Musical Instruments from the Indian Subcontinent

From the ancient times, Indian musicians have developed and performed with traditional and indigenous musical instruments that suited their style.

By National Council of Science Museums

National Science Centre, Delhi

A group of women in a garden, entertaining themselves with music and dancing (mid 18th century)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Natya shastra by Bharata Muni 

Old temple paintings and sculptures show that the ancient Indian musicians used almost the same kind of instruments prevalent these days. Natya Sastra by Bharat Muni (composed between 200 BC and 200 AD) clubbed music instruments into four groups: Avanddha vadya (membranophones or percussion instruments), ghana vadya (idiophones or solid instruments), sushira vadya (aerophone or wind instruments) and tata vadya (chordophone or stringed instruments). Till date this ancient grouping hasn't been bettered. Making of musical instruments requires great skill & practice in the manufacturing process including leather craft, metal craft and pottery, combined with some basic knowledge of music and acoustical principles.

By Paul SchutzerLIFE Photo Collection

Indian Classical Musical system has two traditions namely Hindustani and Karnatic. In addition there are folk traditions. In all these traditions, from the ancient times, Indian musicians have developed and performed with traditional and indigenous musical instruments that suited the style.

Folk Dancing (1939) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

In addition, the instrument makers have chosen special materials that could make the instrumental music more melodious. Later on, many foreign traditions were added to it.

Folk Dancing (1939) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Avanddha Vadya (Percussion instruments)

Percussion instruments are a form of membranophones. A hollow vessel is covered with a membrane that generates beats when struck.

Dholak Dholak, Rikhi Ram Originals, From the collection of: National Council of Science Museums
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Percussion instruments can be classified by modes of playing:
- played by hand like mridangam;
- played using sticks like nagara;
- played partly by hand and partly by stick like tavil;
- self struck like damaru;
- and where one side is struck and the other side stroked like perumal madu drum

Indian musical instruments are known and used by musicians around the world.

Here you see a Dholak.

Damaru, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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A damaru, or damru, is a small two-headed pellet drum from India and Tibet, shaped like an hourglass. The strikers are typically beads fastened to the ends of leather cords around the waist of the damaru. As the player waves the drum using a twisting wrist motion, the strikers beat on the drumhead.

Nataraja (12th Century C.E.)Indian Museum, Kolkata

This Nataraja, an iconic figure in Indian art, is seen here in his venerated 'Tandava' dance stance.

It is an expression of ecstasy, energy, harmony, divine rhythm, and cosmic balance.

Seen in his upper right hand is a damaru. The drum is representative of the power of creation.

Mridangam, From the collection of: National Council of Science Museums
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The Mridangam is one of the most ancient drums in India. This drum must have been made of clay, or 'mrit'. The most intricate talas of the Indian music are played on this instrument.

Kettle drum, Central Africa, 1800/1862, From the collection of: Palazzo Madama
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Nagada are the kettle drums of the old naubat (traditinal ensemble of nine instruments). These drums are about 1-2 feet in diameter, and played with sticks. Today, this instrument is usually used to accompany the shehnai.

Musical Performance (Recto); Page of Calligraphy (Verso) (circa 1750) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Tata Vadyas (Stringed Instruments)

The string instruments are harps, lyres, zithers and lutes. In tata vadya, the sound is produced by inducing vibration of a taut string or chord by plucking or bowing. Length of the string and the tension in it determines the pitch of the note and duration of the sound. 

SarangiNational Council of Science Museums

String instruments can be classified based on the mode of playing:
- by friction with a bow like the violin, sarangi, dilruba, esraj, etc. (Ravanastram is one of the earliest bowed instrument);
- by plucking the string like the saraswati veena, rudra veena
- or by striking with a hammer or a pair of sticks like gettuvadyam, swaramandala.

Here is a Sarangi.

VeenaNational Council of Science Museums

The Veena, or the Rudra Veena, of the North has two gourd resonators. The danda or fingerboard in the Rudra Veena has a number of frets which are fixed by wax. They cannot be moved.

Veena Veena by Rikhi Ram OriginalsNational Council of Science Museums

Ragamala Painting (17th Century AD)Indian Museum, Kolkata

In Saraswati Veena, the main bowl or resonator and the neck are made out of one piece of wood. The fingerboard is also of wood but it is separately made and attached to the neck. When the whole instrument is carved out of one log of wood, it is called the Ekanda Veena.

