The plain white tag around the neck of the tanpura says simply: 1890, Miraj, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. Around it, many more tanpuras stand tall, perched on their protuberant bases like awkward sentinels of sound. Their tags tell their respective origin stories – their scale, celebrated owners, faceless craftsmen with single names like Basir and Farookh, place of making.
To any outsider, the tanpura room at the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in central Delhi may appear unassuming. There is nothing in it that screams its distinction. To a lover of classical music, though, these are hallowed halls – in this very school lies one of India’s largest collections of tanpuras, old and new, distinguished and common, for masters and novices, for visiting musicians and city students.
On the first floor of the school, in its largest music room, there are several more tanpuras, including one gifted to a student in 1955 by the school’s founder Vinay Chandra Maudgalya. But it is the pair behind the teacher’s podium that holds the place of high reverence. These once belonged to Kumar Gandharva, the man for whom the tanpura’s drone-scape was a canvas of infinite musical possibilities.
The Vidyalaya’s tanpuras, all 200-odd of them, are in good shape, gleaming and cared for and loved like cherished friends. Making sure they always stay pristine is the responsibility of one man – Diwan Singh. A Kumaoni from a small village, Singh arrived in Delhi in the late 1960s to find a job as a domestic worker but somehow became the most sought-after tanpuriya in town.
“Just give me 15 minutes, I can get any of these tanpuras ready for a concert performance,” said Singh, 69, a key figure at Vidyalaya and the man in-charge of its tanpura collection.
For over four decades, he has been the most in-demand tanpura expert in the city, known for his skill with tuning and playing the instrument for performing musicians. So entrenched was his reputation at one time that he was called to Mumbai by the Agra gharana doyen Dinkar Kaikini to fix the jawari (overtones) of his tanpura. Violinist N Rajam sought him out too. You may also have seen Singh playing the tanpura in archival Doordarshan footage – a small frame perched unobtrusively behind the lead musician, the weather-worn face turned self-effacingly away from the camera.
He has now stopped playing concerts. “Ab nahin hota,” he said, eyes crinkling ruefully at the toll long hours of sitting takes on the body. But his skills at tuning and maintaining the instrument are still intact.
The tanpura’s place in a classical concert is irreplaceable – the unfretted instrument with four strings (occasionally five) provides musicians with a steady, unvarying, resonant drone that allows them to stay unwaveringly within their pitch. And even though it cannot create music, it is within the tanpura’s repetitive, almost hypnotising cycle of base notes that a musician can wander fearlessly within a raga.
The tanpura’s sounds usually mingle inextricably with the music. But there was one historic composition in which it almost takes the place of a main instrument. Recall All India Radio’s signature tune composed by its music director Walter Kaufmann? The brief interludes with just the tanpura are unforgettable.
In the 1980s, the electronic tanpuras arrived on the stage, edging out the traditional, acoustic tanpura. And then digital apps muscled their way in. Technology has now taken the tedium out of tuning the tanpura, a notoriously moody and cumbersome instrument.
Musicians will tell you how much patience and aural sensitivity it takes to tune a tanpura – the pegs have to be tweaked just so, the beads over the bridge have to be set to perfection and the slender threads (jiva) inserted between the strings and the bridge have to be placed just right to yield the resonant buzz of the jawari.
“Only those who are able to distinguish the finest subtleties of different notes are able to tune the four strings of the instrument so that they will blend perfectly,” pointed out singer-composer GN Joshi in his book on classical musicians, Down Melody Lane.
The electronic and digital versions, on the other hand, just need an easy finger tap or a twist of a knob to attain the same effect.
Most instrumentalists have stopped using the manual tanpura. But for fastidious vocalists, there is no replacing it. “You can instantly spot the organic, richer notes of the manual tanpura,” said Madhup Mudgal, principal of the Vidyalaya. “There is simply no comparison. What the wood and strings and the gourd put together can create cannot be replicated by any other medium.” Mudgal points out that legends like Abdul Karim Khan, Omkarnath Thakur and Kumar Gandharva would never part from their tanpuras, opting to reserve a seat for them on train journeys.
There is another, more facetious reason why the gawky acoustic tanpura will never totally disappear from the stage. In our collective memory of classical music, it remains a visual icon. There are some images of it that are inerasable: the long neck with its embellishments looming high above the head of the musician, Bhimsen Joshi meditatively tuning it, Kumar Gandharva in creative throes with his arms flailing around it, Mallikarjun Mansur’s face lifted in high ecstasy next to it.
