Home » Feature » Strings, Winds and Beats – The charm of Indian stringed instruments

Strings, Winds and Beats – The charm of Indian stringed instruments



On October 13, India lost a hugely admired musician, who very few today have heard. Annapurna Devi, daughter of the legendary Baba Alauddin Khan, sister of sarod genius Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and first wife of sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, stopped giving public concerts in 1962. She was reputed for playing the surbahar, the bass version of the sitar.

Devi never recorded commercially but private renditions of her ragas Maanj Khamaj and Kaushiki, plus her Yaman duet with Ravi Shankar, are available on YouTube. The surbahar has its own speciality, though there aren’t too many practitioners today.

Keeping this in mind, this part of the series will look at Indian stringed instruments that have their own charm.

The first comprises those which were earlier played in classical music, but are not too common these days. These are surbahar and sursingar. The second includes instruments used in classical music, like the tanpura and swarmandal. Though there is no name to categorise them, and purists may smirk, let’s call them ‘flavour’ instruments as they are used to enhance the mood. I shall keep the sarangi for another part discussing prominent accompanying instruments, that will also include the harmonium.


Surbahar: A bass version of the sitar, it used to be commonly played about 60 or 70 years ago, but today, is seen much less than most other instruments. It has a lower tone than the sitar.

(Pic: Surbahar)

Typically, a surbahar has four rhythm or chikari strings, four playing strings, and 15 to 17 unplayed sympathetic strings. It has two bridges, with the playable strings passing over the greater bridge. The instrumentalist plays the strings using a metallic plectrum, the mizrab, which is fixed on the index finger of the player’s right hand.

A concert usually begins with the rendition of a classical raag, the melodic mode used in Indian music. The first piece comprises a three-part movement beginning with the slow alaap,increasing tempo with the jod and reaching an energetic climax with the jhala.

The instrumentalist may then play compositions in the same or any other raag. Here, tabla accompaniment is provided, though in the dhrupad style, pakhawaj is played.

There are conflicting views on who invented the surbahar. Some researchers believe it was invented around 1825. Though its creation is generally attributed to Ustad Sahebdad Khan, some musicologists believe Lucknow-based sitarist Ustad Ghulam Mohammed invented it.

Well-known surbahar players include the great Ustad Imdad Khan, his sons Ustad Inayat Khan and Wahid Khan, and his grandson Ustad Imrat Khan, who has done some excellent recordings on the instrument, Though Imrat’s brother Ustad Vilayat Khan also learnt the surbahar, he was better known as one of the greatest sitar players ever.

Annapurna Devi was the only known female exponent of the instrument.

Annapurna Devi

(Pic: Annapurna Devi)

Another old-timer was Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan. Contemporary players include Irshad Khan and Buddhaditya Mukherjee, Ravi Shankar’s disciple and sitar player Kartick Kumar has also given surbahar recitals.

The popularity of the sitar in the 1950s is said to have led to the falling demand for the surbahar.


Sursringar: It is like a sarod but larger in size and providing a deeper sound. It is also older than the sarod. A typical sursringar has four main strings and four chikari strings, and is played with a mizrab.

Well-known sursringar players were Maihar gharana doyen Baba Alauddin Khan and Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra. Among the recent players, Joydeep Ghosh has made a name.


Just like the surbahar was affected by the sitar’s popularity, the sursringar is said to have been replaced by the sarod.


Tanpura: Popularly known as the drone instrument, the tanpura or tambura is one of the most important instruments as it is used as an accompaniment in both Hindustani and Carnatic forms, in vocals and in instrumental music.

The tanpura is a long-necked lute whose body shape resembles a sitar, but has no frets. Ideally, it has four strings, though some tanpuras have five strings too. While instrumentalists normally use one tanpura or a smaller ‘tamburi’, vocalists prefer two or even three tanpuras as an accompaniment.

The name is said to be a combination of ‘taan’, which is a musical phrase, and ‘poora’, which means completion. Some vocalists prefer to play the tanpura themselves, whereas others have disciples or professional tanpura players play it in the backdrop.


(Pic: Tanpura)

Some musicians also use a electronic tanpura, which is easier to carry around while travelling. In Carnatic music, the shruti box which is similar to a harmonium is also used to provide the drone. However, in both north Indian and south Indian music, purists prefer the standard form of the tanpura, which provides the perfect ambience.

Swarmandal: Also called the surmandal, this is an Indian harp or Indian zither used by some vocalists. While Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustad Salamat Ali Khan used it in the past, others to use it include Pandit Jasraj, the late Kishori Amonkar, Ajay Pohankar, Rashid Khan and Ajoy Chakraborty.

The advantage of the swarmandal is that can produce a large number of notes in succession. It can have between 21 and 36 strings, depending on what the vocalist wants.


(Pic: Swarmandal)

Interestingly, even the Beatles were fond of the swarmandal, and used it on songs like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘Within You Without You’, ‘Across the Universe’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’.

These were some of the other instruments used in classical music. Besides them, a huge variety of stringed instruments is used in Indian folk, devotional and even film music. One example is the ektara in Baul music from Bengal and even in the folk music of Rajasthan, Pakistan and Egypt. More in another part of the series.


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Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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