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tampura

chordophone

The tampura (also spelt tanpura, tambura, tamburi or tampuri) is widely played throughout Asia. This stringed 'lute' type instrument comprises a sound box and neck, rather like a Western guitar. However, there is one fundamental difference with a guitar: the tampura is not designed for placing one's fingers on the strings along the neck. Consequently, the only sounds it can produce are open string chords (4 or 6 depending on the instrument). Because of this, the tampura is what we call a drone instrument. 

The tampura plays a fundamental role in Indian music, from the South (Carnatic) to the North (Hindustani). Indian musical theory and aesthetics, which are of ancient origins, consider certain notes to be more important than others and that the important ones should be played continuously in order to create a 'carpet of sound'. Against this acoustic base, a musician (male or female) elaborates a melody using another instrument or their voice. Therefore, the tampura produces important, basic notes without stopping throughout the entire performance. The strings of the instrument are tuned to the base note or tonic (the 'Sa') and the fifth (called the 'Pa'), the fourth ('Ma') or the seventh ('Ni'). The choice of notes other than the tonic depends on the rag ('style') of the soloist. The tampura player continuously plucks the strings of his or her instrument one by one, without worrying about rhythm. The resonance of the sounds produced is so long that it results in a sound continuum, which evolves over time but never ceases.

The lengthy resonance of the chords produced by the tampura is due to the unique shape of the instrument's bridge. This bridge, called the jawari ('who gives life to sound'), is large and curvilinear. Its specific shape provokes a steady 'rebound' of the string on the lower edge of the bridge and in one sense this maintains the vibration. This rebound also generates a considerable spectral enhancement of the sound's timbre. At perceptual level, this extremely rich and harmonic timbre is perceived as static interference by the human ear and is also much easier to hear. The bridge of the tampura also prolongs the length and intensity of the sounds it produces.

The unique shape of the jawari requires constant maintenance. Musicians and instrument makers must regularly adjust it by rubbing its surface with sandpaper. Inserting cotton threads between the bridge and a string to slightly raise the latter can also reinforce the effect. Several types of tampura exist: 'male' (larger instruments to accompany the male vocalists); 'female' (smaller instruments to accompany the female vocalists); and 'instrumental'. The latter accompany melodic instruments such as the sitar, the sarod, the sarangi, the shehnai, etc. They are characterized by the absence of a sound box: the instrument is completely flat!

For almost half a century now, there is a growing trend to automate the role of the tampura. Because playing the instrument does not require any special skills, several devices have been developed to replace it, from the sruti box, a sort of mechanical tampura that is in reality a harmonium (a small portable organ without a keyboard), to the electronic tampura, not forgetting most recently the apps created for smartphones and/or tablets!

Media
Images: 
tampura 1974.021-14
tampura 1974.021-14
tampura 1974.021-14
Aniruddha Bhattacharya Tampura Calcutta
bridge (jawari)
tampura generator software
Audio: 
External Video
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