At the end of an evening of Carnatic music in Russia, a story goes, the organizer rose to deliver a speech of thanks. He complimented all the artistes on stage, but he singled out, for fulsome praise, the tambura’s music. The gentleman behind the tambura—the vocalist’s husband, as it turned out—must have cringed. But this Russian host from many years ago was neither the first nor the last person to be confounded by the tambura’s role in a concert.
The tambura and its strummer sit inconspicuously behind the lead musician and, just as inconspicuously, the thrum of its strings lays out the musician’s natural pitch. That pitch, or sruti, is the musician’s compass, a navigational aid over musical terrain. Just as the Boy Scout knows west once the needle points north, so the musician knows “Ri”, “Ga” and the other four notes once the sruti determines “Sa”.
Going digital: Vocalist P. Unnikrishnan in performance (Photo by: V. Ganesan/The HIndu)
Today, the tambura is sometimes replaced—or, very often, supplemented—by a cheery little synthesis of science and art: the electronic sruti box. It is the travelling musician’s dependable companion—a diminutive, be-knobbed box, made more often than not by a firm named Radel. The tambura is big-bellied and unwieldy, and temperamental in its tuning; the electronic sruti box needs only a power socket and a few twists to its knobs to be ready to hum.
And, of course, what can be turned electronic can always be booted further into the digital age. Today, music shops in Chennai sell CDs recorded with an endless loop of a tambura strumming a specific sruti. At least one musician has a sleek, white iPod dock in front of him during concerts, with its miniature speakers playing back an hours-long MP3 of his sruti. Vocalist P. Unnikrishnan dispenses with such niceties, and goes one better. From his iPod, he loops a discreet earphone all the way into his ear, sending his sruti directly where it’s headed.
Strumming the tambura appears to be a performance art in itself. There must be a consistent volume maintained—not loud enough to drown out the music, but not soft enough to be entirely inaudible to the artistes. It also involves an alarming amount of sitting straight and still; that could well explain our Russian organizer’s marvel at the tambura performance, which he may have viewed more as a feat of calisthenics or Zen quietude. Too much movement distracts the audience, and too little movement leads to cricks in the back. I, for one, would be found slumped over the tambura’s belly by the end of a 3-hour concert, hand moving only feebly over the strings.
For something this crucial, the tambura’s equivalent word in English—the “drone”—makes it sound remarkably banal, somewhat like an electric drill. In actuality, a well-tuned tambura is always soothing, but its symbolic value is far, far greater. At concerts, before the curtain goes up, I find myself waiting for the first audible hum of the tambura. It has become my signal to stop texting, shut my book and settle down, and to give myself over to the anticipation of the excitement that lies ahead.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org