Indian music is diverse and distinctive. It is presented in over a hundred languages and dialects and is often accompanied by dance and drama.

A majority of Indian musical instruments are hand-crafted from natural resources that are specifically available in a region.

Invasors also brought their musical traditions, which led to the development of string, wind, and percussion instruments in the country.

Instruments like the Harmonium and Carnatic violin were introduced, among many others.

The Islamic rule in India brought in Persian influences that distinguished the nature of North Indian music from South Indian music.

Changes were seen in the style of compositions that went on to combine Hindu and Muslim traditions.

For example, Sitar, India’s most popular string instrument, is said to have derived from ‘Setar’, a Persian lute-like instrument, and ‘Veena,’ an instrument the Hindu Goddess Saraswati played.

Saraswati result
Painting of the Goddess Saraswati by Raja Ravi Varma (Source: Wikipedia)

The origin of Indian musical instruments can also be found in ancient cave paintings and several holy scriptures.

They were mostly used for ritualistic purposes and later in the form of entertainment.

Instruments of North India

Sitar

Sitar instrument

Sitar is one of the most prominent instruments used in India. It usually consists of seventeen strings, a large wooden neck, and a resonator fashioned from a gourd.

It could be tuned according to a player’s preference, the style of composition, or the school of teaching.

A plectrum called a ‘mezrab’ is worn on the sitarist’s finger to pluck the strings.

Initially a solo instrument in Hindustani classical music, the sitar has been incorporated into Indian film scores, jazz fusion, and psychedelic music.

Pandit Ravi Shankar, a sitar maestro, is known to have popularised Hindustani music traditions in the West.

Famous sitar players include Vilayat Khan, Annapurna Devi, Nikhil Banerjee, and, in recent times, Anoushka Shankar, Roopa Panesar, and Mehtab Ali Niazi. 

Tabla

Playing Tabala

Tabla is primarily used for accompaniment in Indian classical, devotional, and dance music.

It comprises two drums (treble and bass) made of animal skin, wood, clay, or even metal. The drums are tuned to the vocalist’s key, mostly in the tonic ‘Sa.’

Rhythms are created by striking the finger and palm through a variety of techniques. It can also be vocally demonstrated through syllables or ‘Bols.’

Tabla maestro Pandit Zakir Hussain is recognized worldwide for his contribution to the world of percussion.

He has worked in both the classical traditions of Indian music and collaborated with several global artists, such as Mickey Hart and John McLaughlin.

Famous tabla players include Chatur Lal, Kishen Maharaj, Trilok Gurtu, Tanmoy Bose, and Rimpa Siva.

Sarangi

Sarangi
(Source: Vadya)

Sarangi is a bowed instrument crafted from a single piece of tun wood (Indian Cedar), snakeskin, and metal.

Three main strings are used to create a melody, while the fourth string may act as a drone.

A unique feature of this instrument is its ability to portray the dynamics of vocal music.

It can mimic the ornamentation of notes, which is a stylistic feature of Indian classical singing.

As a result, the sarangi proved to be a suitable instrument for melodic accompaniment and served various Hindustani classical genres like Khayal, Thumri, Ghazal, and Tappa.

It is predominantly used in the folk traditions of Punjab.

Abdul Latif Khan, Ram Narayan, Gopal Mishra, and Nabil Khan are among the famous musicians who have preserved the art of Sarangi.

Bansuri

An artist playing Bansuri
An artist playing Bansuri

Crafted out of bamboo, this transverse flute has been recognized in the country since ancient times.

It is associated with the image of Lord Krishna and has also been mentioned as a source of musical wisdom in Sanskrit literature.

It has around six finger holes and can play accidental notes, microtones, and ornamentations that are essential in Indian classical music.

Furthermore, it is used for light music, filmi music, devotional, and folk music, primarily in the north-central state of Uttar Pradesh but also not limited to the East.

Pannalal Gosh, a skilled flutist, is credited with developing the bansuri into a concert instrument.

Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ronu Majumdar, Pravin Godkhindi, and Rasika Shekar are among the best bansuri artists in the country.

Shehnai

Shehnai

Shehnai, or ‘Oboe Hindu,’ is widely used in North India during weddings and holy festivals.

