The Audio Pole Star

If you have never lost your mind, then you have never followed your heart—Anonymous

In the film Chacha Zindabad (1959), the respective fathers of Anita Guha and Kishore Kumar bring them close together so that they may tie the knot. But they are so dissimilar: Kishore is western in what he wears, in his language, choice of music and so on. Anita on the other hand loves things eastern. So they can’t really care less about each other. Scratch the surface though, and you find them falling in love. This new attraction makes them exchange their cultural preferences, which is beautifully highlighted in a scene in which the lady is shown doing aerobics in a jumpsuit, and we find the hero sitting Indian style, white kurta and pyjamas, plucking a tanpura to begin a song. The falling in love part becomes even more evident as he begins singing the words.

But wait, not even a minute into the song, and what is Kishore doing now? Goodness, he is resting the tanpura on his shoulder and walking, not different from the way Lord Hanuman carries his mace. Conservative musicians never do that, because that is disrespectful to Indian values. But then, clearly, the words of the song he is singing are telling us that the man has lost his mind, that he is now following his heart. That love has taken over his persona so he may be forgiven. And so:

Des chhudaaye bhes chhudaaye, kya kya kare na preet Rama

Rang badal de dhang badal de, preet ki aisi reet Rama

Preet ki aisi reet  

In the narrative, the lead actors discover that they love each other, never mind their differences. So it all ends very well for everyone. We don’t know what Kishore does with the tanpura later, but outside the film, it is not a good story for this charming instrument since modern technology is trying to dismiss it off the stage. We will look at that shortly, but first about the instrument.

The tanpura (tambura in Carnatic classical music) is a 4-string music instrument whose job it is to lend a continuous, low-humming sound to a vocalist, not just during the note-paving, mood-setting alaaps at the start, but throughout the course of the rendition. Music historians tell us that drones as instruments are over a thousand years old, but the modern tanpura probably has its ancestry in the long-necked Persian lute called tanbur. When the Persians came here, they brought in elements of their music and also celebrated our own. The tanbur gave birth to fraternal twins, the fretted sitar, and the fretless tanpura. The former plays the tune while the latter a drone. The tanpura does that by playing the base note and by remaining a continually guiding audio Pole Star, so that the vocalist may stay on course. Because the tanpura is only a drone, it offers no rhythm or specific notes. But the low-profile musical carpet that it lays out for the singer to demonstrate his skills cannot be overlooked. There are other kinds of drones, like the ektaara, which wandering minstrels carry with them from place to place. Such an ektaara was played by Nargis in the song from Jogan (1950): Ghunghat ke pat khol re tohe piya milenge. Hema Malini played it a few times too, as in Mose mera Shyam roottha (Johnny Mera Naam, 1970) and in Mere to Girdhar Gopal doosro na koi (Meera, 1979).

That apart, it has been considered that the presence of the tanpura, combined with its player, creates a visual sense of harmony that lends itself well, especially if it’s a performance in front of an audience. An example of this is the classical offering Tinak tin taani do din ki zindagaani from Sargam (1950). In this song, if Paro Devi sings and plays it for herself, Rehana has a tanpura player on both her left and right side, creating a visual mood that sends our spirits soaring. Thus, the tanpura creates an ambience that is both audio and visual.

Here now are some songs that featured the instrument on the screen. Many times more were featured in the recording studio, but let us stay with what we also saw. We list everyone who showed up playing one too, unless they were junior artistes whose names we don’t know, and who were only accompanists to the main singers, like in Tthaare rahiyo o baanke yaar re (Lata/Pakeezah, 1971):

