Instruments in Indian classical music





Known as the "mother of all instruments", the tanpura is used to accompany most Indian classical music; it provides the "drone" that you often hear in the background. There are different sizes, the number of strings is commonly 4 or 5, and they can be tuned to various notes, depending upon the songs. When played properly the notes of the tanpura should join and sound as though they are one.


Tanpura keeps the voice fully attuned to the pitch. Its powerfull resonant drone helps in creating the environment which sounds as a prelude to the performance.


Both the instrument and how it is played look very simple, though in fact it takes a lot of experience and a very good ear to tune and play the tanpura.


Tanpura is made of aged wood and carved pumpkin.  The size of this instrument varies between 1 and 1.5 m.  These days small Tanpuras are quite popular among musicians.  The strings are placed on a bridge that is made of ivory, bone or wood.  The first three strings are made of steel while the fourth string is made of Brass.  The first string gives the sound of the note “Pa” in a low octave.  The next two strings are called “Jori” or “twin strings”.  They make sound in the middle octave Sa. The last string is called “Kharaj” and thia string vibrates in the low octave Sa.


The note Pa is not used in ragas sometimes.  The first string is tuned according to the specific note of the raga.  For instance the note Pa has been taken out of the Raga Malkauns.  This is why while the raga is being sung the first string is tuned according to the high pitched octave Ma.


The tanpura does not require great skill to play but continuity of the sound must be attained.  The strings must be pulled with the finger tips gently one after the other.  The first string is played with the middle finger while the remaining strings are played with the index finger.  The tanpura is usually held straight while being played.  The flat surface of the water pumpkin is based on the ground.


Male and female vocalists use Tanpuras with different dimensions.  Male vocalists use large Tanpuras having thick strings that create a deep sound that is more in tune with the male voice.  The tanpura is used by ladies are smaller in nature and are produced to be in harmony with the high pitch of the female voice.


The Tanpuras used in the South have a wooden body while those used in the North have a body of the water pumpkin, thus providing better vibrations.  Miraj, which is a small town in Maharashtra is renowned for its high quality Tanpuras.,







Ustad Bismillah Khan 

The shehnai is an wind instrument which is thought to bring auspiciousness and good luck, and as a result, is widely used in North India for marriages and processions. It brings forth the qualities of a pure Mooladhar chakra. The shehnai was created by improving upon the pungi. There are two common legends of its origin. In the first, a Shah banned the playing of the pungi in his court due to its shrill sound. A barber, belonging to a family of musicians, improved on it and created the shehnai. As it was played in the Shah's court and giving due reference to the 'nai' or barber, it was called shehnai. Yet another theory is that the name derives from the combination of the Persian words shah, meaning king, and nai, meaning flute, to give the meaning "the king's flute".


Ustad Bismillah Khan Sahib (March 21, 1916 – August 21, 2006) was a shehnai maestro from India. The term "Ustad" or "Pandit" in relation to Indian classical music implies Master or Guru.


He was the third classical musician to be awarded the Bharat Ratna (in 2001), the highest civilian honor in India. He also had the distinction of being one of the few people to be awarded all the top four civilian awards.






Veena is a plucked stringed instrument used in Carnatic music. There are several variations of the veena, which in its South Indian form is a member of the lute family. The design of the veena has evolved over the years, probably from the form seen in Indian Medieval paintings and temple sculpture: a string instrument with two gourd resonators connected by a central shaft, possibly of bamboo, and held diagonally from lap to shoulder. The North Indian rudra veena and vichitra veena, technically zithers, demonstrate this genealogy.


The South Indian or Saraswati veena was developed in the 1600s. The goddess of learning and arts, Saraswati, is often depicted seated upon a swan or peacock playing a veena. Saraswati is remembered for having said: “Were it not for my Veena who keeps me afloat I would drown as I attempt to navigate the ocean of music.”Thus the veena is the instrument associated with the Swadisthan chakra. Around since very ancient time, Lord Shiva is said to have played this instrument when he created the whole Universe. The belief is that Shiva and Parvati used to dance to the music that emanated from this instrument. 






