The tambura (tanpura)


The tambura – also known as tanpura – has long served as India’s most important accompaniment. It accompanies vocal and instrumental performers as well as dance musicians. It has embellished the salons of nobles, merchants and courtisans long before its arrival on the modern concert stage.

Its present form with four strings has been known since the 17th century. It combines the properties of two types of instruments, namely the ancient zither (veena or been) and the present long-necked lute (Sarasvati veena, sitar). Its function and manner of playing distinguishes the tambura from similar instruments used in neighbouring countries. This is because Indian musicians have used a fundamental note since about the 13th century.

Hundreds of melody types – known as raga (lit.’colours’) – have since been created, rediscovered and analysed. They all arise from a fundamental note, known as ‘sadja’, which is articulated as ‘Sa’ during a lesson or vocal performance.

The fundamental note is continuously sounded as the tambura’s ‘supporting’ or ‘base’ note (the bourdon or drone of western music). It is freely chosen in accordance with the vocal or instrumental range of the main performer.

With these basic elements composers, musicians and dancers are able to evoke any conceivable mood or aesthetic experience (rasa). This requires no more than a few additional notes, usually arranged in a particular sequence by which they are readily recognised by discerning listeners. The notes heard in any given raga are drawn from among the proverbial ‘seven notes’ (saptasvara). A competent musician also knows which notes need to be modified by means of embellishments (gamaka) and subtle shades achieved by intonation (sruti).

Text: Ludwig Pesch | Nederlands | Deutsch | Art: Arun VC

Listen to this tambura, played by Ludwig Pesch
Tanjore-style Carnatic tambura.JPG
Photo (C) Martin Spaink Wikimedia

Die Tambura


Das wichtigste Begleitinstrument Indiens zierte die Salons von Fürsten, Kaufleuten und Kurtisanen. Seit dem frühen 20. Jahrhundert beflügelt der Klangreichtum gerade dieses Instruments die Fantasie eines neu entstehenden Konzertpublikums. Seither ist die aktive Teilnahme von Rasika genannten Musikliebhabern nicht mehr aus dem Musikleben Indiens wegzudenken.

Die Tambura (Tānpūra in Nordindien) hat meist vier Saiten. Ihre heutige Form ist seit dem 17. Jahrhundert bekannt und vereinigt Merkmale der indischen Zither (Vīnā oder Bīn) mit denen der Langhalslaute.

Von ähnlichen Instrumenten benachbarter Regionen (Tanbur) unterscheidet es sich sowohl durch seine Funktion als durch seine Spielweise. Spätestens seit dem 13. Jahrhundert bedienen indische Musiker sich nämlich eines Grundtons “Sa”, den sie – je nach Stimmlage oder Soloinstrument – frei wählen können.

Als Halteton (Bordun) bildet “Sa” den Ausgangspunkt für melodische Gestalten, die man mit “Färbung des Geistes” (Rāga), also Gefühlsausdruck, bezeichnet. Ein reicher Fundus recht unterschiedlicher Ragas ermöglicht es, jede nur denkbare Stimmung (Rasa) auszudrücken. 

Auf dieser scheinbar einfachen Grundlage entwickelten sich 72 Tonleitern als Orientierung für Komponisten, Musiker und Tänzer. Zudem schafft die Tambura ein geeignetes Umfeld, in dem der musikalische und poetische Ausdruck vieler Epochen und Kulturen zu einem Ganzen zusammenwachsen – und doch immer persönlich – bleiben konnte.

Text: Ludwig Pesch | English | Nederlands
Zeichnung: Arun VC

Hörbeispiel: die hier abgebildete Tambura, gespielt von Ludwig Pesch
Tanjore-style Carnatic tambura.JPG
Photo (C) Martin Spaink Wikimedia

De tambura


Het belangrijkste begeleidingsinstrument van India – ook bekend als tanpura – sierde de salons van vorsten, kooplieden en courtisanes lang voordat het ruim een eeuw geleden zijn intocht deed in het openbare concertleven. Zijn huidige vorm, meestal met vier snaren, is sinds de zeventiende eeuw bekend. Het verenigt in zich kenmerken van de Indiase citer (vina of bin) met die van de langhals-luit. Van gelijkvormige instrumenten uit aangrenzende regio’s onderscheidt het zich zowel door haar functie als door de wijze van bespelen: waarschijnlijk al vanaf de dertiende eeuw gebruiken Indiase musici namelijk de grondtoon ‘Sa’. Deze wordt vrij gekozen overeenkomstig de stem van de zanger of het stemregister van het solo-instrument. Als steuntoon (bourdon) vormt hij het uitgangspunt voor melodische vormen, die men als raga (kleurschakering) aanduidt. Een rijke schat van zeer uiteenlopende raga’s maakt het zowel componisten als musici mogelijk elke denkbare stemming (rasa) uit de drukken

Tekst: Ludwig Pesch, vertaald door Mieke Beumer | Art: Arun VC

Luister naar de klank van deze tambura, bespeeld door Ludwig Pesch
Tanjore-style Carnatic tambura.JPG
Photo © Martin Spaink Wikimedia

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Slideshow | India Inspiration – Tropenmuseum Amsterdam

For ten years this exhibition celebrated the sources of inspiration shared by Indian and Western artists; and at the same time, it traced the role of migrants from India via Suriname through songs, memorabilia, and documentary film footage.

Concept and research: Ludwig Pesch ( in collaboration with museum staff and Architectenbureau Jowa ( On display until 2017.

Photographs © Ludwig Pesch

This exhibition was one of the five themes in the exhibition “Round and About India”: Wanderings


Storytellers and actors brought their stories to every corner of India. Today their narrative boxes, scrolls and performances are increasingly being replaced by modern mediums, but they have not yet disappeared.

