India’s Musical Instruments of yore

In principle, any object that produces sound can be termed a musical instrument though through ‘purpose’ the object attains that status. The history of musical instrument probably dates back to the beginning of human origin and probably even before man began to talk. The purpose of early musical instruments was very likely ritual, as a hunter may make a sound to signal a successful hunt, or a shaman might use a animal-hide-drum in a ceremony. Then again, in the Indian context, the numerous gods and goddesses of age-old Hinduism sport various musical instruments – Krishna plays flute, sage Narada walks around with tanbura, Saraswati plays veena, Siva’s carriage Nandi plays mridhangam while Siva himself plays damaru when he does the cosmic dance and so on. Musical instruments evolved over the years when cultures around the world started to develop the process of composing and performing for pastime and entertainment.

The instruments may be largely classified into following with few ‘Indian’ examples –

stringed – yaz, tampura, sitar, veena, gottuvadyam

wind – flute, nadaswaram, mukhavina

percussion – tabla, tappattam, thavil, urumi

then the non-vibrating membrane instruments called idiophones – jalra, jalatharangam

I did learn E.Gayathri, a well-known Veena player based in Chennai proposed to the local museum (est. 1851) that they did an exhibit of the musical instruments that were kept locked in their rooms for over 100 years. These were the collections done during the English rule and never went on display. Having heeded, there were a total of 65 instruments on display. It was just a week-long special-exhibit and that was reason enough to lure me to the museum, otherwise stayed away for years – how many in the world get to visit local museums regularly, anyway !

Happy to share what was seen – apologise about the quality and reflections seen in the pictures as they were glass-cased in a lit room –

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rabab, sitar and swaramud

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tabla and dolak

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rabab and swarabath

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senkuttu yaz

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narayana veena


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panchamuka vadhyam – a 5-faced percussion

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bengal folk musicians

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thappattam folk dance of tamil nadu

no stage, props, costume, choreography – just a typical village festival with thappattam players –

and a pro-version in performance –

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a thappattam band

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thiruchinnam, bhoori and kombu – horns used by tribes living in nilgiri mountains

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damaru, kanjira, davandai and indramu

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kashtatarang and jalatarang

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sangu, shehnoi and magudi

here is pambai and oudoukkai (damaru) demo –

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nadaswaram and thavil

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kuzal (flute) and tribal shehnoi

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sakota yaz

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karthal, morsing and chiplas

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matsya (fish) and kurma (turtle) yaz

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veena kunju, swaramandal, rabab and rudra-veena

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urumi and pambai

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naga (snake) yaz

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cymbals and gongs


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mayil (peacock) yaz (harp)

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notes :

Panchamuka-vadyam, the 5-faced metal drum once used to be part of Siva temple orchestra is now being played only in 2 temples in Tamilnadu – at Thiruvarur and Thiruthuraipoondi. It is played with both hands.

Rabab is the national instrument of Afghanistan and confined to Afghan, and may be in parts of Pakistan and Kashmir

Yaz (harp) finds mention in Sangam Tamil literature (dates back to 200BC) and was wildly used in Tamil culture for ages

Nadaswaram &Tavil are on the way out, save temples and weddings in Tamilnadu state. This is a family tradition belonging to a particular sect, passed down from father to son. Today, the younger generation march toward colleges to get their engineering degrees and seek greener pastures rather than lug around an oboe to make a living. The fathers are happy about this change as well, having gone through hard-times in their musical lives. Lack of patronage at concert halls is also a contributing factor.

Kanjira and Morsing are featured as part of South Indian classical Carnatic concert repertoire though not common; Urumi is still used in Tamil folk music while Nagara is seen as part of Eastern Indian tribal and folk groups. Bamboo flute is played in all of India though becoming less common in classical versions. Cymbals are very much part of devotional music in all of India. Jalatharangam is again in endangered list as no one is keen on packing a bunch of brittle and delicate china along. Thappattam is wildly played in the Tamilnadu villages during village festival, temple festival and other occasions including funeral.

Narayana Veena – my guess is this ancient Indian musical instrument travelled along Buddhism and acquired the name of Gugin in China, Kayagum in Korea and Koto in Japan

Of the Indian instruments, Tabla probably has the widest reach in terms of popularity – thanks to Pandit Ravi Shankar for having had it as an accompaniment. Then in certain regions like Africa where Ravi Shankar might not have performed, Tabla is known more through Bollywood music. Baaba Maal from Senegal, a country on the fringes of the metaphorical Timbuctu, and one of the top names in the worldmusic circuit once told me Tabla was his favourite percussion. As told by my Senegalese friends, another well known musician Thione Seck had his own “Bollywood band” with complete instrumental repertoire before switching over to singing in his native mbalax genre.

7 thoughts on “India’s Musical Instruments of yore

  1. Fascinating….

    One needs to only see these instruments to understand the richness of our culture…The matsya yazh, the peacock yazh and the naga yazh…. beautiful… wonder how they used to play it though….

    Thanks for posting this… I would have never got to know or see these….



    • thanks for stopping by, Anu !

      Yazh though, to my limited understanding, was mainly used as an accompanying instrument to vocal and the best case (that’s well documented) I could think of was Thiruneelakanta Yazpanar, a yazh player, who went along with Sambandar in the 7CE. Then again, would be interesting to know if it was used on its own.


  2. Thank you for this post! I am fascinated by the beautiful swarabat, so I have questions: was this instrument ever recorded (it seems to be rare) … where is this collection stored, and is it possible to visit? Many thanks! – D in USA


    • thanks for your interest and comment, Ana !
      well, these are stored in Chennai museum and not on display.
      Also, there is a rare instrument permanent exhibit here in Chennai that hardly people know. Unfortunately, just a few souls like you and I are only interested in such :-). If you ever happen to swing by this way, will be happy to take you there.

      as far swarabat, no clue and never heard of any recordings.
      again, thanks for liking the post.


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