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Ranjani Sivakumar on the art and science of tambura

Vocalist Ranjani Sivakumar looked at some basic aspects of the instrument’s history, design and musicality

You take an unassuming piece of wood and attach strings to it, and with the right kind of care, construction, and cultural evolution, it can come to produce a resonance that mirrors the very substratum of existence — like molecules, planets, and humans live and flourish on the nurturing gravy of eternal space, so do swaras, ragas, and melodies dance on the auditory fabric woven by the tambura’s mesmeric drone.

Ranjani Sivakumar

When classical vocalist Ranjani Sivakumar logged on to the call to delve into the “exceptional qualities of this ancient and sonorous instrument” in a brief and enriching meeting organised by Dhvani Ohio, she had an entire narrative planned, she says. But that went for a toss when she saw the demographic of the attendees. The subject matter of the lecture-demonstration, ‘The Song of the Tambura’, promised to be a highly technical and academic one, involving at least a dozen references to psycho-acoustics, Quasi Helmholtz motion, and Pythagorean Commas. But her audience of around 40 participants was largely youngsters. And so, her tone and delivery took on a cherubic and tender quality as she slowed it down to ensure that the kids first made friends with the bulbous instrument before being introduced to its nitty-gritties, its “art and science”.

“I had made extensive notes. I saw many children, so I quickly changed it. I wanted them to retain a sense of wonder around sound, instrument, and music. So many theoretical aspects fall into place naturally as they are being curious,” explains Ranjani, who has taught music at outdoor camps and alternative schools.

Ranjani got hands-on, picking up a 4kg Miraj tanpura and thrusting every nook and cranny of the giant instrument into the web-cam lens to point out how the sound from the plucked strings travels from the peg-laden Langot all along the giraffe-like Dand to the mediating Guruch and bounces into the scooped-gourd belly of the Thumba after being amplified by the Jeev thread on the sound board. Just shows how important it is to incorporate intimacy and engagement in didactic methods for effective transfer of knowledge and cultivation of interest.

Subtle dynamics

No foray into the instrument’s nature can be made without an elucidation of its subtle string dynamics. Its unique sound is strongly influenced by minor physical aspects you could easily deem acoustically insignificant. Using a lid and rubber bands of varied tautness, Ranjani demonstrates the relationship between pitch and string tension. Once the fundamental concept has landed, she swiftly proceeds to talk about more nuanced facets. The instrument’s rich timbre and buzzing vibrance, called Jawāri, is produced by a tiny little thread that makes the strings have a “grazing contact” with the surface of a bridge made of materials as free-ranging as wood, ebony or camel bone. Sir C.V. Raman’s curiosity was kindled by the spectral auditory hues, called harmonics or overtones, that formed around each fundamental note and differentiated its effervescent tonality from that of most other plucked lute-like string instruments.

Ranjani Sivakumar on the art and science of tambura

One cannot say that Ranjani was able to plumb the depths of the instrument during the session. After all, one-and-a-half hours is hardly enough to scratch the surface of an instrument with a history as eclectic, a design as intricate, a presence as essential, and a musicality as quintessential as the tambura’s. While most of its genealogical cousins — the Uyghur Tambur, the Kurdish Tembur, or the Persian Tanbur — have grown into standalone and accompanying instruments that play melodies and tunes of their own, the Indian subcontinental version has retained a gravitas about it, deigning only to provide a weighty harmonic backdrop to Hindustani and Carnatic compositional forms .

There’s something very compassionate and spiritual about a sound that wishes to tell no stories of its own, but only be the canvas for a myriad tales. A little like the Internet — that great digital canvas that has sustained and nestled most of human activity as COVID-19 roams the great outdoors. Ranjani is cautious but sanguine: “We must be grateful for an online option to fall back on, and surely we have learned enough to adapt — small concert spaces have mushroomed and offer recording options. The shift has made it possible to reach any corner.”

Then again, she stresses that we need the organic benefits of music — between laments of several artistes switching to electronic tambura because the bulky instrument calls for care, maintenance, and painstaking tuning, and today’s listeners sipping concerts from their tinny phone speakers and miss out on the true live experience, she also emphasises the meditative properties of music that can be accessed only with focussed and non-superficial engagement with the music. The simple process of mindfully tuning a tambura, striving for sruthi shuddham, the sublime resonance of sound, allows the musician and listener to connect with something deep and introspective within themselves.

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