Music of India – a brief outline – Part Nine

27 Apr

Continued from Part Eight – Dhruva Gana in Natya

Part Nine (of 22) – Musical Instruments in Natyashastra


Role of instruments in Samgita

1.1. The term Samgita in the early Indian context meant a composite art-form comprising Gita (vocal singing), Vadya (instrumental accompaniments) and Nrtta or Nartana the limb movement or dance (Gitam, Vadyam, Nrtyam Samgita-mucchyate).

1.2. Samgita was also called Gandharva–vidya (the art of the Gandharvas) because the celestial beings, the Gandharvas, loved to sing and dance   to the accompaniment of instrumental music.  And the term Gandharva, therefore, often, meant Music in general.

1.3. Natyashastra explains the Gandharva music as that which is governed by the combination of Svara (tonal structure); Taala (time-units); and, Pada (text), in association with various musical instruments (Gaandharvam trividham vidhaat svara-tala-pada-atmakam). Thus, song, Veena, flute and drums all contributed to Gandharva.

Naradiyashiksha (1.4.12) gives the etymology of the term Gandharva by splitting it into three elements. It explains Gandharva Gana as made of: Ga – the song (giti geyam vidhuhu); Dha – playing on the Veena by skilful use of fingers (karupya vadanam); and, Va- other instruments and gestures (veti vadhyasya sanjnya); and says ‘this indicates Gandharva (ye Gandharvasya nirochanam).

1.4. Later, Someshvara (twelfth century) in his Mansollasa says that the instruments enhance the beauty and grace of dance and music performances, and for this reason, they have a pre-eminent place in both dance and music.

Vadyen rajte geetam ch nrityam vadyavarjitam!!  Tasmadvadyam pradhanam syadvitnrityakriyavidho!

1.5. Thus, Instrumental music was very much a part of the Samgita; and, it also enjoyed an important part in the play-production.  Instruments from behind the screen or on the stage were played to accompany various songs; to heighten the effect of the mood suggested by the scene; to better articulate different gestures; and, to accompany dance and dance-like movements.

Atodhya Vadya

Intruments-Inde-1 Intruments-Inde-2

2.1. Bharatha used term Atodhya Vadya to denote musical instruments. In the Natyashastra (NS: 28.1), Music instruments are classified under four broad categories based on their acoustic principles: Tata (stringed); Avanaddha (covered or percussion); Susira (hollow or wind-blown) ; and Ghana ( solid – like cymbals). This classification given by Bharatha was accepted as a standard format, in the later times, for study of instruments. And, it is valid till date.

2.2. Of these, the stringed and wind- instruments that produced flow of pleasant notes seemed to be the favoured ones; and were grouped with the singers. And in the music on the stage and behind the curtain, the string instruments were more important.

2.3. The string and wind instruments were generally played individually or in tandem. It is not clear whether the Orchestra (Vadya-vrunda) as we know it today was in place during the time of Natyashastra. However, Bharatha mentions three groups (Kutapa) of music-performers: Tata, Avanaddha and NatyakrtaThe Tata–Kutapa grouped together the vocalists, the players on string instruments, and the flutists. Avanaddha-Kutapa included players on percussion instruments such as Mrudanga, Pavana and Dardura. And, Natyakrta-Kutapa was the collection of actors and actresses who take part in the play.

[Interestingly, Panini’s Ashtadhyayi calls a of group of musicians as Turya, in which the Veena-players were prominent. There was a main Veena-player (Veena Vadaka) who was supported and followed by a secondary group of Veena players (Pari- vadaka) –  ‘Aveevdad Veena Parivadken’.  During the time of Panini, just singing a song (gayana) without the support of Veena was called Apa-veena. And, the sound of Veena (Nada) was called by many names as: Kana, Nikvan, and Nikvaan (Kvano Veenaya Ch). The sounds of the other instruments were called as Ghosha: Va Ghosha Nishra Shabdeshu.]