India is a country of stories and storytellers. Opportunities abound in the exhibition Round and About India to watch and listen to narratives about people, ideas and objects. Every item has a tale, every person has something to tell. Whether it is festivals and processions, commerce and history, gods and heroes, pilgrimages and wanderings.

In this exhibition these stories are the central features of performances in dance, theatre and music.

Visit the Tropenmuseum

This museum is one of Amsterdam hidden treasures. Located off city centre in a beautiful old building in East Amsterdam (Amsterdam Oost), Tropenmuseum often remains forgotten, like an old collection of post stamps. However, if you are interested in other cultures, other countries and distant lands – do no miss it.

Amsterdam Tropenmuseum exhibit is modern, fascinating on many levels and inspiring. […] Modern and intelligent presentation makes the visit pleasant to a larger public, including children.  


The bamboo flute of South India

Text: Ludwig Pesch | Art: Arun V.C.

The flute has played a key role in India’s artistic life since antiquity. This is evident from writings on dance-drama, mythology, sculptures and paintings. Its playing technique must have been highly developed for a very long time. Different names are used for it, for instance kuzhal (pronounced like “kulal” or “kural”) in Tamil speaking regions; and bānsurī in northern India. In poetry, song lyrics, classical dance items and films, words like venu and murali evoke its association with Krishna, the ‘dark skinned’ cowherd and flute player.

Early Tamil and Sanskrit poets describe the creation of the original bamboo flute. This did not even require any human intervention: it is an easily observed fact that bumble bees make holes in bamboo stems (Sanskrit vamsha) for their nests. These openings later invite the wind to create ever changing tunes in bamboo groves like those found in some parts of the Western Ghats. Here, and in the hills of North-East India, grow the varieties of bamboo preferred by flute makers.

The nest holes made by some insects have indeed the same size as the blowing and finger holes still seen in most bamboo flutes. Any human being living close to nature is bound to be inspired by such phenomena while making music, dancing or telling stories. As expressed in song lyrics, these sounds are remembered as enchanting experiences and therefore regarded as a gift from heaven. Listening to the nuances of bird song has further contributed to a musical symbiosis that emerges time again in different places. The symbolism associated with the seven notes – and also the rāgas derived from them – still echoes such deeply rooted sentiments.

It hardly surprises, therefore, that Pannalal Ghosh, the pioneer of Hindustani flute music, was influenced by “tribal” musicians belonging to the Santal people. Inspired by his music, other flautists sought to develop styles that probe into our bonds with the natural world, something greater and more sublime. This greater “something” most of us seem to be aware of to the extent of longing for it, “naturally” associating it with impressions from our early childhood, and later reminded of these by any encounter with “beauty” even as modern lifestyles prevent us from realizing its essence on a daily basis:

By plucking her petals, you do not gather the beauty of the flower.  – Rabindrath Tagore whose My Boyhood Days includes an anecdote on his attempt at making coloured ink from flower petals which “merely turned to mud” (Ch. XI)

With this dilemma we are in good company: Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), India’s first Nobel laureate, who established his Santiniketan school and Viswa-Bharati University on and amidst the Santal villages of West Bengal.

Far from being bogged down by the fact that “the superconscious self of mine which has its expression in beauty is beyond my control”, he compared the Infinite Being to a flute player whose ‘music of beauty and love helps us to transcend our egotistic preoccupations’.*

Very often I think and feel that I am like a flute – the flute that cannot talk but when the breath is upon it, can sing. – From a letter to his Dutch translator, the writer Frederik van Eeden (signed in London, 9 August 1913)

Ludwig Pesch specialized in the Carnatic bamboo flute under the guidance of H. Ramachandra Shastry (1906-1992) whom he accompanied on many occasions.

H. Ramachandra Shastry (Kalakshetra, ca. 1983)

At the invitation of Smt. Rukmini Devi-Arundale, a gurukulavāsa type of personalized apprenticeship became possible thanks to Kalakshetra College (today known as Rukmini Devi College Of Fine Arts), the “institution of national importance” inspired by Rabindranath Tagore: it was his pioneering institution, Santiniketan, that provided a model for the revival of South Indian performing and visual arts just as related crafts.

Tagore in Kalakshetra
image by L. Pesch

For Rabindranath, who was essentially a poet and artist, the realization and the expression of beauty was the supreme objective in human life. His concept of beauty, according to true Indian tradition, was inseparably connected with truth and goodness. Whatever is true and noble in life, nature and art is also beautiful. Thus, aesthetic sensitiveness, in the true sense, is a fundamental aspect of spiritual education. A proper aesthetic culture should also include the perception and expression of the beautiful in human life and social conduct, as well as in art and literature. Rabindranath stated in no uncertain terms that man’s sensory encounter with the environment was as important as his mind’s enquiry into its inner mystery, and any worthwhile society should provide for both.

Source: The Santiniketan Aesthetic in Unesco’s “World Heritage List Nominations”
(accessed 9 June 2020)

Whatever is true and noble in life, nature and art is also beautiful

Book recommendation: Pidhana – The Canopy of Life
Tagore’s ideal of uniting practical, academic, artistic and spiritual education amounts to “lifelong education” and “ecology” in the most modern and comprehensive sense, namely in harmony with nature. Kalakshetra’s unique ecology, like Santiniketan, was painstakingly created from a barren stretch of land, over a period of several decades. This process and the unique environment resulting from it are documented in a beautiful book titled Pidhana – The Canopy of Life (Chennai, 2014, ISBN: 978-81-921627-3-7): richly illustrated, this publication tells the story of the trees found in the 99acre campus of Kalakshetra Foundation.