Debate: Meta Tuning of Tanpura
By N Ramanathan
I wish to accept the invitation from Martin Spaink to join the discussion on "Use Real Tanpura" (Sruti 246, Sruti Box). We must first concede that 'Real Tambura' (or the Acoustic Tambura, as some would like to refer to it), is also the product of the technology of one age. I still remember the protest and dissent that was expressed when the black steel strings of the 'real tambura' were replaced by stainless strings and the brass strings by copper wound steel strings. And I remember the rivalry between the Tanjavur - Tiruvananthapuram tambura-s on the one hand and the Miraj tambura on the other. Senior Carnatic musicians used to proclaim that although the Miraj-make had a louder tone, its timbre was sharp and piercing while the tambura-s from the South had a soft but rounded tone. We e also know how, for convenience of travelling in train and plane, the size of the tambura was reduced by making the dandi shorter and the kudam flat and later how a folding tambura too came. In doing all this, compromising and sacrificing tonal quality became incidental and this happened in the South while the Hindustani musicians appear to have had no problem carrying two or even three Miraj tambura-s on a train or plane.
And I also remember that, when the first electronic tambura / sruti-box came, it was with automatic tuning and musicians did not trust electronics and boycotted it. So the manufacturer changed it to manual tuning. After 20 years, manual tuning is nowhere to be seen. 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°-0)". 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?
However, the musicians are not seeking the tonal support o£ only the basic frequencies of the four strings in a tambura. The fundamentals and the harmonics in a tambura produce combination tones and also subjective tones in the ear (aural harmonics) that give rise to a huge cluster of tones which provides a tonal canvas to paint the musical picture on. Here I would like to recall my playing the tambura for a Rudra veena artist and feeling total discomfort since the harmonic gandhara from the mandra shadja string was interfering with the flat gandhara of Bagesree that the artist was performing.
It thus takes us to the problem of drone and music. Here again there seem to be differences as far as the expectations from the musicians of the South and North are concerned. In the North, not only does one of the two/ three tambura-s have six strings or more with some of the strings being tuned to the other swarasthana-s of the raga, but some artists also in addition strum a swaramandala in which the strings are tuned to all the swarasthana-s of the raga (in three registers). Thus it is rather ironical that Hindustani music which uses mainly steady notes for melodic structuring requires two to three tambura-s and one more swaramandala and a purely steady-note instrument, namely, harmonium, as melodic support for an artist, while on the other hand Carnatic music in which at least two swara-s in a (typical) raga are oscillatory in nature and where there is greater possibility of slipping from the tonic note, artists use only one wooden and one electronic tambura or just one electronic tambura.
Contrast this with a nagaswara performance held in the open with the drone support of a single otthu, which later inducted a sruti box. Thus the tambura, unlike an otthu or sruti box, is not merely supplying the fundamental note, the fifth and the octave, but a tonal platform or tonal background which is more a melodically ornamental support than a life support. Thus we find that the problem of tambura artists becoming unemployed due to the arrival of the electronic tambura brought in the related issue of electronic versus wooden (real) and has now got further stretched to bring in the eternal (regional) divide.
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