It has a range of two octaves and consists of a wooden pipe, a double reed, and a metal bell.

A tabla or multiple shehnai players often accompany it.

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While it has been used in the Indian genres of thumri and bhajan, the world of fusion also welcomed this instrument.

For example, ‘Street Fighting Man,’ a song by The Rolling Stones, incorporated Indian instruments like the shehnai and sitar into its sound design.

Ustad Bismillah Khan is one of the most well-known shehnai players who transported this instrument from folk to classical and popular music.

S. Ballesh, Anant Lal, Bageshwari Qamar, and Lokesh Anand are among the most accomplished Shehnai players in India.

Instruments of South India

Saraswati Veena

Picture of a Saraswati Veena printed on a government stamp
Picture of a Saraswati Veena printed on a government stamp

Saraswati Veena is one of the most revered string instruments in the country.

It is mostly used in Carnatic music and can be heard all over the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Telangana.

A veena consists of four main strings and three other strings that act as a drone.

It has a pear-shaped body and two resonators, which are made out of jackfruit wood and dried pumpkin.

This instrument gets its name from the Hindu Goddess of Learning, Saraswati, who appears to hold a veena in her hand.

Other forms include the rudra veena and chitra veena, which are mostly used in Hindustani music.

Prominent Saraswati Veena players include Veenai Dhanammal, Chitti Babu, D. Srinivas, and Jayanthi Kumaresh.

Mridangam

An artist playing Mridangam
An artist playing Mridangam

Mridangam is a two-headed drum made of jackwood and leather, commonly used in Carnatic music.

It is played horizontally and can also be vocally demonstrated through a certain set of syllables that mimic the sounds being produced.

In Hindu mythology, Nandi, a follower of Shiva, is said to have played the mridangam during a holy dance performance. As a result, this instrument is considered divine.

Initially, it was used to accompany the vocalist, but in modern times, it has been used as a solo instrument.

In Kerala, there is a festival called ‘Mridangamela’ in which a group of children plays the mridangam in perfect synchronization.

Palghat Mani Iyer, Guruvayur Dorai, and Mannargudi Easwaran are some of the best Mridangam players in the country, and they are worth checking out.

Nadaswaram

An old man playing Nadaswaram
An old man playing Nadaswaram

Similar to the western oboe and the North Indian shehnai, the nadaswaram is a major wind instrument of South India.

It has a double reed and a longer conical shape compared to the shehnai.

Nadaswaram can be crafted from various materials, such as wood, bamboo, brass, copper, and ivory.

It mainly has seven-fingered holes that can cover a range of two and a half octaves.

Different kinds of notes can be produced on the nadaswaram by adjusting the air pressure.

In India, this mighty instrument can be actively heard in temples and traditional wedding ceremonies.

Tamil movies of the 60s extensively made use of this instrument.

Great nadaswaram players include Sheik Chinna Malauna, T. N. Rajarathnam Pillai, and the Nemmara Brothers.

Ghatam

An artist playing Ghatam

Ghatam is an ancient percussion instrument in the shape of a round pot with a narrow neck.

It is made from different kinds of clay and is the most prominent instrument in Tamil Nadu.

Its size is a defining factor for the pitches it can produce. However, the pitch could also be manipulated by applying some water or clay.

The sounds of a ghatam are created by striking the finger, palm, and wrist in various positions.

Ghatam was mostly used to accompany the mridangam and gradually started being used as a solo instrument in Carnatic ensembles.

It is now being used in jazz and rock fusion genres.

T. H. Vinayakram is an expert percussionist who popularised ghatam all over the world.

He is also a member of the indo-jazz band ‘Shakti’, which was founded by guitarist John McLaughlin.

Great ghatam players of the modern period include Sukanya Ramgopal, Giridhar Udupa, and S. Karthick.

Kanjira

Kanjira
Kanjira instrument

Kanjira is another percussion instrument used in South India to accompany the mridangam.

It has a circular wooden frame with metal discs and a drumhead made from animal skin. In Western music, it is compared to the tambourine.

One hand is used to hold the drum while the other creates Carnatic rhythms.

This makes it a very difficult instrument to learn since it requires expertise in demonstrating rhythms with just one hand.

