Evolution of Electronic Indian Musical Instruments

The use of electronics for synthesizing music started around four decades ago. However, the progress made in this field in recent times has been phenomenal. The rapid revolutionary advances in the field of microelectronics have made available the power of “microcomputers on a chip” and digital signal processors at affordable prices. It is a small wonder then that the power of a whole orchestra is placed in the hands of a single musician playing a western keyboard!

The introduction of electronics into Indian classical music did not lag too far behind. Though a wide range of electronic instruments have not pushed the conventional instruments into oblivion, they have served more as practice aids than as independent musical instruments. Thus it has aided in preserving the Indian heritage by letting the conventional instruments survive.

The early electronic sruti-box : The attempts in India in the late 60’s to produce vacuum tube based electronic Sruthiboxes (drone) were futile as these were made bulky, could not work on small batteries and were unsuitable from a musician’s point of view since a valve based circuitry was inherently unstable.

As a young student of music & belonging to a family of performing musicians, my interest in the field of electronic musical instruments was kindled by the fact that I worked then in an R&D laboratory of an aerospace industry.

My initial interest was to develop a gadget that could enable me to practice playing my flute without someone else playing the struthibox or tambura for me. My father, who used to play the flute, had devised a mechanical contraption that allowed him to move the bellows of a conventional sruthibox with his knee while he squatted on the floor. I would have none of that since it gave me a terrible pain in my hip when I practiced for an hour or two at a stretch.

Thus I got to work on transistorized circuits in 1970 which were the only devices available in India those days for commercial applications. I came up with a circuit that provided the three adjustable notes SA – PA – SA, that worked on a 9V battery and possessed a stability of pitch acceptable to a musician. This instrument was demonstrated at a music conference in Bangalore in 1971. Having solved the problem of Sruthi, my attention automatically shifted to the need for someone to keep Taala for me. This lead me to the development of the ‘Talometer’ an audiovisual gadget that could keep taala for all the 35 possible taalas of carnatic music at any tempo.

The Electronic Tambura, Talometer, Table and Lehera Instruments : Even though the electronic sruthibox was found to be very useful for practice as well as for concert use, performing Indian musicians actually needed a tambura with its rich tonal quality that put them into the right mood for music. “Couldn’t you make an electronic tambura that could be carried in a suitcase like your sruthibox?” was posed to me at a time when Integrated circuits became available in India and were exciting to work with. Having been invite to demonstrate my Srutibox and the revolutionary “Talometer” at the prestigious Music Academy of Madras in 1979, I was tempted to work on the electronic tambura so that I could demonstrate this also.

It took me two months of complete toil to get a presentable working model that was ready just a day prior to the scheduled demonstration in Madras. Since it was not announced earlier, the unveiling of the “Saarang” electronic tambura at the Music Academy was a breathtaking event for everyone present that morning including Dr. Balamuralikrishna who came backstage later to congratulate me! Within a week, I had handed over one to Dr. Balamuralikrishna and two more to violinists Dr. L. Shankar and Dr. L. Subramaniam, who took them abroad.

Even though the first “Saarang” did not produce the exact sound of the tambura, considering its advantages in terms of small size, operation on batteries and AC Mains, range of pitch exceeding one octave, rugged construction making it capable of withstanding the ‘occasional knocks’, untainted from the effects of temperature and humidity variations, etc., its tonal quality was satisfying enough for most professional musicians.

The popularity and demand for “Saarang” tambura as well as the “Dhruva” srutibox continued to increase and soon these products h ad established themselves as a part of every Indian musician’s kit. Some stations of All India Radio too starting using the Saarang in their studios.

By 1986, my attention was drawn to the “Rhythm machines” and the “Drum synthesizers” of western music. As I was exposed to Hindustani music during my childhood in New Delhi and since my mother and sister used to perform Hindustani music, I was aware of the need for tabla accompaniment even during practice sessions of a vocalist or any other instrumentalist. Since this was also the time when microprocessors had become available, I realized that an electronic table that could play the various thekas of hindustani music at various speeds and pitch without any restriction of playback time would be a great boon for Hindustani musicians.

By the middle of 1987, I had put together a crude model that could just play the ‘Teen Taal’. By end of 1987, the first electronic tabla, ‘Taalmala’, capable of playing 12 taals, was ready. The first demonstration of the ‘Taalmala’ electronic table at the Bombay University was crowded with many music enthusiasts, keen to see its performance. Rave reviews in almost all the newspapers and magazines and the interest that it generated was beyond my anticipation.

Again, as with the Saarang, the advantages offered by the electronic tabla far outweighed any tonal deficiency that it possessed at that time. It enabled a musician to practice at any time (most musicians like to practice late in the night or early in the morning), adjust the pitch as required on the same instrument, play any of the commonly used thekas at any speed from ati-vilambit to dhrut, operate on batteries or AC Mains (remember most Indian cities go without electric power for hours in a day), carry around anywhere easily, etc.

The latest version of the Taalmala now produces 60 thekas and can be programmed by the user to play any theka of his/her choice besides the pre-programmed ones. The Taalmala also has undergone many changes since its invention in 1987. Introduction of many more thekas, stereophonic sound, programming and editing facilities, memory and digital display facilities are some of the newer features, along with the authentic tabla sound produced by sampler technology.

