Vina is the generic Sanskrit term for stringed instrument, dating back about three millennia. Among various types of vinas (harps, lyres, lutes, bowed bows, and stick zithers), the precursor to the rudra vina appears in a description in the Yajurveda (circa 1,000 BCE) as a single string stick zither, which may or may not have had external resonators. While the principal stringed instruments of the courts of ancient India were harps, lyres and short-necked lutes, around the middle of the first millennium CE the stick zither supplanted those types of Vinas, becoming the predominant stringed instrument in Indian court music.
This predominance continued in North India through the Mughal period (1556-1858) and into the first decade of the twentieth century. Vernacularly known as the bin, the rudra vina of the Mughal courts has not changed substantially from the 16th century to the present day. Rudra, another name for the major Hindu deity Siva, is shown playing this instrument in statues and bas reliefs dating back to the 11th century. A 13th century treatise notes that the neck (“stick”) with its frets represent the spine of Siva, and the gourds the breasts of Siva’s consort, Parvati or of the goddess of music, Sarasvati. At a higher metaphysical level, the neck is thought to represent the cosmic axis, and the instrument itself is believed to be endowed with the special capacity to transform cosmic sound, anahata nada (a manifestation of the Hindu godhead), into musical sound. A significant number of miniature paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries depict Hindu ascetics playing the rudra Vina. Hence, alongside a glorious history of musical performance in the courts of North India, there is an equally old tradition of the rudra Vina being played by Hindu ascetics – not for audiences, but as spiritual practice (sadhana).
At the end of the 19th century, the sitar began to supplant the bin as the preeminent fretted stringed instrument of North Indian (Hindustani) classical music. Into the early part of the twentieth century, well-trained string players were taught (as was my guru, Pandit Gokul Nag) to play the bin as well as the sitar, but succeeding generations of string players have dropped the study of the bin. Only a few binkars (bin performers) can be heard today in North India.
The sitar is a hybrid instrument which evolved out of a combination of the Hindustani rudra vina (bin) and long-necked lutes of Turko-Persian origin that were very popular in the Mughal courts. From about 1600 to 1800 C.E. the sitar and the tampura were considered to be variations of the same instrument, depending on function: the fretted sitar played melodies while the unfretted tampura played a drone to accompany vocal music. In both cases the instruments took the outward shape of long-necked lutes, but retained the unique design of the bridge (capable of long sustained tones) characteristic of the rudra vina, as well as the rudra vina’s organological function of a hollow neck that vibrates from one end to the other. Up to the beginning of the 19th century the predominant genre of “high classical” music (uchanga sangit) was Dhrupad, with both vocal and instrumental performance styles and repertoires. However, beginning in the 18th century and especially during the 19th century, new derivative musical genres began to evolve – the vocal genre known as khyal and its instrumental counterpart which was performed primarily on sitar and sarod. Unlike the slow-paced and serious character of the Dhrupad style, the new styles considerably expanded the virtuosic dimensions of raga performance. During the 20th century, the levels of virtuosity of the which these instruments are capable spiraled ever upward through the creative genius of sitarists Ravi Shankar, Vilayet Khan and Nikhil Banerjee and players Ali Akbar Khan and Amjad Ali Khan. This kind of dazzling display of technique is now, in the 21st century, considered absolutely de rigueur for sitar and sarod players to master.
Just as the sitar is an instrument that combines elements of indigenous Indian instruments with Turko-Persian instruments, the tabla too is a hybrid. The essential performance techniques of tabla are derived from the barrel-shaped drum that accompanied Dhrupad, known as pakhawaj. The construction of the heads of the drums are also derived from pakhawaj. However, the form of the tabla is in two parts – the tabla, played with the right hand and the baya, played with the left hand. In outward appearance, this instrument comprised of two drums, is middle eastern in origin (as is its name), yet it retains the unique head design and performance techniques associated with that design of Indian drums dating back many centuries before the arrival of Islamic culture in India. The tabla, like its melodic counterparts – sitar and sarod – is capable of considerable virtuosity.
The tampura evolved alongside the sitar as a hybrid instrument, becoming, by the 19th century, an important ingredient in performance ensembles, providing the ever-constant drone (comprised of the raga’s tonic and one or two other principal pitches) that is a fundamental sonic backdrop to raga performance. While some sitar and sarod players eschew the use of tampura, singers, flutists and other players whose instruments do not produce drone pitches, deem the tampura absolutely essential.