“Instrument making – Reconstruction of ancient musical instruments” by Shri. Sudhakar Bhat

Prefatory Remarks

Although the great riches of our archaeological finds give fascinating and often rewarding glimpses of the musical instruments of our great cultural heritage, their true picture survives only in the treatises on music, provided the technicalities of their construction and handling described therein are correctly comprehended or appreciated. Many of the separate types of medieval stringed instruments, sprung from a common root, depicted in Indian sculptures, are quite close to one another for anyone to differentiate them confidently. A mere visual skeletal form in sculptures and paintings with artistic configurations may give a deceptive idea about the instrument depicted. A sculptor or a painter may not be fully conversant with the actual dimensions and design of an instrument; the intention of representation being only to show its contemporaneity. Moreover, artists have a natural flair for individuality in their an which tends to sway them away from reality and as a result, even with a sound knowledge of the instrument, the end product may be more of an artistic imagination than a realistic one, and may not exactly tally with the one mentioned in the treatises. However, the fact can not be denied that both sculptures and paintings successfully reveal such details as the type of instruments that enjoyed certain vogue and to some extent the position in which these were held and played and hence their importance can not be overlooked. But as for their names, materials used, method of construction, playing techniques, tunings and such other characteristics which do not lend themselves to visual expositions in sculptures or paintings, the only source of information is the musical treatises, though they too sometimes fail in providing explicit data making it rather impossible to know the true picture of one particular vina without thoroughly knowing the other. Therefore, a very careful and an indepth study of the important vinds ofpre-medievaland medieval periods together is essential to get vital clues regarding their exact structure anddimensions. The ancients left many things to oral tradition and such being the case one can at best fill the lacuna in information by contemplative conjectures and give one’s interpretations and deductions which should of course, be logical and practical.

After Ndtya Sdstra, the epitome of music literature is the Sangita Ratnd kara of Sarngadeva which is the most sought after for an all round information of the ancient music. It is the richest source of our knowledge of the vinds of premedieval and medieval periods which describes somewhat elaborately the method of construction and playing of different types of vinds with scanty reference to their tunings. Among them the ekatantri vina has been treated here because it is the primary zither type vina of fundamental importance.

This instrument is highly regarded by ancients as the first single stringed finger-board instrument capable of producing melody which existed for almost a thousand years from Ndtya Sdstra to the period of Sarigita-Ratndkara, though not until the end of 5th century A.D. that it gets itself established as a major vina. The name ektantrifor Ghosd may have been coined during post Ndtya Sdstra period when it rises to a position of unquestioned eminence and reputation which is reflected in frequent references made to this instrument while describing its successors in musical treatises. The extraordinary regard and sanctity enjoyed by this instrument is obvious from what Sarngadeva says in Sangita-Ratna kara (VI-54) that a mere sight and touch of ektantri vina leads one to salvation and even purifies a sinner.


At the outset we must distinguish ekatantri from ekatdrd, because generally, the former is confounded with the latter, as both of them bear their descriptive name meaning one-stringed. Incidentally, they have nothing but a similarity of name in common and the fact that both of them belong to the zither group. There is a vast difference between the two in their size, structure and purpose; the former is a melody instrument, an unfretted vina prevalent inpre-medieval times but now in extinction, and the latter is a simple drone instrument of primitive origin but still a ubiquitous folk instrument found in different forms in the country, generally associated with the wandering mendicants. The technical difference between ekatdrd and ekatantri had great influence on the application of the two instruments, the former being used only to accompany the singers in its unvaried crude form all through ages, the latter, on the other hand, evolved into a sophisticated form ofrudra vind capable of being employed for instrumental solo by virtuosi.


