Ragascape I – The Tambura

It seems appropriate to write the first ragascape essay on the tambura, as the all-encompassing sound of this instrument is the source from which arise the melodic centers (notes) of Indian music.

Tambura IThe tambura is more than just a four-stringed instrument providing the sonorous drone and the basic environment in which the music enfolds. The tambura is the acoustic potential for the whole harmonic series; and, as such, represents the cosmic potential for all apparent phenomena. Although the tambura is tuned with three strings tuned to the tonic (in Indian music we call this tonic Sa or shadja) and one string to the fourth or fifth, we can find all twelve notes in the harmony that is created by the four strings vibrating simultaneously. This acoustical phenomena occurs because the harmonic series is activated through a process called jawari or cyclical wave formation in which the bridge upon which the strings are resting is filed into a particular curve.  When this process is completed properly, the notes are no longer just blunt tones but rather rich tonal landscapes with a precise sharp center and expanding periphery.

TamburaLike a mirror, the tambura has the capacity to reflect whatever is sung or played ‘over’ it. For example if you sing a note along with the tambura other than the notes that are part of the tambura, you can hear the tambura mirror that sound and ‘sing’ it back to you. The tonic in this instrument has the capacity to appear in the form of  whatever you place before it. It is as if you took a piece of clear glass and put it on top of a blue cloth. The glass does not become blue, but it appears blue. In this way the tambura is an acoustical symbol of total integration.

Tambura headWhen tuned properly, the tambura is a clear support for the vocalist or instrumentalist. He listens to the tonic note of the tambura, integrates with it, and adjusts his ‘sur’ so that each note finds a perfect resonance in the vibrational field of the tambura. Notwithstanding the great support the tambura provides to a musician, it is possible for Indian musicians to sing or play tunefully without the support of the tambura. By tuning into the anahata (unstruck) quality of the tonic, the musician becomes his own silent drone; and as he begins to vibrate with the tonic, his tuneful precision arises. This is obviously more difficult as there is no external support for the tuning.

Tambura bridgeThe tambura, as a plucked instrument, is the acoustical metaphor for all unstuck sound. It represents the empty side of clarity and the potential for all apparent phenomena.  It is the feminine space to be filled by the masculine skilfulness of melodic form.

When a musician plays or sings along with the balanced stroking of the tambura, it is not the case that he hears two different sounds—the droned tonic of the tambura and the sound of his voice or instrument. He plays and at the same moment releases the melodic configuration into the field of the tambura.

Shrimati Subbulakshmi with tambura

MS Subbulakshmi with tambura.

The artist blends with the space filled by the cyclical expansion and contraction of the tambura and allows the tonal centers of his melody to spread into that edgeless expanse. When he does this without conceptualizing either the sound of his creation or that of the tambura, there is a moment when the division between singer, song, and the act of singing dissolves.  The artist, fabricator of forms, suddenly jumps the hoop of time and space and enters the dimension where pure sound becomes a vehicle to supersensory cognition and awareness. Although conventionally we say that the singer is singing a song, in this case it is as if the song is singing the singer.

In the next Ragascape article we’ll be looking at “Swaras, Ragas, and Rasas – The Path of Indian Music.”

Tambura (Wikipedia article).
Tambura  (Article at Music of India).
Ragascape (original article in Ragascape by Steven Landsberg, 1999).
Mushtaq Ali Khan (recordings from the collection of Steven Landsberg).


3 Responses to “Ragascape I – The Tambura”

  • Wonderful exposition on the role of the tambura in music. Because the tambura is often referenced as the ‘drone’ instrument, a lot of people may underestimate its role in the performance. Steve’s article puts this ‘drone’ concept in an expanded context. Hey Steve, Chaz in Phuket has a fabulous old tambura, valuable and beautiful; if you get to Thailand go see Chaz and play the tambura alongside his sarod.

  • I met Steve Landsberg when he was in his first year at Benares Hindu University (1968) & I was in my first year at the Benares Sanskrit University (& in the process of dropping out). Steve also dropped out, but only to find himself a teacher & to devote himself to music.

    Which he has continued to do for forty-five years; what is equally striking to me is that he also devoted himself to the study & practice of Buddhism; in those days the great teachers, both of music & of Buddhism, were comparatively accessible. But it still required effort & dedication to take advantage.

    His web site Ragascape http://ragascape.com is worth more than a casual browse if you have any serious interest in Indian classical music.

  • Hi Andy, Arthur, Trina and everyone who lived in India would like to reconnect – Sherab Tharchin Ebin

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