origin. It is still referred to as the fifth Veda by the puritans," says Prof. Prasad.

The puritanical Brahmins of ancient India desisted from using wind instruments as these involved blowing them from the lips. Exceptions were made to the conch shell and the flute as these had religious overtones having been used by Lord Krishna. But still, the kind of flutes used by the Brahmins were blown by the nostrils and not touched by the lips.

Unlike in the West, most of the Indian instruments have not changed over the years. Old temple paintings and sculptures show that the ancient Indian musicians used almost the same kind of instruments prevalent these days. The only difference is that because of first the Muslim and later the British influence a lot of newer instruments are found in the modern Indian repertoire.

The orchestra [vadya vrinda] is again an import from the West although ensembles have not been unknown in our ancient culture. There are sculptural and pictorial representations of instrumental groups specially in Ajanta [2nd to 7th century a.d.]. The ensemble included instruments like the eddaka [drums], sangu [conch shell] and talam [cymbals]. A reliable proof of the antiquity of Indian instruments can be found in the Pali works [400 B.C.] which talk of veenas, sankhas and bansuris.

" Sadly, with the advent of modernism, Hindustani classical music has begun to decline because of the invasion of Western melodies," says Prof. Prasad who is on a one-man mission to re-popularise old instruments. He adds, "Another reason is the virtual disappearance of good craftsmen. For want of any quality control, the tone which is the soul of any good musical instrument, is frequently sacrificed. That is because some of the craftsmen are merely carpenters and are ignorant of the sensitive principles of music."

Prof. Prasad adds that a wide variety of musical instruments have gone silent as many of these were little known beyond their small spheres of influence. Instruments like dahara from Kashmir comprising a 73 centimetre iron bar twisted at both ends holding 40 iron and bronze rings. When shaken the rings produce rhythmic sounds. It was traditionally used as an accompaniment to Laddishah--one of the most popular folk songs of the region. Today there are hardly any craftsmen to make the instrument.

Similarly, ravan-hatti, an instrument unique to Mewar in Rajasthan is found largely in museums. And pena once used widely in Assam and Manipur is consigned to history. Even the been is in the endangered list and is now confined to small towns and villages.

One of the main reasons for the virtual extinction of ravan-hatti, dahara, pena and hundreds of similar musical instruments is perhaps the debasement of music. Apart from very few connoisseurs, there is hardly any interest in classical music or the instruments.

Prof. Prasad has taken upon himself to identify authentic craftsmen and revive the glory of ancient organology. On his list are instruments like the bhopung and ravan-hatti [single- stringed instruments from Mewar], tirid [tribal flute from Bihar] morchang [ancient Rajasthani harp], jhika [wooden clappers from Bengal] and ghuma [a Goanese drum].

" At a time when western musicians are falling back upon the rich tradition of Indian music our younger generation is rejecting Indian music for pop songs. We must make a concerted effort to change this reverse cultural trend," says Prof. Prasad, all set to revive the glory of ancient Indian music.











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