Jal-Tarang: Tinkle that enchants

By T. Tuhinanshu


Almost all Indian musical instruments can be traced to some form of ancient veena-s.Jal Tarang is one of the recent additions to Indian musical instruments. Not mentioned prior to Sangeet Parijaat and the Krishna-cult poets1, it has international links with Gongs and Gamelan of Burma, Java, Sumatra being played in a similar fashion.On the Borobudur stupa musical cups are depicted. Music is played on such cups in Buddhist temples of Japan and in Kabuki theater.  The essence of Jal-tarang remains Indian as hindustani notes emanate through bowls from China played upon with Japanese bamboo sticks. 

Inspired by Jaltarang, glass music became popular in sixteenth century Europe using glasses in place of cups. A curious variant of the Jaltarang is found in Jaisalmer district. A single metal plate -- called thali or tasli -- used for accompaniment by varying strokes to produce different tones and rhythms, is filled with water and is called Jaltaal.  Although in prevalence for over five centuries now, the instrument drew quite a few enthusiasts in the first half of twentieth century. All India Radio incorporated a position of staff artiste in Jal-Tarang. The instrument was extensively used in film music and orchestral compositions. However, due to its design and delicate build coupled with lack of ease in playing more complex Raga-s, very few artistes adopted it as their main instrument for classical performances. 

The famous film director O.P. Nayyar narrated the sad decline of this instrument in a television interview. Visiting one of the musicians of his troupe who used to play jal-tarang, Nayyar inquired whether his sons had been inducted into playing this instrument. The musician replied that with synthesizers and other electronic gadgetry, there is no demand in the industry for such instruments. No one in his family tried to play jal-tarang and the China bowls are taken out whenever soup is to be served. Music had always been integrated in the daily routine -- the morning prayers, chants for specific tasks, songs of seasons and celebrations. First the concept of 'personal' in art robbed it of its natural evolution then technology bulldozed the seriousness associated with study of art. Only when we consult a reference book do we learn about India's rich heritage of musical instruments.


The rapid globalization and change in the pace of routine life has forced many of the finer aspects of culture out of popular custom and practice. Instruments like Dilruba, Israj, Sur-bahar, Vichitra veena and even Sarangi find few takers. It was with a desire to preserve the traditional and ancient arts that Ministry of Culture came up with a scheme to train young enthusiasts under masters of these traditional arts.

South Central Zonal Cultural Center contacted musicians, scholars, organizers and located practitioners in these rare areas and requested them to accept the responsibility of training four pupils in their art. The young scholars were promised a stipend and care was taken to ensure their interest in learning these rare instruments.

Dr. Ragini Trivedi had no difficulty in finding students willing to learn Jal-tarang. Teaching music at post-graduate level, she was already in touch with young music devotees and several of them had seen her rehearsing students in jal-tarang for orchestral compositions to be presented at college function and other venues. On learning about the scheme many of them pleaded to be included in the programme.

Ragini herself had started playing jal-tarang this way. She recalls,

"I used to play Sitar in the orchestra of our school. We were in the middle of preparation for annual function when the girl who used to play jal-tarang left school because of her father's transfer. I was a student of seventh standard then. One day when I reached the music room, my teacher, Shobha behenji (Shobha Parvatkar) asked me to play jal-tarang. She gave me the notes and I followed her. "Over the next few days she could hardly contain her joy as I played the composition with ease. My father used to play Vichitra veena and taught Sitar to his students. I knew that he could play several instruments but had never seen a jal-tarang at home. I do not know what transpired, but can now guess that my teacher Shobha ji must have informed father about my progress with Jal-tarang. One evening when I returned from school, my elder brother (late Dr. Gopal Shankar Misra) greeted me excitedly, pulling me to puja room. It was a large room on the ground floor which my mother had reserved for daily worship of her deities. Our dogs were banished from this room and we could enter only after we had cleaned up. As Dada pulled me to this room, my mother came there to watch the show. It took my breath away when from the door itself I saw a beautiful set of Jal-tarang bowls spread out on the neat floor. I hugged my brother, my mother and jumped to try out my jal-tarang."


Almost as a joke Ragini and her brother, Gopal who both played Sitar, chose as their special instruments, Jal-tarang and Vichitra Veena respectively. After the demise of their father, Gopal took it upon himself to reestablish the ancient-most veena and succeeded in attracting the attention of global audience. Ragini gave a few performances of jal-tarang on stage and radio but largely focused on Sitar. However, she did not stop pondering over development of new techniques for playing jal-tarang. While she played Sitar in Misrabani style (also referred by some as misrakhani), she yearned to attain the smooth flow sitar meend-s in Jal-tarang.

Of the several applicants seeking to learn jal-tarang, Ragini selected the four pupils with a plan. She remembered her father's remark that instruments like jal-tarang and santoor are not for novices; one who has already learned classical music She had already trained a vocalist, Trupti to play jal-tarang for the college orchestra. Trupti was already giving vocal performances and had good knowledge of Raga-s. Another vocalist selected was Sapna who hailing from a family of musicians had accompanied almost every prominent visiting artiste on Tanpura. She too had a keen sense of Indian Raga-s. The youngest, Nidhi was selected simply because of her inexperience. However, even Nidhi had been singing light music compositions solo and in chorus. Dr. Trivedi chose Vaibhav as the fourth pupil to test the hypothesis more broadly. Vaibhav had learned music at an early age and had been playing tabla for quite a few years. His comfort with rhythm was sure to give an edge to his learning the new instrument.