2.4. As Abhinavagupta said;   The Gita (song), Vadya (instruments) and Natya (enactment of play) should, ideally, coordinate and perform harmoniously – supporting and strengthening each other with great relish. And, the three Kutapa-s, in combination should suggest a seamless movement like a circle of fire (Alaata chakra); and should brighten (Ujjvalayati) the stage.



3.1. Tata –Vadya represent the class of string instruments (tantri kritam). It is said; such instruments were classified on the basis of number or kinds of strings (tantri bheda); and, the manner of playing the instruments. And, among all the string instruments (Tata-vadya) the Veena was the most prominent.

3.2. It is said; Veena was a generic term for all stringed instruments including lutes, arched harps, with or without frets and plucked with fingers or a plectrum.

(Natyashastra regards human body also as a veena, a musical instrument, since it has a rhythm of its own; and, is also capable of producing musical notes through vocal cords.)

Some say that the Veena referred to in the Natyashastra might have resembled a harp rather than a lute (as we know it now).

play_yazh Saraswati Veena

3.3. The major types of Veena-s during the time of Bharatha were said to be: Chitra (seven strings and played with fingers) and Vipanchi (nine stringed lutes played with a plectrum). The other types were Ghosha or Ghoshavati (single stringed – Ek Tari or a sort prototype Tanpura) and Kapucchi (also an Ek Tari).

Role of Veena in Music-theories and principles

4.1. The Veena was used in the texts as the basis (adhara) to explain the theoretical aspects of Music and also to illustrate the concepts of Sruti, Taana, Sthana, Dhatu etc.

For instance;  Dattilam (9) explains Sruti as the difference in sounds (dvani visesha) produced by striking on the string on the upper end of the Veena (Uttarottara-taras tu venayam) and that produced by striking on the  lower end (adharottarah) of the Veena . And, Abhinavagupta explains the term Sruti as the sound (sabda) produced (prabhavita) when struck at appropriate position (śruti-sthāna-abhighāta) on the Veena.

4.2. Even the vocal styles were defined with reference to  the relation between singing and playing the song on Veena. When one plays on the Veena ( following the vocal style) but without singing it is then known as Suska or A-gita . And, when one plays on the Veena and sings the song as he plays ,  it is known as Giti. 

Abhinavagupta explains: every type of Giti can be played on Veena. And, there are three types of Giti:   Tatva, Anugata and Ogha. When the Gana (singing)  is prominent and the Veena follows Gana completely , it is Tatva; when the Veena follows Gana in some part and then shows its own craftsmanship , it becomes Anugata; and , when the playing techniques becomes A-nibaddha and the Karanas become more prominent  and the Gana becomes secondary then the Giti becomes Ogha . Thus in the rendering of the Giti, Veena performs an important role.

4.3. Similarly, Murchana and Taana variations to provide pleasure to the listener as also to the performer were explained with reference to Veena. Dattilam (36) the techniques of improving Taana-s on the Veena (Taana-kriya). Dattila says: The Taana-kriya is twofold (Taana-kriya dvidha tantryam): Pravesika and Nigraha. Pravesika (entering) is raising the lower note or lowering the higher note. And, Nigraha (abstaining) is not touching the string (asamsparka tu nigrahat).

4.4. Bharatha describes the various strokes (karana) on the Veena and their sequences. According to Abhinavagupta, the collection of Svaras that are produced by striking (praharavishesha janyah) the strings of veena in a specific manner is called Dhatu.

The Dhatu had four elements: Vistara (high pitched), Karana  (low pitched),  Aviddha (duration of the note) and Vyanjana (different ways of employing each finger), each of which had its variations. Such variations depended on whether the stroke was made on the upper end (uttaramukha) or lower end (adhara) of the Veena; the number of strokes made on the strings; the time span (guru and laghu); and, their sequences.

