India - Percussion Musical Instruments

by V.A.Ponmelil (All rights reserved by the author)

Percussion Musical Instruments

The Tabla is one of the most famous instruments of India. It is a two-piece percussion instrument, and is the principal rhythmic accompaniment to most of the North Indian classical and the light music. It is said to have originated from the two-faced drum called the mridangam and the pakhawaj.

The pictures of drums can be seen in the Pushkaras depictions in the Ajanta sculptures. It is also referred as the tabla-dugga pair as it consists of two drums.

The bass drum or the male drum which is played with the left hand is called the bayan or the dhaga or the duggi. The treble or the female drum which is played with the right hand is called the Dayan or the tabla.

The bayan has a rounded shell made of metal and the Dayan has a slimmer shell usually made of wood. Both are covered with the skin fastened to leather hoops which are stretched over the body of the drum by means of leather braces.

There is a cylindrical block of wood wedged between the braces and the wall of the tabla. The wedges can be pushed up or down to lower or raise the pitch. The application of a mixture of flour and water to the left head of the Dayan lowers the pitch and gives the dull bass sound. This plaster can always be scraped off after use.

In bayan, the plaster is mixed with iron fillings and it is applied once for all. The table has a light and sweet sound whereas the bayan has an infinite pitch. The drums are kept erect on the ground and played with the fingers. This instrument has the capacity to produce almost all the patterns of rhythms.

The most popular artist of Tabla is Ustad Zakir Hussain.


The Dhap is a rhythm instrument. It is in the shape of a Khanjari made up of wood with one side open and the other side covered with a piece of animal skin. It has a wooden frame with leather stretched over the frame. There is a dance called Dhap associated with this instrument.

The Mridangam is the rhythm instrument used to maintain the thala of the recital in the Carnatic music. The word Mridangam means the body of clay. It is the most ancient of all percussion instruments. It is similar to Pakhawaj in north India.

The Mridangam is a double sided drum with the body of the instrument made of one piece of wood. It has the shape of a barrel with the bulge slightly to one side and the right face is smaller than the left.

The body is hollow with two apertures of different sizes for high and low pitched sounds. The left face is called the tappi with two layers. The outer layer is a flat ring of leather attached to a plait known as the pinnal. The inner layer is a parchment of a circular piece and has a diameter approximating to the outer skin. The right face has three laminations. The inner and the outer are rings. The middle circular layer is held by pasting along its periphery the annular rings of leather. This entire complex called 'valan talai' is stitched on to a pinnal or plait and mounted onto the right mouth of the barrel.

The two faces are joined and held together tight by leather straps which pass in and out of the pinnals or braids on both sides. A mixture of flour and water is applied on the middle of the left side to lower the tone to the desired pitch. This gives a full, bass sound. This is removed each time after use.

The center of the right side has a permanent coating of a black substance called siyahi which is a mixture of boiled rice, manganese dust, iron filings and other substances. This layer gives characteristic tone to the mridangam and facilitates the tuning to a particular pitch. The most popular artists of the Mridangam are Palghat Mani Iyer and Umayalapuram Shivaraman.

The Chenda is an important percussion instrument used in many dance forms of Kerala and mainly in the Kathakali, and the Koodiyattam. It is one of the traditional instruments used in Kerala temples. It is also known as chende in certain areas of Karnataka and is used in folk dance drama called the Yakshagana. It is a cylindrical wooden drum which is two feet in length and about a foot in diameter.

The drum is usually made of jackfruit wood. Both sides of the Chenda are covered with skin. Although the Chenda has two faces, only one surface is used.

The drummer suspends the Chenda from his neck such that it hangs more or less vertically. Then it is played with specially made sticks from the Champpangu tree. The sound produced by the Chenda is very loud. Some of the varieties in the Chenda are the Uruttu Chenda, the Veeku Chenda and the Acchan Chenda.

The dholak is a double headed drum with the bass head on one side and the treble head on the other. It is one of the most widely utilized drums in the folk music of India. It is also a popular instrument in most of the recording and the broadcast environments.

The Bass head is designed more like a tabla head with multi layered skins. A paste on the treble head gives a high pitched tone. The heads are kept in place by metal hooks that have nuts at the bottom that can be tightened or loosened to adjust the pitch of the head. It is used mainly in the folk, the light music, the bhajan and the filmi music.

The Pakhawaj is an ancient barrel shaped percussion instrument with two playing heads. It is essentially a north Indian version of the Mridangam.

Its right head is identical to tabla and the left head is similar to the tabla bayan except that there is a temporary application of flour and water instead of the black permanent spot. It is laced with rawhide and has tuning blocks placed between the straps and shell. Its rhythms are taught by a series of mnemonic syllables known as bol.

The Pakhawaj is mainly used for the accompaniment of dhrupad and dhammar singers. It is also very much used in Orissi dances and occasionally for the kathak. It is also found in a classical form from Rajasthan known as the Haveli Sangeet. Today this instrument is rare.

