In an ecosystem running on blatant lies and dogma, someone has to call a spade a spade. I am on that task today. If we make a list of fields where pride of tradition and culture of telling majestic stories of tradition and lineage prevails, Indian Classical Music would be in top five if not on the top. Sadly, students of music pickup myths and anecdotes much faster than actual music. It’s not a coincidence that musicians (even senior ones) these days enjoy telling stories more than presenting quality music.
While there are many things to talk about, today I will be focusing myself on Tanpura. Everyone calls it the foundation of Indian Classical Music but very few actually end up using it. Look at this pic of Mogubai Kurdikar. Clearly, she is old. At this point, she has stopped performing as well. She had mastered the notes to such an extent that she actually did not need a Tanpura when this picture was clicked. But still, she is using one 🙂
And then, here is one more musician who had stopped performing at an early stage of her career but had influenced (and even taught I guess) three giants : Lata Mangeshkar, Kishori Tai and Kumar Ji. She is Anjanibai Malpekar. Again with a Tanpura at very old age!
I have heard that Kumar Ji had a basic rule : He would not accept a concert if he could not manage a pair of Tanpura. Ustad Amir Khan often ditched the tradition of using two Tanpuras and instead used three. Ustad Abdul Karim Khan was so particular about javhari of his Tanpura that he started using a kurta made using the thread which was his preferred thread for adjusting javhari.
Well if you think that only vocalists used Tanpuras, I have got some pictures of instrumentalists using Tanpura :
Not one, two. Three Tanpuras. That too, full scale Tanpuras. Not the Tanpuris.
It seems as if today’s musicians are so seasoned and have mastered such a grip on swaras that they don’t need the crutches of Tanpura. Poor Mogubai, Anjanibai, Kumarji, Ravishankarji Ali Akbarji and probably all other such maestros…practiced music for so many hours a day for so many years and could not reach the stage today’s many young musicians have reached.
I am not getting sentimental about Tanpura. I am not putting it on a pedestal. As a student of vocal music, I have seen quality of my own music go down when there is no acoustic Tanpura. As a listener of music, I have seen quality of music of many musicians (including today’s senior maestros) dwindle down considerably when they ditch an acoustic Tanpura. Of course, there is considerable audience for mediocre music. I am not talking about music that wins claps but music that leaves a lasting impact.
Why is Tanpura so integral to Indian Classical Music? First of all, Indian Classical Music is not static. The ability of taking birth in that very moment is integral and inseparable attribute of Indian Classical Music. An acoustic Tanpura, which actually gets tuned slightly different every time you tune it is the living canvas. We need not only a canvas but a living one. Electronic Tanpura is indeed a canvas but a dead one.
Look at it this way – can one compare the taste of home cooked fresh food with ready-to-cook packaged meal?
If you spend hours tuning the acoustic Tanpura and carefully listen to it, you would start noticing the interferences that emerge out of electronic Tanpura and would not primarily depend on it as your canvas.
The mental state in which an artist has to go to tune a Tanpura is pre-requisite to present authentic music. If you just casually sit on stage, turn on your electronic Tanpura and start, you are not doing your pre-concert homework. Athletes need warmup before they actually do the drill. A musician needs to dive within his or her own sonic and emotional sensitivity which is essential for sharing it with the audience. When artists use electronic Tanpura, they are sidetracking this important phase of the performance which reflects very much in the quality of the music that they present.
Most of the musicians know this. They know that the Tanpura is their playground. Many musicians are performing sitting in their houses because of the lockdown; still, they find it difficult to use an acoustic Tanpura. If one can invite accompanists for Tabla or Harmonium, getting a Tanpura player is not that difficult.
As a rule of thumb, if I and Dakshayani do not see an acouctic Tanpura, we just walk out or in these days, close the tab. Listening to an archival recording is much better.