  • Ajhun na aaye baalma (Mehmood/Rafi, Suman/Hasrat Jaipuri/Shankar-Jaikishan/Sanjh Aur Savera, 1964)
  • Akhiyan sang akhiyaan laagi aaj (Subiraj/Rafi/Prem Dhawan/Chitragupt/Bada Aadmi, 1961)
  • Bhagat ke bus mein hai Bhagwan (Unknown actor/Manna Dey/Shakeel Badayuni/Naushad/Shabaab, 1954)
  • Des chhudaaye bhes chhudaaye (Kishore Kumar/Kishore Kumar/Rajinder Krishan/Madan Mohan/Chacha Zindabad, 1959)
  • Duniya na bhaaye mohe ab to bula le (Bharat Bhushan/Rafi/Shailendra/Shankar-Jaikishan/Basant Bahar, 1956)
  • Gori tore nainwa (Kewal Kumar/Rafi, Asha/Kaifi Azmi/Lachhiram/Main Suhagan Hoon, 1964)
  • Hum hain mata-e-koocha-o-baazaar ki tarah (Rehana Sultan/Lata/Majrooh Sultanpuri/Madan Mohan/Dastak, 1970)
  • Jana gana mangal dhaayak Ram (Meena Kumari/Lata/Rajinder Krishan/C Ramchandra/Sharda, 1957)
  • Jhan jhan jhan paayal baaje (Nimmi/Lata/Shailendra/SD Burman/Buzdil, 1951)
  • Kaise bhaaye sakhi rut saawan ki (Vyjayanthimala/Lata/Rajinder Krishan/C Ramchandra/Pehli Jhalak, 1954)
  • Kajraari matwaari madbhari do akhiyaan (Kuldip Kaur/Rajkumari/Shailendra/Roshan/Naubahar, 1952)
  • Kar gaya re kar gaya mujh pe jaadu (Nimmi/Lata, Asha/Shailendra/Shankar-Jaikishan/Basant Bahar, 1956)
  • Kaun aaya mere man ke dwaare (Anup Kumar/Manna Dey/Rajinder Krishan/Madan Mohan/Dekh Kabira Roya, 1957)
  • Man anand anand chhayo (Rekha/Asha, Satyasheel Deshpande/Vasant Dev/Ajit Varman/Vijeta, 1983)
  • Man mora baanwara (Kishore Kumar/Rafi/Jan Nissar Akhtar/OP Nayyar/Raagini, 1958)
  • Manmohan man mein ho tumhi (Manmohan Krishan, Nanda and Biswajit/Suman, Rafi, SD Batish/Shakeel/SD Burman/Kaise Kahoon, 1964)
  • Manmohana bade jhootthe (Nutan/Lata/Shailendra/Shankar-Jaikishan/Seema, 1955)
  • Phool gendwa na maaro (Agha/Manna Dey/Sahir Ludhianvi/Roshan/Dooj Ka Chand, 1964)
  • Poochho na kaise maine rain bitaayi (Ashok Kumar/Manna Dey/Shailendra/SD Burman/Meri Surat Teri Aankhen, 1963)
  • Raina beeti jaaye (Sharmila Tagore/Lata/Anand Bakshi/RD Burman/Amar Prem, 1971)
  • Re man sur mein ga (Raakhee/Manna Dey, Asha/Neeraj/Shankar-Jaikishan/Lal Pathar, 1971)
  • Ritu aaye ritu jaaye and Barkha rut bairi (Shekhar/Manna Dey, Lata/Prem Dhawan/Anil Biswas/Hamdard, 1953)
  • Sajan sang kaahe neha lagaaye (Mala Sinha/Lata/Hasrat Jaipuri/Shankar-Jaikishan/Main Nashe Mein Hoon, 1959)
  • Sakhi ri sun bole papiha us paar (Meenakshi/Lata, Asha/Rajinder Krishan/Hemant/Miss Mary, 1957)
  • Sapnon ki suhaani duniya ko (Dilip Kumar/Talat Mahmood/Shailendra/Shankar-Jaikishan/Shikast, 1953)
  • Tu shokh kali main mast pawan (Kewal Kumar/Rafi/Kaifi Azmi/Lachhiram/Main Suhagan Hoon, 1964)
  • Unke khayaal aaye to aate chale gaye (GM Durrani/Rafi/Hasrat Jaipuri/Shankar-Jaikishan/Lala Pathar, 1971)

As for that point about technology harming the instrument, especially visually, consider: they have the whole tanpura experience in a little box now. The singer puts this strange contraption beside him on a stage, turns a knob and he’s ready to go. That saves him the money to pay another musician, as also the dependency on another. But many of us feel that’s not an intelligent trade-off. Instead of a continuous true drone, this box offers what many think is an ersatz tone. Some people have even called the sound coming out of an electronic tanpura as “continuous boredom”. That apart, the element of aesthetic charm that a real tanpura offers, with a human being plucking it, just cannot be substituted by a little device that just sits there without emotions or aesthetic appeal.

Such tanpuras are also available as apps for iPhones and Android devices. These are excellent, but only for practice. In a performance, it’s a regrettable decision to substitute them for the real ones.


Originally published in DNA Jaipur on 21 October 2018, page 13

Featured image: from Raina beeti jaaye

2 Replies to “The Audio Pole Star”

  1. Manek- all these Musical Instruments are manufactured in Sangli- Meeraj- To be precise Shanivar Peth- Sitarmaker gulli. Interestingly all these manufacturers have Marathi names -but are Muslims and they have been practicing their professions since generations. I am not including the blog as it is in Marathi and many may not be familiar with the language.
    Here is a link which chronicles why Maharashtra was a preferred destination for all the great vocal singers of different – Gharanas and it is in English==

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