Debate: Meta Tuning of Tanpura
By Dr. S. Pathak
Tanpura : an Imperfect instrument
This is in response to Mr. Ramanathan's statement: "And as far as the Wooden tambura is concerned, physicists like Dr. H.V. Modak (NCPA Journal Dec. 1992) have established that acoustically it is defective since because of the shifting contact of the string on the bridge, "the fundamental as well as the harmonics produced by a tanpura show slight frequency variations (0.5 to 1°)". In that respect the Electronic tambura could be said to be free from this defect. But the recent electronic tambura-s are said to be made by sampling a well tuned tambura and then digitising it. So is the electronic tambura acquiring the deficiencies of the wooden tambura?"
I am happy that he further clarifies that "harmonics in a tambura produce combination tones and also subjective tones". What Mr. Ramanathan had stated in passing in a light hearted manner is common-place to practising musician or scholar, but to lay public the statement of Prof. Modak is devastating -- it renders Tanpura an imperfect instrument, something which all learners consider as the base of Indian classical music.
In reality, the fundamental features of Indian instruments that distinguished them as a category from those used in other parts of world were employment of flat bridge allowing jawari, movable frets and sympathetic strings. Use of gourd as resonator was also a hallmark. Indian music functions on Samvad Siddhanta of Bharat (principle of consonances) which implies that it is relationship between notes and not their fixed positions that gives form to music. The mathematical relationship is not linear but proportional. The Tanpura (and most musical instruments) have evolved on this principle, therefore what appears to be a mathematical "imperfection" in reality spells transcendence from linearity. This is not to deny imperfections which may arise as a result of poor craftsmanship or maintenance.
We also have to be wary of aesthetic principles of the listener / critic. Fixed positions of notes in the western system give rise to note as the musical unit; discretionary position calls for two notes to act as the base unit in Indian music. Bharat had provided for two aesthetic microtonal intervals -- that of thirteen mtu between Shadja and Pancham and nine mtu between Shadja Madhyam. This is what gives innate complexity to Indian music even when it sounds simple.
Excerpts from Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya - Sitar
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