The fate of a famous Tambura

By Dr. T.E.S. Raghavan

Until recently, the Tambura as a musical instrument was quite prominent in concerts. used to revel at the sound of Sruti and the magical musical atmosphere it created in a concert hall and the dignity it imparted to the concert stage. I never realized that plucking the tambura was not all that easy as it appeared. Who has the enormous patience and ability to pluck the strings continuously pa, sa, sa again, and again? After a while the plucking process wears out the fingers. Often the audience constitute a bunch of distractors to the Tamburist- the snoring listener, the attractive girl in a corner and the gossiping old women in the front row, to name a few. To any amateur tamburist, these will take away his/her mind and with it, the continuity of the Sruti so vital to the concert. Only professional tamburists can use a tambura to their advantage. Many of them are quite used to sleeping in sitting posture with the tambura acting as a pillow, lulled by the sruti. Like any other musical aficionado, craved to build an inventory of many musical items at home. ordered a Tape recorder from —- traders in New York and collected half a dozen (badly) recorded tapes from unnamed sources of unknown concerts. In those days the sheer look of a Veena or Tambura made me crazy. Almost all concert musicians, then, had a nice way to promote the local artist and supporters by temporarily recruiting them as the Tamburist. The vote of thanks often ended with “last but not least we thank our local artist … “.

It was also a custom among musicians to temporarily assign any promising bride (with a musical leaning) of the local community as the tamburist of the day. There were gains for both sides. The practising Tamburist who came to do this chore had more free time for ‘shopping around. The prospective bride got more visibility in the marriage market. Apparently my friend’s wife got nicknamed “Tamburasri” due to a twenty minute tambura assignment in her college annual function. Within a month she got married to my doctor friend. His parents saw her on the concert platform and liked her ‘on the spot’. often used to feel that, playing Tambura for a concert musician is a better proposition than advertising in the matrimonial columns. I felt it was my duty to dash off a letter to the editor of —- stating that Tambura tuning should be made compulsory for all girls eyen at the high school level.

A well-known visiting artist once came to our city, but his Tambura decided to visit another city. He was frantically looking for a substitute tambura. We combed every potential music lovers’ house in vain. As an ardent music lover I couldn’t take it- my role instantly changed from a music fan to a Tambura searcher. started attending many (both Carnatic and Hindustani) music concerts of visiting artists in the fond hope of plucking the instrument from one of them. In the process, gathered lots of information on Meeraj Tambura, Tanjore Tambura, Ramji in Trichy, … in Bombay, … in Trivandrum and so on. My friends wondered what went on between me and the musicians in many concerts. They did not know that it was a ‘dealing session’ for the Tambura of the artist. The market for Tambura, was delicate. Some cities had a few crazy guys who wanted to possess a tambura at any cost. (The following was a repeating theme in many such Conversations: “You see, so many people have been asking us to sell this tambura. They do not realize that it is priceless and unique; When I gave my first concert at the tender age of six, my parents specifically ordered this for my concert from the famous Tanjore Tirumali. The quality of the instrument has improved with age. You can even check with Ramji in Trichy about the same.”) I was getting increasingly itchy and prepared to pay any price to possess a tambura- it was a better option than the hassle of carrying it all the way from India.

Once a professional musician and his party were in our house. After hours of tortuous negotiation a price was agreed upon; however, actual possession was another matter. He agreed to leave it either at New York or Los Angeles or Seattle- it all depended upon the arrangement of the last concert, still in abeyance. Thus followed several long distance phone calls to recruit friends and friends’ friends to collect the instrument on my behalf at the site of the ‘last’ concert. After eight months of agony and anxiety (long after the music troup had left this country), managed to get my tambura from a friend in New York.

At last, draped in a tattered green cover, the instrument arrived in my house intact. was waiting impatiently for the weekend for my ‘first musical interlude’ with the tambura. Delicately removing the grotesque-looking cover found the tambura somewhat different from what I had seen or imagined. The four wooden keys that tighten the strings were of assorted sizes and shapes. Two were clearly guitar keys of the cheap kind. One Yas half-broken. One had a mind of its own- it constantly unwound after a couple of plucks of the strings. Pa string was inoperative.

On my wife’s suggestion postponed (eternally) the musical aspects of the Tambura and we decided instead, to concentrate on the cosmetic aspects. This meant several trips to many boutique shops, but all in vain. Essentially the tambura grabbed a corner of a closet and was content to shield the other articles in the closet from Collecting dust. Occasionally it used to occupy the concert platform of some visiting artist who “knew’ how to handle loose strings and broken keys. After a while, they too gave up. in late seventies Tambura as a concert instrument was headed for extinction. Almost at professional musicians came equipped with a small electronic tuner.

Occasionally the tambura created a lot of family squabbles. Whenever heatedly attacked the uselessness of the sewing machine, ice cream maker and fry daddy in the house as possessions, my wife, after unsuccessful attempts to find reasons for their possessions, found in the Tambura her final salvation (salvol). The Tambura had the same level of use (or was perhaps even less useful) to the family than the other items permanently retired from active service.

At long last, the tambura saga taught me the following lessons: except for professionals, an item has its value only so long as you don’t own it. Often money, and the material possessions that go with it, cannot by themselves bring happiness or conjugal biss. Now have begun to realize the implication of the Tyagaraja kriti, “Nidhi Tsala Sukhama”.

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