The pitch of a Kanjira is maintained by finger pressure, and resonance can be regulated by sprinkling water inside the instrument.

In the late nineteenth century, Manpoondia Pillai, a passionate drummer, sought to develop the Kanjira as a concert instrument.

G. Harishankar, V. Nagarajan, Lata Ramachar, and Anirudh Athreya are among the famous Kanjira specialists.

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Instruments of East India and Central India

Ektara

Ektara

Ektara or ‘Gopichand’ is a single-stringed instrument used in the traditional folk music of Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra.

It is fashioned out of materials like wood apple, bottle gourd, bamboo, and steel.

While it does not have markings like a fretboard, pressure applied by the finger usually indicates the kind of note being produced.

A two-stringed variant of this instrument would be called ‘Dotara.’ In Bengali folk music, the ektara is used to accompany Baul musicians.

They can be considered religious troubadours that offer praise in the form of Kirtan and Sufi chanting.

Saieen Zahoor Ahmed and Parvathy Baul are among the country’s prominent musicians promoting the Ektara.

Mahuri

An artist playing Mahuri
An artist playing Mahuri (Source: Prateek Pattanaik via Wikidata)

Mahuri is a wind instrument belonging to the folk traditions of Odisha.

It is a wooden pipe consisting of a double reed, seven finger holes, and a bell attached to the front.

Similar to the shehnai and nadaswaram, it is played during festivities.

Folk dances like ‘Dalkhai’ and ‘Chhau’ and theatrical acts like ‘Prahlad Natak’ and ‘Rama Natak’ also use the Mahuri.

It is one of the major instruments of the state, and yet, it is starting to disappear from use.

However, music societies in the state are organizing Mahuri recitals to save this instrument.

Dhak

Artists playing Dhak
Artists playing Dhak (Source: massArt)

Dhak is a barrel-like drum made from wood and cow skin popularly used during Durga Puja in West Bengal.

It can either be placed on the lap or hung around the neck and is played on one side with a wooden stick.

In temples, it is part of an orchestra that uses only five instruments. This group is called the ‘Panchavadya.’

Rhythms created by a dhak are full of energy, making it a perfect sound for celebration.

Gokul Chandra Das comes from a family of Dhakis and is a prominent player of this instrument.

It is through his influence in the country that we also see the emergence of female dhaki players.

Nagara

Nagara

Nagara is a popular percussion instrument used in the states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Chattisgarh, among many others.

It is a hemispherical drum made from wood and leather. The design of the drum and its style of performance can vary from state to state.

For example, in Madhya Pradesh, the drum would have iron strips attached to it.

Because of its size, the drum produces a magnificent sound that is suitable for celebrations. It is often played alongside the Shehnai.

Kailash Solanki, from Rajasthan, was born into a family of percussionists and is an extremely skilled nagara player.

Instruments of Northeast India

Gogona

Gogona
Gogona

Gogona is a bamboo reed instrument that is one of the most popular instruments played in Assam.

It may be accompanied by a dhol or pepa and is primarily used in the Assamese folk music of Bihugeet.

One end of the gogona is squeezed with the teeth while the other is struck by a finger. This technique gives the instrument its unique sound.

Mouth movement and air pressure are some of the important aspects for a player to consider while playing this instrument.

Gogona comes in two forms and is used by male and female Bihu dancers alike. It has also been used as a hair accessory among women.

Prashanna Gogoi is known to promote the musical instruments of Assam. He has also crafted gogonas. 

Darkhuang

Darkhuang
Darkhuang (Source: Wikipedia)

Darkhuang is a brass drum used in the folk traditions of Mizoram.

It is the most precious gong one could possess in their household and could only be played on special occasions.

In ancient times, it was used to send out a signal of mourning and also as a dowry gift.

Darkhuang arrived in a set of three from Myanmar. The Mizo communities went on to develop their versions of it that could depict an array of emotions.

A smaller version of this instrument is called a ‘Darmang.’ This small gong is often used in folk dances to maintain the time signature. 

Duitara

Duitara is a famous string instrument played in Meghalaya. It is made out of hardwood and animal skin.

There are four strings created from the fine ‘muga’ silk.

Mebanlamphang Lyngdoh is a musician and teacher who developed an interest in the Khasi culture and music.

