What is Taanpura (tanpura) – History, construction, tuning and electronic tanpura recommendation

Last updated on September 7, 2019.

Photo : A typical taanpura

Taanpura (or tanpura ) is an indian instrument is an stringed Indian music instrument. In carnatic music it is known as tambura. In this post we talk about need of tanpura, its construction, tuning and recommendation on electronics tanpura or shruti box.

We will be using the spellings tanpura and taanpura interchangably for SEO purposes.

Why is tanpura used in a performance?

It is used as a drone instrument in Indian classical music. Taanpura is not used to create melody or Rhythm.

In Hindustani Music, the notes (sur) are not fixed and are relative to each other. This means that you can identify any note as Sa and then the next higher note automatically becomes Re. Therefore, taanpura is to used to create the tones for that base sur called adharaswara.

You may refer to our blog post on the sur or swaras used in Indian classical music to know about them.

So we saw that , The main purpose of using tanpura is to create a adharaswara (base note) for the performance. The performer (singer or musician) then builds the rest of the vocals and music using this base note as a reference.

Though it looks like sitar, it does not have any frets. It is plucked at only once place i.e. the full length. The singer or taanpura player keeps on plucking the string in a uniform way through out the performance.

History and Etymology of Tanpura

Indian tanpura is supposed to have come in its modern shape around 500 years ago when it started featuring in paintings of that era.

As per one theory, the name tanpura is derived from sanskrit word taana, referring to a musical phrase and pura means full.

Another theory goes that it is a derivation of Persian word tanbur. Tanbur are long necked musical instruments originating in Mesopotamia . They are prevalent in folk music of Central Asia and Middle East. Tanpura is essentially an Indian adaptation of Tanbura as per this theory.

Parts of Tanpura

A farmer looking at gourd for making tumba of taanpura (or tanpura)
A farmer inspecting dried gourd which will be used to manufacture tumba of a taanpura

Miraj in Maharashtra is the centre of Taanpura manufacturing and is known for manufacturing best sounding Tanpura for hindustani classical music. Whereas Tambura, used in Carnatic music, from Thanjavur are considered as gold class.

Taanpura is made from a special variety of dried gourd grown in Pandharpur area of Maharashtra.

Tanpura is usually made of teak or tun (red cedar).

Tun is ideal as it is lighter and has better resonance, but one can find high quality tanpura made from teak as well.

Different parts of taanpura (or tanpura)
Parts of typical taanpura – top and side view

A taanpura has five main parts :

  1. Tumba or resonator
  2. Tabli or sound board
  3. Dandi or neck
  4. Gullu or neck joint
  5. Patta or fingerboard

Taanpura usually has four strings that are joined together on top with four knobs. There are some which have five strings as well. But the ones with four strings is more prevalent.

The four strings are tuned in three different frequencies with the middle two strings being tuned at the same frequency. The higher the pitch ‘s

Types of Tanpura

Taanpura comes in many sizes from 3 to 5 feet. Tanpura comes mainly in three variations.

  • Male Taanpura is larger in size
  • Female Taanpura is smaller in size
  • Smaller accompaniment taanpura smaller than the female tanpura used to accompany with a sarod or sita

Below table lists approximate sizes of four major sizes of Tanpura.

TypeSizeLengthTabli WidthBridge to Bridge
Distance
Circumference
of Thumba
Tuning Range
MaleLarge145 cm37-45 cm101 cm137 cmC-D#
FemaleMedium130 cm33-36 cm99 cm122 cmG-Bb
BhajaniSmall105 cm30 cm70 cm101 cmC-F#
InstrumentalSmall89 cm23 cm61 cmC-D#

Table : Sizes of 4 major types of taanpura

Tuning the instrument

One needs to tune Taanpura in order to make it replicate correct scale. The best way to get it tuned is from a professional Tanpura tuner. If you have bought the tanpura locally, you may ask the shop to tune it for you. Otherwise you may have to ask a professional to help you tune the tanpura.

The video below by renowed singer Pt. Ajoy Chakrobarty is an excellent guide on how to tune taanpura. Do watch it.

Video: Taanpura tuning masterclass by Pt Ajoy Chakraborty

Electronic Taanpuras

These days electronic taanpuras have become the instrument of choice due to the ease of use, no requirement of tuning and portability. Electronic Taanpuras are available either in form of gadgets called Shruti Box or in the form of apps e.g. iTabla Pro

Though electronic taanpura may not exactly match the quality of sound of taanpura, yet the overall value proposition makes up for slight deficit in the quality of sound department.

Shruti boxes or electronic taanpuras come with either just taanpura tunes or with both taanpura and tabla sounds.

The beginners of classical music would generally use taanpura more than tablas. While, the advanced users would need taal of tabla along with the taanpura. Therefore, we suggest that students can invest a little more upfront and get an electronic taanpura which can play both tabla and tanpura

Electronic Taanpura Recommendations

Soundlab Raagini Electronic Taanpura

Soundlab Raagini Electronic Taanpura (tanpura) or Shruti box
Soundlab Raagini Electronic Taanpura (Click on the image to buy on amazon)

If you are looking for a shruti box which can play the tanpura sound then look no futehr than the Soundlabs Raagini Digital Taanpura.

In our opinion it is one of the best taanpuras available in the market with outstanding sound quality, robust build and easy to use buttons.

Many prominent musicians including the likes of Pt. Bhimsen Joshi have used it for their on stage performance.

Below are the list of features of this shruti box:

  • It has multiple functions like pitch and tempo.
  • It’s pitch range spans over an octave covering from A to the B of the next octave.
  • The instrument comes with easy switch operation for selection of accurately pre-tuned Pancham, Madhyam & Nishad.
  • The shruti box can play both Hindustani & Carnatic Styles – Raagini Tanpura is set to play Pa, Sa, Sa Sa (Kharaj) ( 6 Matras, Carnatic Music Style. ) Pressing select switch while switching on Raagini Digital Tanpura sets it to play Pa, Sa, Sa Sa (Kharaj) (5 Matras, Hindustani Music Style)
  • It allows you to manually tune the Nishad
  • Auto memory:- The memory function of this electronic Tanpura helps retain your last selection even when the power is switched off. (Including that of fine tuning)
  • It features Auxilliary out for playing on external speakers.
  • It can be battery operated thus making it easy to travel with.
  • Carry Bag:- The Raagini Digital comes in a easy to carry specially padded nylon bag.
  • The case is made of durable ABS

It retails at a price of between Rs. 5800-Rs. 6000.

If you have any questions around which taanpura you should buy or any other aspects of tanpura, please comment below or send email to musicwithaditi@gmail.com

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