Ustad Zakir Hussain

The name “TABLA” seems to have been derived from the Arabian Drum called “TABLA” It is believed that the Sufi Saint Ameer Khusrau had evolved this instrument by dividing the PPAKHAWAJ, an ancient percussion instrument into two pieces. The two parts of the tabla are called Dayan and Bayan. Tabla is played with finger tips and with open palms and it can reproduce all the intricate rhythmic patterns of the voice and instrument. Tabla and pakhwaj are the instruments of the Heart chakra, the Anahata.


Ustad Zakir Hussain is today appreciated as an international phenomenon. A classical tabla virtuoso of the highest order, whose art has not only established him as a national treasure in his own country, India, but gained him worldwide fame. The favorite accompanist for many of India's greatest classical musicians and dancers, from Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar to Briju Maharaj and Shivkumar Sharma.


The Dagga is played with the left hand. It can be made of clay, copper, silver or nickel.  The inner portion of the tabla is made of hollow wood.  These two drums in turn are covered with skin that is fixed on to their ring.  Leather belts are used to stretch this along the body of the drum.  Cylinder wooden blocks measuring 3 inches are inserted within the wall and in between the leather belts in order to adjust the sound.  Cotton yarn is also used in place of the leather belts in the Dagga while iron or steel rings are used in place of wooden blocks to adjust the sound.


The tabla usually provides sound at the notes Sa and Pa.  A metal hammer which is usually made of Brass is used to tune the instrument.  Different tablas are used to accompany the vocalists and instruments.  The tabla is played using the finger tips and open palms.  However this changes according to the beat of the rhythm.

The technique of tabla is very complex.  It can repeat all of the complex rhythmic models of the sound and the instrument.  Skilled and creative tabla players add to the performance.




pakhwajPakhwaj is an antique instrument also known as Mridang.  This instrument was very popular in the middle ages when it used to accompany Dhrupad singers.  It’s contemporary name is thought to have been derived from a Awaj, which was a type of drum used during the Moghul period..

Pakhwaj is also made of a hollow log that has a cylinder shape and which slightly stretches in the hand.  The portions on the two sides are covered with leather.  The dimensions of the circles are different.  The empty portion on the right side is slightly smaller.  The leather is tied using leather belts stretched lengthwise along the Pakhwaj.  Cylinder shaped wooden blocks are inserted within the wall of the Pakhwaj and between the belts in order to adjust the sound. 


Wheat flour that has been made into dough is pasted on the left side in order to lower the scale and provide a deeper sound.  The instrument is cleaned after of the wheat flour coating is applied. 


Freshly prepared dough is added each time. The Pakhwaj is played with an open palm.  The sound produced by the right side of the Pakhwaj is similar to that of the tabla.  Bols the Pakhwaj is different from the tabla however.  The main beat notes of Ta, Di, Na, Te, Gha and Ka arev used.  The remaining bols are a combination or spontaneous expression of these basic beats.  The Pakhwaj is a very developed drum.  It’s sound is very good at accompanying the Dhupad and Dhamar vocals and instruments like Rudra Veena,  Vichitra Veena and Surbahar.





Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia 

The bansuri, the instrument of the Vishuddhi chakra, is a transverse alto flute of India, made of a single length of bamboo with six or seven open finger holes. An ancient musical instrument associated with cowherds and the pastoral tradition, it is intimately linked to the love story of Krishna and Radha. The North Indian bansuri, typically about 14 inches long, was traditionally used as a soprano instrument primarily for accompaniment in lighter compositions including film music.


Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia is famous worldwide for his expertise in the Bansuri. Chaurasia is a member of the classical school that has put in conscious effort to reach out to classical music lovers and to attract more people.  As a musician, Chaurasia symbolizes a rare unity of tradition and modernity.  He has added many dimensions to the expressions of the classical North Indian flute thanks to his expert technique.  He was a awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Indian president in 1992 as a recognition of his extraordinary contributions to music.