Sushira Vadya


5.1. Sushira (hollow) instruments that allow passage of air to excite the various resonators have been popular from very early times. By manipulating the vibrations of air columns, varieties of sound patterns are  produced through these instruments. And, they generally did not involve mechanical parts. These instruments of all types- like conch, horns trumpets, bugles, and flutes of different types – were blown either by mouth or by bellows.

5.2. Chapter Thirty of Natyashastra talks briefly about Sushira Vadya-s in just about 13 verses. It is said; the wind instruments in use during the time of Bharatha were Vamsa, Nadi, Tudakini, Samkha and such others. Not much is known either about Nadi or Tudakini; and, Samkha the conch was scarcely used as a musical instrument in the play.

6.1. Therefore, the attention of the Natyashastra in its Chapter Thirty was mainly on Vamsa or Venu the flute which is an important musical instrument in the context of the Drama. Vamsa also provided the basic note (Sruti) to tune other musical instruments. And, that    helped to regulate the song and music of the play.

6.2. During the time of Natyashastra, Susira (hollow) musical instruments were made of Vamsa (bamboo reeds). Hence the flutes made of Vamsa were known as Vamsa –Vadya or Vamsa.   In the later times, the flutes came to be made from wood (Kadira and Sandal), ivory and different metals (gold, silver, bronze etc).

6.3. The Verse 12 of Chapter 30 says – The music of Vamsa which is steady and not very loud; and adorned with Varnas and Alamkaras is smooth and soothing. The rules regarding their notes (Svara) and the Grama were the same as that of the Veena.

6.4. Bharatha explains the manner of producing seven notes ‘according to the Sruti division of two, three and four (dvishrutika, trishrutika, and chatusshrutika). And, he says: by prolonging the blow the other Svaras may also be produced.

The notes were obtained by covering the hole with the finger, by placing a trembling finger (Kampita), by partially closing/ opening the hole (Ardha-mukta) or by fully opening the hole (Vyakta-mukta).

Bharatha then mentions the production of notes in the Madhyama Grama :

The notes produced from a flute-hole completely free from finger is of four Srutis; that produced from a hole with a shaken finger placed on it is of three Srutis; and, that produced from a hole partially free from a finger is of two Srutis. All these are the notes in the Madhyama Grama.

As regards the production of notes in Shadja Grama, Bharatha says:

Shadja, Madhyama and Panchama will arise from a hole fully open; Daivata and Rsabha from a hole covered by a shaken finger; and, from a hole partly free from finger Gandhara and Nishadha will arise.

Nishadha and Gandhara coming respectively in combination with Shadja and Madhyama and modifying themselves in characteristic Srutis will give rise to overlapping (Svara- sadharana) and the Kakili notes.

6.5. Natyashastra recommended that the Svaras (notes) on a flute should be perfected with the aid of the Veena and the human voice. The singer should sing the very notes in accompaniment of a flute. The perfect harmony of the human voice, strains of the Veena and the melody of the flute is indeed truly sublime, and fit for gods.

As advised by Bharatha, the flute was played mainly as an accompanying instrument ‘in harmony with the vocalist and the veena player’.

Avanaddha (covered or percussion)


7.1. As compared to Susira (hollow) instruments, the Avanaddha the covered instruments are discussed in great detail in the Chapter thirty-three of Natyashastra.

Avanaddha (membranophone) refers to instruments that produce sound primarily by way of a vibrating stretched membrane.  That merely means these instruments were made by covering a frame of wood or a vessel with a piece of stretched leather that is held in position by thin and long leather straps. The Avanaddha type of mentioned in Natyashastra are basically the drums and percussion instruments of various sorts. They were used for keeping rhythm, measuring Taala and also for making great sounds.

7.2. The drums were played on various occasions such as; festivals; processions; auspicious occasions and happy times as the weddings, birth of sons; during expeditionary marches; and, in  a battle where many fighters assemble .