He has studied the art of Duitara carefully and is an expert player of this instrument.

Bah Kerios Wahlang and Skendrowell Syiemliehare are among the other talented Duitara players.

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Tungbuk

Tungbuk is a string instrument found in Sikkim folk music.

It is created from materials like parchment and softwood. It has an elongated fretboard, a round resonator, and three strings played by a wooden plectrum.

These strings are tuned to the notes sa-pa-sa, according to the Indian solfege system.

While the tungbuk works well in the pentatonic scale, it may also be able to play major and minor scales.

The sound of a Tungbuk can be compared to a mandobass

Mickma Lepcha, Sonam Tshering Lepcha, and Samdup Lepcha are among the skilled Tungbuk players from Sikkim.

Instruments of West India

Morchang

Morchang, or ‘Jew’s Harp,’ is one of the most commonly used instruments in Rajasthani folk music.

It is an extraordinary wind-percussion instrument that is played through the mouth and left hand.

It can create a variety of rhythmic patterns with the help of a metal tongue and metal ring.

Variants of the morchang could be seen worldwide that are being crafted out of brass, wood, and plastic.

The morchang is also used in Carnatic ensembles and may be heard in the folk traditions of Assam.

Even a famous music director, R.D. Burman has utilized the morchang in Bollywood music.

In modern times, Mamta Sapera, Gafur Khan, and Varun Zinje are among the artists that strive to save the art of this dying instrument. 

Ravanahatha

Ravanahatha is an ancient string instrument fashioned out of a variety of materials like wood, bamboo, metal, and coconut shells.

It consists of two main strings and around sixteen sympathetic strings. Similar to the Western violin, it has a fretboard for playing octaves.

Since it is primarily used in the folk traditional music of Rajasthan and Gujarat, it rarely resembles Indian classical ragas.

Ravanahatha is also used to accompany the folk dances of a region.

The origin of this instrument could be traced to the Hindu epics in which King Ravana used the ravanahatha for worship.

Dinesh Subasinghe, an expert violinist and composer from Sri Lanka, has brought the beauty of Ravanahatha back into the modern era.

Dholki

Dholki is a barrel-shaped hand drum popular in Maharashtra. It is made of Sheesham or mango wood, animal skin, cotton, and metal.

It has two sides that produce a combination of high and low pitches. In the North, this drum is also known as the ‘dholak’.

The energetic folk dances of Lavani in Maharashtra and Bhangra in Punjab usually require a percussion instrument to maintain tempo and create intricate rhythms.

Apart from Indian folk music, dholki has also been used in films and devotional music.

Girish Vishwa and Sanjay Karandikar are among the musicians who are promoting this instrument.

Manjeera

Manjeera is a percussion instrument comprising two small cymbals played by the hand. It is attached by a cotton cord and creates high-pitched sounds.

It is used especially for devotional music like bhajans and kirtans in Maharashtra.

Devotees of Lord Krishna use the manjeera frequently for praise and worship.

It also acts as an accompaniment for Indian classical dances like Kathakali, Bharatnatyam, and Kuchipudi.

The manjeera, which has multiple variants in India, goes by several names, such as ‘taal’ and ‘Kartal.’

They differ in shape, size, and the traditions they are used in. For example, the Assamese folk traditions see a larger version of the manjeera called ‘Bortaal.’

Manjeera is easy to figure out and can be played by anybody who has a good sense of rhythm.

Ghumot

Ghumot has recently been declared as Goa’s heritage instrument.

It is one of the oldest percussion instruments in the state. It consists of an earthen vessel with a leather mount.

‘Ghumtakars’ are skilled artisans who are involved in the creation of this instrument, right from the molding of the pot to attaching the animal skin for its opening.

This process ensures the perfect acoustics necessary to produce rhythms.

Ghumot has been used predominantly in Goan folk songs and dances like Mando, Dulpod, Fugdi, and Dhekni.

It has also served in Suvari Vadan, an orchestra that performs in Hindu Temples.

Variants of the ghumot have also been seen in other states of India. For example, in Andhra Pradesh, it is called ‘gummeta’.

Khaprumama Parvatkar is a popular instrumentalist from Goa who is well-versed in the tabla, sarangi and ghumot.

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