“If it survives at concerts, it is mostly because it adds to the elegance of the concert,” said Singh. “Without it, the musician looks orphaned, the stage looks bereft.”
There are few dedicated tanpuriyas left on the music scene today. Apart from Singh, there is Jayant Naidu in Mumbai, again a familiar face on the concert scene.
Diwan Singh was barely into his teens when he landed in Delhi in 1968 from Dhania Khan, a village in what is today Uttarakhand, in search of livelihood. The Vidyalaya was then located at Prem House in Connaught Place and he found himself a place at the homestead-cum-school.
Singh’s first exposure to music, outside the folk songs his mother sang, were the classical concerts of the Vidyalaya.
“I knew nothing about this music, hated what I heard at the concerts in fact,” he recalled. “The only time I enjoyed it was when an instrumentalist hit the fast phrases or there was a sawal-jawab with the tabla. Jitna fast, utna achha lagta.”
It was the 1972 LP of Kumar Gandharva, Triveni, a collection of unforgettable compositions based on the works of Meera, Surdas and Kabir, that sparked in Singh a deeper interest in the music that he was exposed to all day at the school. “I was fascinated by it though I couldn’t quite pinpoint what drew me to it,” he said. “But I do remember the strains of the tanpura in it.”
Kumar Gandharva’s immersive engagement with the tanpura’s surround sound was legendary. He often chose to have four instead of the standard two tanpuras on stage. “To watch Kumar tuning his tanpuras perfectly and tunefully is an enjoyable and memorable experience…,” says Joshi in his book. “When the strings, perfectly blended in unison, resound and reverberate in the concert hall, the tense atmosphere suddenly becomes relaxed, and when Kumar blends his own voice so identically with the swara of the tanpura, the audience experiences a sensation divine and beyond description.”
As the years passed, the music Singh heard all day began to register most firmly on his senses – while at chores, at the concerts he helped organise and witnessed, from the many musicians he met day in and day out. He started listening more deeply to his first favourites – Kesarbai Kerkar, Jitendra Abhisheki, DV Paluskar and Mallikarjun Mansur.
In 1973, the Vidyalaya shifted to its present location and a few years later, Singh helped with the task of moving its archival recordings from discs to cassettes. As time passed, he assisted in moving the material to CDs. All this increased his aural familiarity with classical music, he recalls. “I particularly loved listening to geniuses who did not get the fame they deserved like Rajabhau Kokje, Anandrao Limaye, VR Athavale, BR Deodhar, Padmavati Shaligram,” he said.
A deeper understanding of ragas came later, when Mudgal asked him to start holding hour-long listening sessions for students to foster raga pehchan (recognition). “I would pick, say, Maru Bihag and look for its renditions by different singers and these sessions sharpened my understanding of the raga as it did of the students,” he said. He ended up curating this experience in the MP3 format. “I would consider this his most singular contribution to Hindustani music – he managed to put together 52 hours of raga Todi for instance; several hours of Bilawal,” said Mudgal.
It was around the 1980s that Singh developed a deeper connection with the sound of the drone. In the solitude of empty classrooms, he took to learning how to tune the tanpura, work the jawari – a phenomenon so intricate it has been studied by many scientists including physicist CV Raman and is still the subject of multiple scientific papers.
“I learnt to work the taar jawari, change the strings, sandpaper the bridge – in fact everything except to fix a breakage for which we call in a karigar,” he said. Mudgal would often step in to teach him how to tune the tanpura. Singh’s first chance at officially tuning a tanpura at a concert came with a performance of Mukul Shivputra, Kumar Gandharva’s prodigious son.
“He said ‘tune kar’ and the stress of it was such that my palms started to sweat,” he recalled. “All of Kumarji’s students are great tanpuriyas and fitting their expectations is hard. I made a mess to begin with but when it was done, Mukulji took it off me and went on to perform. I was thrilled to note he hadn’t changed the tuning much for the concert.”
Singh took to dwelling on the tanpura for hours and recalls the thrill of hearing hidden notes emerge. He soon acquired a reputation among performing musicians.
Tanpuras are beloved instruments at the Vidyalaya and Mudgal’s passion for them ensures that he never says no to a new one, Singh suggests. “We are happy to buy old ones if they have musical value,” he said. In classrooms at the school, the electronic and digital tanpura are banned.
In recent times, Singh has found a new platform to showcase his passion. He has taken to posting instructional videos on YouTube for students and enthusiasts on how to keep a tanpura in working order, change strings, and tune them. He enjoys the exercise but baulks at being seen on screen. “Sharm aati hai,” he said with a shy smile.
Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2022.