Ustad Amjad Ali Khan

Sarod, the instrument of the Agnya chakra, is an Indian classical musical instrument. It is similar to the Western lute in structure. In terms of prominence and popularity amongst connoisseurs of Hindustani classical music, it occupies a position second only to that of the sitar. Ustad Amjad Ali Khan is a highly acclaimed Indian sarod player and composer. He developed a unique style of playing the sarod. The key innovations in his style are compositions based on vocal music, the technical ability to play highly complex phrases on the sarod spanning three octaves with equal emphasis on the composition.






Pandit Ravi Shankar

The sitar is a plucked stringed instrument. It uses sympathetic strings along with a gourd resonating chamber to produce a very lush sound. Predominantly used in Hindustani classical, sitar has been ubiquitous in Hindustani classical music since the Middle Ages. This instrument is used throughout the Indian subcontinent. The Sitar is derived from the Veena family of Indian musical instruments, and the Persian Setar, which is from the saz family of instruments, with some theories claiming only one of the two lineages.

A disciple of Allauddin Khan (founder of the Maihar gharana of Indian classical music), Pandit Ravi Shankar is, perhaps, the best-known Indian instrumentalist in the world and is well known for his pioneering work in bringing the power and appeal of the Indian classical music tradition, as well as Indian music and its performers in general, to the West. Shankar's musical career spans six decades and he holds the Guinness Record for the longest international career.






harmoniumDespite the fact that the harmonium is mainly an instrument of western music, it has been accepted by Indian music just like other instruments.  Harmoniums are mostly used to accompany light and non-light classical music.  However some musicians prefer to use this instrument in Khayal singing as well.  Musicians have always debated whether this instrument should be used to accompany music because of its constant tone.  Harmonium players in India have become experts of this instrument and have created techniques that help the harmonium conform with Indian music.







sarangiThe Sarangi is the most suitable instrument to accompany a vocalist because this instrument is most similar to the human voice.  It can create every technique of sound.  That is why it is an indispensable part of concerts for vocalists.  During Feodal times this instrument was seen as an instrument used by singing prostitutes.  That is why it’s value was never understood.  One other reason that prevented this instrument from becoming popular among musicians was the fact that it was labeled as a melancholic instrument because of its sad sound.  Sarangi players have had to put up a great struggle to earn a respectable position for this instrument today.  Even after independence for many years the Sarangi was not seen worthy of presenting concerts by itself.  Solo concerts of Sarangi have become popular nowadays.

The invention of all musical instruments played with a bow are believed to be connected with the demon king Ravana.  Many folk instruments are similar to the Sarangi.  In Sanskrit literary work such as the Sangeet Ratnakar, Natya Shastra and Sangeet Darban, we can see names such as Saranga, Sarangi and Saranveena.  The Sarang-Veena could be one of the Veenas mentioned in Bharat’s, Natya Shastra.

The Sarangi is made out of a single wooden log as big as 70 cm.  The inner portion of this log is hollow and is covered with leather.  The hollow portion contains four tuning screws.  Strings made out of animal intestines are used in place of steel strings. 


The Sarangi also has three more strings with different thickness.  The Sarangi does not have pitches.  It has 30 to 35 sympathetic strings.  They provide sound according to the scale of the raga.  The hole on which screws belonging to these sympathetic strings are fixed is located on the right side of the finger board.  The Sarangi is placed in the lap of the musician while being played and is rested on the right shoulder.  The notes are created by pressing the nails of the fingers on the strings made out of intestines.  The three fingers of the left hand are used to play this instrument.  The Sarangi is played using a bow made out of horsehair, which is held in the left hand.  The main strings on the left side provide sound in the high pitch octave Sa and the note Pa while the third note provides sound in the middle of octave Sa.  Following its battle to attain a respectable position, the Sarangi has become both an instrument which is used to accompany the main performer and an instrument that can show off its creativity in solo concerts.