Bharatha advises that only a small number of instruments be played during household celebrations.

During a Drama many instruments could be played to bring about harmonious blending of the different limbs (Anga) of the play. Drums could also be used to cover up faults, mishaps and delays.


8.1. Bharatha often uses the term Pushkara (drums made of wood) Vadya-s to denote the Avanaddha type of instruments that are covered with hide. Among these, the three viz. Mridanga, Panava and Dardura were the major type (Anga) of the Pushkara Vadya-s. And, Jhallarl and Pataha etc were the minor ones.

8.2. With regard to the major type of Pushkara-s (Mridanga, Panava and Dardura) Bharatha says (NS.37-39): They have no harshness of sound, produce clear notes, and are played with well regulated strokes.

8.3. As regards the rules of playing these three Pushkara-s , it is said : Pushkara instruments should have following aspects :  sixteen syllabic sounds (aksara\ four Margas, Vilepana, six  Karanas, three Yatis, three Layas, three Gatis, three  Pracsras, three Yogas, three Panis, five Pani-prahata,  three Praharas, three Marjanas, eighteen Jaatis and twenty Prakaras.

Then the text goes into explanations of each of those terms.

9.1. Bharatha elaborates various aspects related to Pushkara Vadya-s in great detail. He describes in fair detail  : the types of Pushkara-; making of Drums; their sizes; the types of wood ,the hides  and the blackish earth  from the river banks to be used; the ways of playing different varieties of Pushkara-s; the technical aspects of playing; the manners of playing drums in different situations in a play; the manner of playing Pushkara-s along with a song or string and wind instruments,  with dance or on festive occasions ;playing to suit the movements of different types of characters in a play such as hers, heroine, villain , jester , Gandharvas, Daityas, Danavas, Yaksas, Raksasas and others; the ways of playing for superior females and for the lesser female characters; the ways to celebrate joy, mirth , love, happiness  etc; ways of playing to suggest sorrow, suffering, loss of life ,killing,  death of dear ones etc; the manner of playing drums to suggest movement of elephants, horses , birds, chariots, boats ;  and so on.

He also lists of the qualities (guna) and defects (dosha) of the drum player in relation to playing each type of drum, such as :  Mrdanga, Panava, Dardara and others.

9.2. The text mentions the manner of playing Pushkara-s when accompanying a song or a dance sequence. The playing of drums should correspond with in metre of the songs. When the Mrudanga plays to a song of slow tempo (Vilamba kaala) the strokes should be mild; when the song is in middle tempo (Madhyama Kaala) the strokes should be  clear the syllables; and so on.

And when playing to a dance, the Mrudanga should follow the Laya (tempo) and Taala of the dance steps and movements. And, the strokes should be pure, uniform (Sama), pleasing (Rakta), clear (Sphuta) following the rhythm of dance and enhancing the beauty of its presentation.

9.3. Natyashastra even specifies how the Avanaddha-Kutapa (players on percussion instruments such as Mrudanga, Pavana and Dardura) be positioned on the stage along with other music-players. According to that :  The Tata –Kutapa (group of vocalists, the players on string instruments, and the flutists) should be seated on the stage between the entry and exit doors; and should face East. The Mrdanga player should face the stage; the players of Panava and the Dardara should sit to his left and right respectively.





10.1. Mridanga is perhaps the best known and more widely used percussion instrument in all types and forms of Drama, Music or ritual-celebrations. And, Mridanga seems to have remained virtually the same over the past several centuries. It is capable of producing rich, varied and complex type of beats. With the dextrous uses of hands and wrists a virtuoso Mridanga can generate successive series of rhythmic sounds.

10.2. Bharatha gives the descriptions of three kinds of Mridanga: Ankika, Alingya and Urdhavaka.

:- Ankika was a wide-bodied Mrudanga; its length being three and half Tala-s (Tala= is the length of the palm from wrist to tip of middle fingers; roughly about 7 to 8 inches).  The diameter of its   face measured twelve fingers (angula) wide ( say , about 9 inches) . And, in shape, it resembled a myrobalan fruit.

