BY ANKIT AGRAWAL
Indian musical instruments are remarkable for their beauty and variety of forms which, as seen in the paintings at Ajanta, have remained largely unchanged in the last 2000 years.
Among all the classical musical instruments, the tanpura, or tambura as it is called in south India, is special as it crosses the divide between Hindustani and Carnatic music, between dhrupad and khayal, vocal and instrumental, and classical and folk music. This drone instrument is considered the foundation of Indian music, and vocalists and instrumentalists adjust their pitch according to it. In fact, every student of Indian classical music is expected to learn to strum and tune it.
Going by the seminal texts on performing arts such as the Natya Sastra, the Sangitaratnakara, and scholarly commentaries on these works across centuries, the concept of the drone has always remained integral to performance practices. Purandardasa (16th century), the pitamaha of Carnatic music, thus highlighted the importance of the tanpura (“one who plays the tambura has crossed the ocean of bhavsagar”), and composed it in raga Sindhubhairavi. The tambura also finds mention in Sangam era literature like Tolkappiyam and Silappadikaram.
These photographs are a visual documentation of the instrument-making process, from the fields of Pandharpur where the gourds (tumba) are farmed to the artisans of Miraj who make the tanpura. Both places are in Maharashtra. Other important places known for the making of the tanpura are Thanjavur, Rampur and Varanasi.
In the last century or so, Miraj overshadowed the other centres due to a confluence of factors. It had access to good quality raw material and was close to centres of music in western and southern India. The fact that Miraj boasts a railway junction has also played an important role in its growth as a centre for instrument making and repairing.
Also, helpful acts of patronage, a favourable climate, the existence of Khwaja Meerasaheb’s dargah and proximity to the vibrant classical music scene in centres like Dharwad, Pune and Mumbai, many artists settled in Miraj.
The foundation of instrument making in Miraj was laid by accident in the 1850s when acting upon a royal command Faridsaheb Shikalgar repaired the instrument of a visiting musician. The results of Faridsaheb’s success in this endeavour can be seen to this day.
(This work was produced under the aegis of Neel Dongre Award for Excellence in Photography 2016-17 and exhibited at the India International Centre in April-May 2017.)
(Ankit Agrawal is a Delhi-based journalist and photographer with broad interests in human rights, development, environment, and arts and culture. He has worked with Mint and Tehelka and contributed to BBC Hindi, and The Hindu among others. )
(Photo story published in the September 2017 edition of Fountain Ink)