Asian Music and Dance

Rāga and Instruments – Part 6

In Indian classical music, instrumentalists often try to imitate vocal music. Some performers even sing the composition before rendering it on their instrument. Similarly, in the age-old Guru-Shishya parampara, the tradition of the passing on of musical knowledge and expertise via oral means, the Guru will often sing what they are trying to teach their ever-attentive student, or Shishya.  

This importance of vocal traditions in Indian music has resulted in those instruments being chosen that best allow a musician to ‘sing’ through their instrument. The voice slides smoothly between two notes, known as meend, and instruments that more easily convey this are, therefore, preferred. 

Today, in the world of Indian music we see a wonderful collection of ‘original’ Indian and Persian influenced instruments that can be divided into several groups. 

String – Plucked / Hammered

The sitar and sarod are the most popular plucked string instruments in North Indian classical music. Both are different in how they imitate the voice.

A member of the lute family, the sitar has a long neck. The feature of this instrument which allows meend is the rounded shape of its brass frets. The baj, or main string, is then bent by the sitarist which increases tension in the string and allows up to five or six notes of a higher pitch to be reproduced from a single fret. Sitar maestros over the last fifty years include Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan and Pandit Nikhil Bannerjee.

Another lute that developed from the rabaab, the sarod has no frets and instead features a metallic fingerboard where the fingernails are used to play different notes, and meend occurs by sliding up or down the string while plucking with a coconut shell pick.

Other plucked string instruments include the surbahar (‘bass sitar’) and the various modern incarnations of veena (of which the sitar is a member) including the rudra veena and the saraswati veena from South India.

Santoor – Hammered String Instrument

The santoor has been present on the classical scene for around half a century.  A member of the worldwide family of hammered dulcimers, this version hails from the mountains and valleys of Kashmir.

String – Bowed

Compared to the short-lived sound of a plucked sitar or sarod, these instruments can maintain continuous sounds for a longer duration.

The sarangi, meaning ‘100 colours’, is often regarded as the premier instrument for voice imitation.  Small in stature, yet at the same time extremely resounding, the sarangi utilises gut strings in unison with a full set of sympathetic strings. As well as being performed in a solo setting, this is the traditional instrument to accompany a vocal performance, but due to the technical difficulties in playing the sarangi, the harmonium has become more common for this purpose.

The dilruba and esraj can be seen as a cross between a sitar and sarangi. From the sarangi, comes the sound box and bow and from the sitar, the fingerboard. They are largely seen accompanying the voice, in particular in the Punjab region.

The violin, in India, is no different from its European counterpart but it is played by holding the instrument between the chest and ankle while sat on the floor. This allows the left hand some extra freedom to slide along the strings (meend) giving a distinctly fluid ‘Indian’ sound.  In carnatic (South Indian) music, the violin is the main instrument for voice accompaniment.


The bamboo flute or bansuri is generally associated with Krishna, the cheeky, playful deity from ancient Hindu mythology.  The shehnai is the equivalent of the Western oboe.  With finger holes rather than keys, the holes can be covered partially which allow fluid transitions between notes, imitating the meend of the voice.


French in origin, the harmonium consists of a set of reeds that create sound when air is pumped using the attached bellows.  There is, however, a little controversy surrounding the use of this instrument to accompany vocal music, with the inherent lack of meend and the fixed nature of the tuning failing to take account of the differences in tunings between rāgas.


Indian music would be very different without percussion.  Even percussion instruments in India, it seems, attempt to imitate the voice.  

The pakhawaj is a single-barrelled drum which is associated with the Dhrūpad. The drum has a deep, resonant sound which adds drama to a Dhrūpad performance.  

The tabla usually provides percussion accompaniment in the Khyāl and Thūmrī ang.  There is, however, an established solo tradition which includes no less than six different schools, styles or ‘Gharanas’. The pitch of the sound on the bass drum can also be modulated to imitate the meend of the voice, and tabla players use this to add musical depth to their playing. 

The mridangam is to South India what tabla is to North India. A single-barrelled drum, it is said that the mridangam, when played, is the voice of Indra, the God of Thunder.



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