As per the description given by Sdrngadeva in his Sangita-Ratnckara (VI, 29-52) the finger-board of the ekatantri vind is approximately 144 cm. in length and 24 cm. in circumference*. It is made of catechu wood, straight and tubular in shape with a smooth surface without any snag, blemish or a crack. The finger board has longitudinal resonating chamber/chambers with openings on both the ends. This is done in three different ways. First, a single longitudinal cylindrical bore, traversing through the centre of the tubular finger board, having a diameter of 3 cm. Secondly, three equispaced untorn bores forming a triangle, each having a diameter of 1.5cm. Thirdly, two equispaced bores, each having adiameterof approximately 1.8cm.. Whichever way it is done, the lower end of the finger-board must have only, a single bore in the centre with its inner circumference measuring 3 cm. and therefore, in the second and third cases, the ducts, running parallel to each other, have their lower ends joined to this central cavity at the bottom end of the finger­board. This lower central bore is essential for insertion of a staff which shoulders the bridge that is bulky in size and involves a fascinating technology of its making. Its length is 16 cm. and breadth 6cm. Its sides measure more than 2 cm., meaning, according to the commentator, Kallindtha, that it can be 2.5 cm. or even 3 cm. This is because the upper surface of the bridge has a curvature like the back of a tortoise and since the lower surface is flat, except in the middle the thickness of the bridge ought to vary at different points. It is a rectangular block, preferably made of hard khadir wood or even any other wood and is placed horizontally crosswise to the finger-board. A rectangular convex plate of alloy steel of 8 cm. x 4 cm. size is laid on the top of the wooden bridge which is supposed to improve the timbre of the string and also protect the surface of the bridge from wearing out due to the friction of the vibrating string. A groove, just the size of the metal plate is made on the wooden bridge which is supposed to improve the timbre of the string and also protect the surface of the bridge from wearing out due to the friction of the vibrating string. A groove, just the size of the metal plate is made on the wooden bridge with a conical cavity in the centre to hold the metal plate and its under surf ace protruding spike. The groove makes the convex metal plate and the curved surface of the bridge together form a smooth slope, while the pit and the spike together help the metal plate grip the surface of the bridge and prevent its chance displacement. The spike is slightly thinner than its pit perhaps to leave room for its free movement so that the plate could be easily removed and put back whenever required. A reading variant is that the spike has the same thickness as its pit and that it stays tight in it. In fact, it is desirable that the metal plate is firmly fixed into its groove to convey the vibration of the string to the body of the bridge there upon the the finger-board more effectively. The bridge is seated over a separate wooden staff which is attached to the lower end of the finger-board by inserting it into the central bore, completely blocking it. The staff is 16 cm. long, its upper halfhaving a diameter of’6cm. with a smooth surface and a bulge in the middle like a tortoise shell over which the bridge is placed perpendicular to the finger-board. Although it is not mentioned in the text that the bridge is mounted over a staff, but the commentator, Simbhabhupdla says so. Moreover, the statement, while describing the playing posture ofektantri in the text, that the bridge should be tactfully positioned over the right heel, is a clear indication that it is at the far end of the instrument over the staff attached to the main body and not on the finger-board proper. It does not completely cover the staff whose end remains in sight, which rests on the heel while the instrument is held in playing position. The bridge seems to be an integral pan of the shaft over its accentuated back having a shallow depression in the centre of its lower surf ace with two protruding legs, slightly raising the bridge above the shaft. The lower pan of the staff has exactly the same diameter as the bore at the lower end of the finger-board, so that it jams into the latter, when inserted and stays tightly.

The staff of the bridge, going half-way through the bore of the finger-board, gives the instrument an added structural strength and stability, and at the same time, acts as a kind of sound post, carrying the vibrations of the strings from the bridge into the main body, which being hollowed out from inside, serves as a resonator. The finger-board is practically a wooden cylinder, its entire length serving as a resonator; one end of which is closed by jamming the staff of the bridge, the other is left open. The actual reason for the distinctive method of fixing the bridge in ekatantri is more of an acoustical nature than any other consideration and therefore, all the later vinds have retained this skill. It is an acoustic phenomenon that the sound of a vibrating tuning fork, placed on a rectilinear box open at one end, is many times amplified. Similarly, the vibrating string of the ekatantri vind requires an acoustic amplifier and therefore the bridge is connected with the vibrating chamber with a staff, so that, when the string is set in motion, the bridge transmits the vibrations into the resonating chamber of the finger-board thorugh it.

34 cm. below the top of the finger-board two holes are made on the underside which look like a pair of human eyes. The word “aksisdrsam” suggests two things. First, that the holes are made horizontally crosswise to the finger-board, side by side and not vertically one above the other. Secondly, they are made on the periphery of the finger-board, that is to say that the holes do not connect the inside bore of the finger-board but join each other and in such case the holes will look somewhat oblong like the human eyes. Thus, the two holes are actually the two ends of a single burrow which is desirable for easy and repeated threading of a cord for making a loop with which a gourd resonator is eventually fastened to the finger-board. For making the loop, a single, double or triple stranded cord is selected depending on the size of the holes. The procedure of making the loop is quite curious and is to be followed step by step. First, one end of apiece of cord is laced through the burrow by inserting it into one of the two holes, coming out of the other. The cord thus threaded is pulled till the two sides of the cord are equal in length. Then the two ends of the cord are threaded once again through the holes in opposite directions, the right end into the left hole and the left end into the right hole. The two ends of the cord thus threaded are then simultaneously pulled in opposite directions together to tighten the loop, employing a double pull with equal force so that the two sides of the cord are still equal in length. This whole process in to be repeated once again to give double strength to the loop and prevent the cord from slipping in any direction.