Everyday the eager learners awaited their turn as they listened to their Guru teaching one of them the minutiae from assuming correct posture to holding the sticks and sharpening their hearing ability to spot when a note rose. It seemed funny that by simply adding a little water or taking out, the desired sound would be achieved. It did prove Dr. Misra's statement that one how had already developed an ear for Indian notes would learn jal-tarang faster. Actually it was the set he had collected for world trip with the dance troupe of Pt. Uday Shankar undertaken half a century back. He did take the set out for occasional radio recordings (there being no station at Varanasi, he would travel to Allahabad for the recording) but as the set would be packed while going and coming, Ragini never realized that there was a set of jal-tarang at home.

It took almost a year before individual sets could be acquired after local shops had been requisitioned and contacts in other cities sounded. Yusuf Mirajkar of Pune hand-picked the bowls making several trips to potteries at Mumbai and around. Ragini further fine-tuned replacing a bowl in one set with more accurate choice from the other. In two years, three of the four pupils have learnt enough to play independently. The fourth had to leave as her family moved to some other city. The three still in town , continue to seek their mentor's guidance and make it a point to accompany Dr. Ragini Trivedi whenever she is invited for a performance. She says,

"I am happy the way these young learners have taken to jal-tarang. I feel that I have been able to bring into their lives what Shobha didi brought into mine. My experiment, though on a limited scale has proved my father's dictum. I have been teaching Sitar for decades to complete novices and to gain workable theoretical knowledge of notes takes almost the same time as it does to master the instrument. Once the finger starts sliding, the notes on sitar are easier identified and reproduced. On jal-tarang a previous knowledge of notes is almost a necessity. Vaibhav was and still is the fastest where speed is concerned because of his training as a percussionist; the vocalists fared better when it came to improvisation because they were well-versed in identifying various notes in the composition."

Dr. Ragini Trivedi teaches at a post graduate college; as subject expert she helps in making educational movies, acts on board of several committees, performs on radio and stage, guides students of jal-tarang under the Gurukul scheme, writes for magazines, journals as well for websites on music; she has been working on unfinished books of her father and brother besides her own projects. On being quizzed, how does she find time for any riyaz amongst all this, she laughed:

"While cooking! In the morning I put water mixed with sugar and milk on stove and switch on my electronic tanpura. I play a few minutes on sitar and jump up in time to add tea; pour and strain the concoction into the tea-pot and announce that tea is ready. While everyone gets to the table I play jal-tarang for a few minutes before joining everyone. Off and on before leaving for college, I spend almost an hour and half on the two instruments. On a routine evening I can find from one to two hours to practice on my own. Everyone one in our family is keenly engrossed in some activity of choice, so there is no distraction. It is on holidays and vacations that I practice to my heart's content in the mornings. Eighty percent of all hands-on practice is physical exercise because the true practice of music goes on all day long in your mind. However, when mind has discovered a new movement, you do consciously try that out on the instrument."

Two parts of a film based on her Jal-tarang lessons to the four learners, Gentle Tinkle: Magical Music have been released, while a final one is under process. Though across India Jal Tarang is a household name, audience -- from Chandigarh to Bhopal, Jaipur to Varanasi -- flock to her concerts primarily because they wish to see the instrument being played and on hearing her play stay mesmerized by her deft strokes that produce lilting melodies, hankering for more. Although she is hopeful towards the future of jal-tarang where interest of people is involved, she hopes that as new material keeps replacing the traditional ones and stores entice the shoppers with polymer-based crockery, the well-made china-bowls would continue to be produced in China if nowhere else. Her repertoire in Jal-tarang is not extensive as in Sitar but still she plays dozens of Raga-s on her 57 year old set of Jal-tarang.


Links and References :

1 In Description of Shyam-Shyama Krida in Sura Saravali the prominent most amongst the Ashtchhap poets, Surdas, refers to prevalent musical instruments:

Baajat Been Rabab Kinnari amrut Kundali Yantra Sur Surmandal Jal Tarang mil kar Mohani mantra ||

Vividh Pakhavaj Aavaj Sanchit Bicha Bicha Madhur Upang sur Sahnayi Saras Saarangi Upajat Taan tarang ||

To learn more about Jal Tarang and its construction, visit Parts and Plate

Short Video Clip: Hansdhwani on Jal-tarang : Play | Download

Short Video Clip: Shuddh Kalyan on Jal-tarang : Play

Short Video Clip: Ganga Mahotsava

Concert: Chandigarh, 3rd February 2008, Acharya KCD Brahaspati Samaroh

Concert:Varanasi, 11th November 2008

Further Reading:

Musical inheritence of Dr. Ragini Trivedi

Jal Tarang on wikipedia

Picasa Album of Learning Jal-tarang with Dr. Ragini Trivedi

For views of musicians on aspects of music click here


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