Indian musical instruments are remarkable for their beauty and variety of forms which, as seen in the paintings at Ajanta, have remained largely unchanged in the last 2000 years.

 Among all the classical musical instruments, the tanpura, or tambura as it is called in south India, is special as it crosses the divide between Hindustani and Carnatic music, between dhrupad and khayal, vocal and instrumental, and classical and folk music. This drone instrument is considered the foundation of Indian music, and vocalists and instrumentalists adjust their pitch according to it. In fact, every student of Indian classical music is expected to learn to strum and tune it.

Going by the seminal texts on performing arts such as the Natya Sastra, the Sangitaratnakara, and scholarly commentaries on these works across centuries, the concept of the drone has always remained integral to performance practices. Purandardasa (16th century), the pitamaha of Carnatic music, thus highlighted the importance of the tanpura (“one who plays the tambura has crossed the ocean of bhavsagar”), and composed it in raga Sindhubhairavi. The tambura also finds mention in Sangam era literature like Tolkappiyam and Silappadikaram.

These photographs are a visual documentation of the instrument-making process, from the fields of Pandharpur where the gourds (tumba) are farmed to the artisans of Miraj who make the tanpura. Both places are in Maharashtra. Other important places known for the making of the tanpura are Thanjavur, Rampur and Varanasi.

In the last century or so, Miraj overshadowed the other centres due to a confluence of factors. It had access to good quality raw material and was close to centres of music in western and southern India. The fact that Miraj boasts a railway junction has also played an important role in its growth as a centre for instrument making and repairing.

Also, helpful acts of patronage, a favourable climate, the existence of Khwaja Meerasaheb’s dargah and proximity to the vibrant classical music scene in centres like Dharwad, Pune and Mumbai, many artists settled in Miraj.

The foundation of instrument making in Miraj was laid by accident in the 1850s when acting upon a royal command Faridsaheb Shikalgar repaired the instrument of a visiting musician. The results of Faridsaheb’s success in this endeavour can be seen to this day. 

This work was produced under the aegis of Neel Dongre Award for Excellence in Photography 2016-17 and exhibited at the India International Centre in April-May 2017.

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The pumpkin (kaddu/tumba/bhopla) which is inedible, is grown in the Pandharpur region of Maharashtra by a small number of farmers who receive patronage from the instrument makers

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Once the gourd is ripe, it gets detached from the vine. Farmers dry it under the sun for nearly two months so that moisture evaporates and the shell becomes strong. To ensure that the gourd is round in shape, while drying its side is changed every other day.

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Sitarmakers, due to the unpredictable harvest of the gourds, maintain a stock of tumbas. Since it takes a lot of space, they hang it from the ceiling in their houses.

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The tools of the trade.

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Almost all Sitarmakers double up their homes as their workplace. Here Mubarak Sitarmaker, who lives in a two-room house, is working on the tumbas, which are chosen and cut according to the instrument that is to be made. For tanpura, the tumbas are cut vertically and a third of the portion is removed. After this, it is cleaned and soaked in water for 8-10 hours so that the shell becomes soft. Then the neck (gullu), which is made of red cedar wood, is fixed. The gourd is also cut to adjust the neck and the faceplate (tabli).

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For the construction of the neck, faceplate and fingerboard (dandi), a seasoned lal deodar, red cedar or other timber is used. These are mostly sourced from Karnataka.

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The construction of fingerboard, a hollow semi-circular piece of wood glued with a flat wood, requires a lot of chiselling. The chiselling takes almost a day to finish. The artisan in picture,  Mirasaheb, earns about ₹800 per tanpura. A tanpura’s starting price is usually ₹16,000. 

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Once the fingerboard is ready, it is glued with the neck, screwed tightly, and kept for a day.

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The skeleton of the tanpura is sent for embellishments, and other ornamentation which takes a few days. For designing, a strip of plastic is first pasted on the neck, faceplate and fingerboard. Above this, the craftsmen painstakingly do the needlework to create the designs. Earlier, in place of plastic ivory was used. But due to strict laws, plastic is used now. Here, Munna is working on the embellishments at his one-room house in Miraj.

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To colour the embellishment, Fevicol, a popular adhesive, is mixed with the colours available in the market. However for the black colour, a paste of Fevicol and powder of coal is used. Once the work on the embellishments are complete, the skeleton of tanpura kept to dry for few hours. It is then smoothend before polishing. 

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Then the tanpura is painted and polished using a
cotton cloth soaked in colours.

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After the colour is dried, and the embellishments are scratched so that the engravings, and the colours filled in become visible.

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The tanpura is now almost ready for delivery. The last step is called tar-jawari. In this process, after thorough measurement, holes are made on the top of the fingerboard to insert tuning pegs (khoonti), to tighten strings, and tailpiece (langot), and the bridge (jawari) is adjusted according to the pitch. 

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The ‘Bada Ghar,’ the residence of the first family of instrument makers in Miraj. This house is called ‘Bada Ghar’ not only because it is the biggest among those of instrument-makers, but also the other instrument-makers in Miraj learnt from the family at some point. The is also the house where Sharafat Abdul Majid Sitarmaker, the only Sangeet Natak Academi Awardee among the instrument-maker community from Miraj, lived. 

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Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar, a dhrupad exponent, belonging to the 20th generation of the Dagar family, says, “We are particular about the quality as we only use tanpura during the whole concert. A note here or there will ruin our entire performance.”