Just like the Sitar, the Tanpura is part of the family of long-neck lutes. They are mostly stringed with 4 or 5 metal strings (rarely with 6 strings) and as keynote instruments they are an important component of classical Indian music. They are always tuned to a keynote and its fifth and octave. The strings are not fingered but plucked. Characteristic for the Tanpura is its sound which is very rich in overtones and the tapestry of overtones that is created by the constant playing of the individual strings and that has an intense effect on the listener. Thus the Tanpura is, except for accompanying traditional Indian music, also an ideal accompaniment for musical meditation, overtone singing or modal improvisation.
As with all the other instruments, TARANG has a wide product range of northern Indian Tanpuras by different leading instrument makers. All Tanpuras are handmade unique items and are not industrially mass produced. This is why all indicated sizes and features of the Tanpuras are merely reference points and not binding promises.
The Indian Tun wood is mostly used for making a Tanpura. It is a variety of the well-known Indian teak wood. The instruments receive a shellac varnishing using natural pigments. Yellowish to reddish shades are the rule. These come in different brightnesses and range from transparent to almost black. Simple Tanpuras mostly have celluloid decorative strips and simple celluloid inlays as well as carvings at the sound boxes, turned pegs and fine tuners that are mostly made from plastic. Luxury modes are characterised by more elaborate inlays on the cover as well as carved pegs. The fine tuners are mostly swan-shaped. All in all they are usually a better quality of material and craftsmanship.
3 Tanpura categories: male, female and instrumental
There are three main categories of Tanpuras which differ in shape, size, character, basic tuning and use:
The instrumental Tanpuras are the smallest Tanpuras with a length between 95 and 115 cm. They are stringed with 4 or 5 thin steel strings and, compared to the other two categories, have a flat wooden sound box and neck. The sound can be described as clear and silvery. The characteristic tuning of an instrumental Tanpura is around C (C - D). Instrumental Tanpuras are used in Indian music e.g. at Sarod or Sitar concerts.
The male Tanpuras are the longest Tanpuras with a length of 140 - 150 cm. Their construction in general is significantly more voluminous and the diapason is longer. This allows a lower tuning around C (C to D). The characteristic sonorous strong sound is a special kind of experience. Male Tanpuras are especially suited for accompanying male singers.
The construction of the female Tanpuras is, apart from the size, the same as that of the male ones. With a size of around 120 to 130 cm they are a little smaller than the male Tanpuras, this is why their tuning is around G (F sharp – G sharp), that means their tuning and also their idividual sound are between the instrumental and the male Tanpuras. They are equipped with 4 strings and are traditionally used for accompanying female singers.
By using strings of different gauge, the tuning of the Tanpura can be varied to a limited extent.
The standard tuning of a Tanpura consists of fifth, octave and keynote. In the following examples you will find further options of traditional Tanpura tuning for a Raga that is being accompanied which does not contain a fifth. In addition we have some more examples for tuning 5-stringed and 6-stringed Tanpuras. But the creative scope of musicians, when tuning their Tanpura, is unlimited. Independent of traditional Indian standards, any tuning can be selected.
A Tanpura can be held and played upright resting either on the lap or on the floor, or it is placed horizontally on the lap or on the floor in front of the player. The classical playing technique requires putting the thumb of the playing hand to the neck of the Tanpura so that it serves as a support. The fingers should be placed not across but parallel to the strings over the middle part. Then the first string is plucked with the middle finger and the second, third and fourth strings with the index finger. The plucking is done by the soft insides of the fingertips so that the plucking is more like a soft stroking of the strings. The string should be set resonating softly without an audible touch.
The strings are plucked in a regular rhythm but after touching the fourth string there should be a slightly longer pause before the first string is played again. This gives the fourth string the opportunity to echo a little longer. The playing rhythm should not sound too mechanical or uniform. It is important to convey the impression of a freely floating, lively vibration.
The Tanpura is a fundamental, elementary instrument in Indian music. It does not come to the fore so much, but connects all the instruments involved by its sound tapestry in an unobtrusive way. Thus it contributes to a consistent musical experience.