:- Alingya was slightly smaller in size. Its width, it was three Tala long (nearly 2 feet) ; and, the diameter of its face is eight fingers (angula-s) – say 6 inches . It was  tapering in appearance, resembling cows tail (Gau-puccha).

:- And, Urdhvaka was bigger than the other two. It was four Tala-s wide ( 30 to 32 inches) ; and , the diameter of its face was  fourteen fingures (angula)-  about 10 ½ inches.  Urdhvaka was shaped like barley (shaped like a large grain of rice).

10.3. The Panava like Mrudanga, had two faces covered by membranes; and  was smaller in size. It was sixteen fingers wide (12 inches); and its faces were 8 ½ fingers in diameter (8 inches) . And, its middle was hollow and thin (four fingers in diameter, 3 inches). Its rims were each half of a finger thick.

It was played at the time of worship (Stuti or Deva puja) and during the battle as battle call. Its beats were said to be very invigorating. Nanyadeva says that on hearing the sound of Panava, Lord Shiva will dance in ecstasy.

10.4. The Dardara was shaped like a bell of sixteen figure height (12 inches). Its face resembled that of a pot (Ghata) of twelve fingures in diameter ( say , 8 inches) , with fat lips (rims) on all side. Dardara was made of wooden frame over which a hide  was stretched tightly. In shape, it perhaps resembled a huge gong or a big water pot (maha-ghatakatah). The Dardara could perhaps be the forerunner of Ghatam.



[ There was  also a mention of other types of Drums with large surfaces such as Bheri, Pathana, Dundhubhi , Dindima etc known for the depth and loudness of their sounds . But, there is not much discussion in the text about these instruments in the context of Music, Dance or Drama.]

Ghana, the Solid


11.1.After the strings (Tata), the covered (Avanaddha) and the hollow (Susira) comes the Solid the Ghana. 

11.2. The most fundamental of the Ghana (solid) Vadya is said to be the human body itself. It is very common to see clapping of hands (Tala) , counting fingers, waving the hands, striking palms on the thighs or hips, stamping the feet on the dance floor etc in a rhythmic ways to keep or measure time.  Even the singers of Sama–Gana kept rhythm by clapping and waving hands. Even today one can see in Karnataka music concerts, persons (either on stage or in the audience) clapping to keep time (Taala) while   percussion instruments are played. It is said; Cymbals (classified as Ghana Vadya) – made of metal- also called as Tala are but an extension of the act of clapping to keep time.


11.3. The Ghana vadya-s (Idiophone Instruments) are instruments made of wood or metal that produce sound when they are struck. Along with the solid Cymbals made of metal, Natyashastra mentions Patah and Ghata (bell) as Ghana Vadya-s. The instruments of this group are usually played with a striker or hammer. 

1.4. Natyashastra mentions that these instruments of solid class (Ghana) help to measure time (Kaala) and to maintain the tempo (Laya) . And, those who play the Ghana Vadya-s  in a performance should know the rules of Taala and Laya.

12.1. The Ghana vadya-s made of metal, are not capable of producing definite pitches that are required for creating a melody. That, perhaps, is the reason   why they are not used in classical music concerts. But, the Cymbals, the Tala, are an essential part of the Dance music.

And, the Tala (Cymbals) is an essential ingredient of the  Bhakthi Samgita and Bhajans.

During a dance or a song on the stage, the Cymbals provided rhythm (Taala) to the flow of music and dance.



Continued in Part Ten


Sources and References

1. The Natyasastra ascribed to Bharata Muni by Monomohan Ghosh

2.  Musical Instruments in India through the agesby Chaitanya Kunte

3. Origin of Indian Instrumental Music


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Posted by on April 27, 2015 in Music, Sangita


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