The gourd, which is fastened to the finger-board with the help of this loop, is matured and uniform in shape, having a circumference of 120 cm. and a height of24 cm. An elaborate method is used for preparing the gourd resonator. At the apex of the gourd with an inverted navel-like natural formation of 6cm. diameter, a hole is made in its centre. A half-cut coconut shell with a hole in the centre of its top is mounted over it in such a way that the top of the gourd is fitted exactly to the inside surface of the coconut shell and the umbilical hole of the gourd and the central hole at the top of the coconut shell are perfectly aligned. After this, the two ends of the cord, already threaded into the finger-board holes forming a tight loop, are inserted into the aligned holes of the gourd and the coconut shell, tied to a bolt-like device inside the gourd and twisted till the gourd is firmly held against the finger-board.

The instrument is devoid of a tuning peg and involves an elaborate process of fastening the string to an adjustable noose which has been a common way of varying the tension of strings before the invention of tuning pegs. A strong, smooth and double stranded cotton cord is wound around the finger-board above the gourd with one end having a noose which hangs loose and is adjustable. To this noose is attached one end of the playing string which is made of strong, smooth and solid gut. Its other end is stretched over the bridge pressing the metal plate and firmly tied to the bridge itself. A small bamboo slip of 4 cm. x 0.3 cm. size is so placed, between the gut string and the metal plate on the point where they come in contact with each other, that at the junction point the string is raised to the slightest possible degree which helps in enhancing the resonance of the string.

A three-ply braided cord-like strap, smooth and circular, made of natured bamboo skin, having a length of exactly 24 cm. and a thickness of 1.5 cm, is lapped on the finger-board like a movable sleeve at a distance of 6 cm. below the gourd. This acts as a nut and an indicator of a note of the lower register implying that the tone of the open string is of the lower register and that the instrument has a compass of three octaves. The nut in the form of a sleeve may have been employed for acoustic measurement in which its movement is used to alter the vibrating length of the string, thus affecting the pitch of the instrument. If this sleeve is slid to and fro over the finger-board the effective length of the string as a whole is altered and with it its pitch. The farther away the sleeve is pushed from the gourd resonator the higher becomes the fundamental note and vice-versa. Once the sleeve is set to a desired position, the tension of the string prevents its slipping.

The bridge is so positioned that its height and that of the nut is equal. In all the zither type unfretted plucked instruments, where notes are produced by gliding some hard thing over their strings, both nut and bridge are made equal in height so that the strings stretching over them run parallel to the finger-board, which enables them to vibrate without touching the finger-board when stopped from above at any point.

Thus, the simplicity that the name ekatantri vind presents to the ear is more or less deceptive, because its construction in fact involves a curious and elaborate process with precision, though acoustically this is the simplest of all the finger-board instruments capable of producing melody.


Tuning is the largest technical problem in this instrument. First of all, the string must be taut enough to give a pleasing tone, and then it must also be made to give a desired pitch. Once a string is strung, it can be made to sound higher or lower either by a variation in its tension or by a variation in its vibrating length. Here it may be pointed out once again that tuning pegs capable of being turned, characteristic of modern stringed instruments, do not occur in the instruments of that age. Instead the instruments are equipped either with tuning nooses, which can be manipulated to adjust the tension of strings as found in various types of harps, or movable bridges/nuts, like that in tube zithers which enable the player to shift them on the finger-board, thereby changing the sounding length of the strings resulting in pitch alterations. Both these techniques have been appropriated in this instrument for achieving greater accuracy in tuning.

Playing Technique

It is held in front of the player’s body in a slanting position with the gourd resonator facing down and the string up supported on the left shoulder and the bridge placed against the right heel.

The string is plucked with bare finger-tips of the right hand using the index, middle and the ring finger; the left hand passing over the finger­board moving along the string with apiece of bamboo chip, obtaining pitch variations by exerting slight pressure on the string. The gliding of left hand makes possible intonations, an effect which made this instrument par excellence as compared to the open-stringed instruments. Detailed instructions are given in the text (SR VI, 58-88) for plucking and striking the string with right fingers and for producing notes by sliding a bamboo chip with the left and also synchronisation of the movements of the two hands which, though interesting, is outside the scope of this paper.

The instrument is so delicate in its naunces of true intonation that the slightest difference in pressure on the string can almost change the true tone and, above all, has this advantage over others that it can produce uniterrupted tones essential for grace notes. With its increased melodic power, it developed a style of instrumental music quite divorced from anything that the open-stringed instruments could produce.

* In Sangita-Ratndkara, measurements of different musical instruments are given in terms ofhasta, vitasti and angula. A measure of length from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger is one hasta which in turn is equal to two vitastis. A measure of length between the extended thumb and the little finger is one vitasti which is equal to twelve angulas. One angula measures the thickness of the first joint of a thumb, vide SR. VI, 28, or equal to the thickness of six huskless barley grains put together widthwise one after another, vide SR VI, 280. In both the cases it comes to two centimeters approximately. For the convenience of calculation I have taken angula as equal to exactly two centimeters.

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