Megha Mallar Raga, Folio from a Ragamala (Garland of Melodies) (circa 1725-1750) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Jantar is a variety of fretted veena. In structure, it is very close to the contemporary Rudra Veena and the Saraswati Veena. All these instruments have two resonators of gourd or wood. The resonator at the lower end of the Jantar is made of specially grown pumpkin.

Mohan Veena, Rikhi Ram Originals, From the collection of: National Council of Science Museums
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The Mohan Veena is a modern rendition of the Veena.

Sitar Sitar, Rikhi Ram Originals, From the collection of: National Council of Science Museums
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It is generally agreed that the Sitar was developed in India about the end of the Mughal Empire in 1700s. It was probably an Indian adaptation of Persian lute. But Sitar might have been developed from Indian Tritantri Tanbura as well.

Zitar - Electric Sitar, Rikhi Ram Originals, From the collection of: National Council of Science Museums
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Nowadays, electric versions of traditional musical instruments are available. Here is an Electric Sitar called a Zitar.

Zitar - Electric Sitar, Rikhi Ram Originals, From the collection of: National Council of Science Museums
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Sarod Sarod, ca. 1885, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Sarod Sarod, Rikhi Ram Originals, From the collection of: National Council of Science Museums
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Travelling Sarod, Rikhi Ram Originals, From the collection of: National Council of Science Museums
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Box Tanpura Box Tanpura, Rikhi Ram Originals, From the collection of: National Council of Science Museums
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Ektara, Rikhi Ram Originals, From the collection of: National Council of Science Museums
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Ektara only has one string.

Dotara Dotara, Rikhi Ram Originals, From the collection of: National Council of Science Museums
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Dotara has two strings.

By Paul SchutzerLIFE Photo Collection

Ragamala Painting (18th Century AD)Indian Museum, Kolkata

This painting depicts Raga Hindol (a characterisation of a musical rhythm) playing a stringed instrument.

Venugopal (12th Century C.E.)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Sushira Vadya (Wind Instruments)

Sushira Vadya are hollow instruments where wind is the producer of sound. These can be further classified by mode of playing: wind is supplied mechanically such as in organ or harmonium; and wind is supplied by the breath in clarinet nadaswaram, shehnai or flute (mouth blown). 

Shehnai Shehnai, Rikhi Ram Originals, From the collection of: National Council of Science Museums
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For wind instruments, the sound is produced by blowing air into a hollow column. The pitch of the note is controlled using fingers to open and close the holes in the instrument.

The Shehnai is a popular wind instrument in India.

Eliot Elisofon, 1949-05, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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It is especially used for ceremonious occasions such as marriage processions.

Flute Flute, Rikhi Ram Originals, From the collection of: National Council of Science Museums
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The simplest of these instruments, the flute, is made of bamboo or wood, and is preferred for the tonal quality.

Held at a slightly inclined horizontal position, its holes are manipulated with skilful fingering to control the pitch and tonal quality.

As seen here, the flute comes in a range of different sizes.

Flute, Edward Riley, Sr., 1819 - 1831, From the collection of: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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Here is a modern flute.

Stick flute, Unknown author, 1st half 19th century, From the collection of: National Music Museum
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Companion Persuading Radha as Krishna Flutes, Folio from the "Lambagraon" Gita Govinda (Song of the Cowherd) (circa 1825) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Lord Krishna in Indian mythology, is iconically depicted as the flute player in paintings in numerous styles all over the country and from different periods of time.

Sapera Been Sapera Been, Rikhi Ram Originals, From the collection of: National Council of Science Museums
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Sapera been is used for snake charming!

Ragamala Painting Ragamala Painting (18th Century AD)Indian Museum, Kolkata

Snake charming is a popular art form in itself. The sound and the movements of the pungi attract the snakes. The musician has to stay focused and confident!

...and interact with the sounds at the Nehru Science Centre in Mumbai!

Credits: Story

This online exhibition is created by National Science Centre, New Delhi, a unit of National Council of Science Museums, India.

Some photographs of Indian Musical Instruments:
courtesy Mr. Ajay Sharma, Rikhi Ram Originals, Connaught Place

Other supporting images courtesy respective institutions.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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