Soon it was the turn of the tabla artists to protest, as their needs for practice were not being met! The outcome was the birth of the ‘Sunadamala’ an electronic lehera instrument which can now play 200 pre-programmed tunes in various raags and taals at any selected pitch and tempo. This was formally launched in Jan. 93 by Pdt. Ravi Shankar at Bangalore

Digital tamburas with the sampled tone of a good tambura have been developed and introduced into the market. These are believed to make the conventional tambura redundant. These tamburas (the Saarang Magic, Saarang Melody and Saarang Maestro) with startlingly realistic tone are now available in palm-sized compact models.

The need for a musician to have the sruti heard at ear-level, together with the perceived need for a tambura with ‘stage presence’ has resulted in the introduction of the Saarang Concerto, in an aesthetically pleasing tambura shape, with an extra speaker in the ‘stem’ portion of the instrument. At the same time, the practical aspect of electronic tamburas is maintained by making this instrument easily dismantled into a convenient carry-case.

The Sunadamala and the Talometer have also benefited from the advances in technology and now have all the features that the Saarang series of instruments have memory facility, an accurate digital pitch-pipe with display, etc.

All these state-of-the-art electronic instruments now come with elegant plastic moulded cabinets. They are manufactured by Radel Electronics in the only factory in the country dedicated to the production of electronic Indian musical instruments.

The electronic Veena : The traditional Veena is slowly losing its importance as a concert instrument mainly due to two reasons, its inherent low volume and its unwieldy and delicate structure makes transportation cumbersone. Vainikas are aware of these problems and use contact microphones or magnetic pickups to increase the volume.

In 1968, I made my own solid body electric guitar at home and used to play it in the Spanish style (unlike the Hawaiian style commonly used for Indian music, which employs a nylon/metal stopper to slide over the strings). Two years later, I was a member of a group of youngsters who were playing some Indian orchestral compositions as well as some Thyagaraja kritis on western instruments such as the accordion, mandolin, guitar and violin.

This is when I got o the idea of an electric veena that could be made lighter as well as louder than the conventional veena. in 1971, I built and demonstrated such an instrument, the “Sunadavinodini”, where a magnetic pickup was used to transfer the vibration of the string directly to an external amplifier and speaker.

This rendered the traditional sound box unnecessary, and so I dispensed with it. I directly fitted the frets on a plank of wood to eliminate the cumbersome wax fret-board. Guitar tuning keys were used for easy and accurate tuning, whereby the fine-tuning could also be achieved quickly. This electric veena had two removable papier-mache gourds for support as the traditional way of playing the veena requires support on both sides. Thus the advantages of portability, high audibility and increased sustenance of sound due to the magnetic pickup helped.

However, the common problem faced by Vainikas’ (even if they use a contact microphone or magnetic pickup) is that the performer does not get a feedback of the sound unless a monitor speaker is provided. Hence the artiste is forced to carry an ampli-speaker unit separately. All these problems were solved in 1987, when I fitted an amplifier and speaker within one of the gourds. By the late nineties, the electronic tamburas were already being used everywhere.

I then decided to make this electronic veena completely self contained by fitting an electronic tambura into the other gourd and also making a battery backup for the instrument. Thus, the Sunadavinodini was transformed into a completely self-contained, stand-alone electronic instrument. It is also, so far, the sole Radel electronic musical instrument capable of being played by a performer. All the others simulate the sound of the respective traditional instruments and play by themselves.

APPLICATIONS : Apart from the fact that self-playing electronic musical instruments simulate and reproduce the sounds of some existing instruments, they can also be used very effectively for teaching and for improving musical standards. Being very precise in their performance, they provide a very good reference of pitch (Sruthi) or tempo (Laya) depending on the instrument used. This is particularly useful for young students of music and dance since a good foundation in these two important aspects of Indian music and dance would aid them in their formative years.

These instruments, capable of self operating, allow the students (as well as professionals) to practice for longer hours and at their convenient times. One of the easiest methods of improving the “sruthi sense” is to keep the tambura playing softly at all times of the day. The employees of the firm where these instruments are manufactured seem to develop a very sharp sense of sruthi over a period of a few months even though they have no training in music.

Electronic tamburas are also being very effectively used for meditation and yogic healing sessions. Some doctors have been advising their patients to meditate with the electronic tambura in the background to relieve them from mental stress.

The electronic tablas are not only helpful for vocalists and instrumental artists, but can also be used by students of tabla as a reference for the various tabla thekas. The ‘Taalmala’ used in conjunction with the electronic lehera instrument ‘Sunadamala’ enables Kathak dancers to achieve the total ambience required for their practice. The Sunadamala is also very useful to composers who can compose their music piece by piece and hear how it would sound.

The wide use of Indian electronic musical instruments and their popularity even in concerts has proven that they are already part of the Indian music scene. The rapid advances in the field of electronics in recent times has opened up many exciting possibilities of new products at affordable prices that could not have been even imagined a few years ago. These are only limited by the creative talents and the commitment of people interested in further scientific development of Indian music and dance.