Some of the great pakhawaj players include Kudau Singh, Nana Panse, Purushottam Das, Pagal Das, Amarnath Misra, Bhai Nasira, Talib Hussain Khan, Ambadas Agle, Tota Ram Sharma, Ayodhya Prasad, Gopal Das, Ramashish Pathak, Laxmi Narayan Pawar, Arjun Shejwal, Ramji Upadhyaya, Kelucharan Mahapatra, Taranath Rao, Ravi Bellare, Vasant Rao, Chatrapati Singh, Mohan Shyam Sharma, Manik Munde, Dal Chaand Sharma, Radhey Shyam Sharma, Ravikant Mahapatra, Fateh Singh, Rishabh Dhar, Durga Prasad Mojumdar, Chitrangana Agle, Bhavani Shankar, Akilesh Gundecha, Ashutosh Upadhyaya, Shrikant Misra, and Udhav Shinde.


The Nagara is a percussion instrument having two kettle drums which are played with two sticks. It has been described in ancient puranas as the Dundubhi, the Dundhu, the Dundhub, the Bheri, and the Adamber. It is often played in pair, known as Joh Nagara.

The bigger one is made of copper and is covered with buffalo skin to produce a heavy and deep sound. The smaller one is made of steel and is covered with camel skin, thus producing a light sound. The Nagara is also played in Panchai Baja as Damaha. It is too played in Mahakali Dance. It is accompanied with Chhusyah and Muhali.

The nagara was also used as a war-drum. Its beat heralded the arrival of kings and princes and meant that the army was marching into battle. Today, it is played on the festive occasions.

The khol is a terracotta two-sided percussion instrument used in the accompaniment of devotional, spiritual and folk music and dances. It is an integral part in the accompaniment of most folk music of rural Bengal. It is similar to the mridangam, the dholok and the pakhwaj percussion instruments.

The body of the khol is made of clay and is formed by joining together two truncated cones. The body is coiled laterally with thin leather straps. The right end of the khol is smaller than left. The hems are laced into retaining loops which hold the membrane tightly to the rims of the body. Thin leather straps go back and forth longitudinally between the loops of both drum heads.

A circle of black tuning paste, made from rice or wheat flour mixed with water and iron fillings, is applied to the center of the smaller drum head. A long cotton belt attached to both loops is wound around the player's shoulders to support the drum during the performance.


The Madal is a hand drum is popular as folk drum in North India. It has its origin in Nepal. It is made of wood or clay. Both heads are played, holding the Madal drum horizontally. It is smaller in size compared with other double skin drums.

The skin is similar to the skin of the tabla. It has two levels on both sides and a black portion in the center. Similar to the Pakhawaj and the Tabla the skins are stretched through the tuning wedges in the leather thongs. As it is compact, the Madal is easy to carry and thus it is called as the mobile drum.

Thavil / Tavil

The Thavil is a powerful double drum percussion instrument used mainly for the Nagaswaram. It has a hollow barrel made of solid block of wood.

On both sides of the barrel are the hoops fastened by interwoven leather straps. There are also two skins stretched to form the two heads. The pitch is adjusted by tightening the skin with the help of a leather band which passes through the middle of the barrel over the braces.

The right head is played with the fingers of the right hand capped with hardened rice paste caps whilst the left head is played with a thick stick. Rings made of the same material as the caps are also worn on the knuckles of the right hand. The right head is stretched tight but is not tuned to any particular pitch.

The Damroo is a two-sided drum also known as the monkey talking drum. It has an hour-glass shape. The player holds the damroo drum in one hand and gives it a sharp twist with the wrist, causing the beads to strike the drum heads.

It is made from wood but formerly was made from a human cranium. The Damroo has been the instrument of shamans and exorcists as well as those who sing the praises of Guga, Lord of the Snakes.

In Guga Navmi, groups of Guga singers accompanied by Damroo drummers roam from place to place carrying a tall pole embellished with peacock feathers and dozens of bright scarves in celebration.

The dhol is a two-sided barrel shaped drum held around the neck. It is played with two sticks, one thin cane stick and a larger bent wooden stick for the bass end. The left head, dhamma, has a heavier sound. The right head is called purha.

Traditionally both heads would be made from the goat skin laced together over the shell by one piece of rope which would be threaded through the edge of both skins. Like many Indian double-ended drums, one head is tuned to generate the bass tones while the other head is tuned to generate the treble tones.

The shell of a dhol is made from one piece of wood, ideally a hardwood such as shesham, which is similar to teak. The harder the wood the sharper and clearer is the sound.

The Ghatam is one of the oldest percussion instruments of South India. It is a specially designed mud pot with a narrow end, used as a secondary percussion instrument along with the Mridangam.

The pot is usually made of a mixture of clay baked with brass or copper fillings and a small amount of iron fillings.

The pitch of the Ghatam varies according to its size. Each Ghatam has an inherent pitch of its own, but can be altered marginally by the application of plasticine, clay, and water to the inner layers of the pot. The performer sits cross-legged with the ghatam on his lap, the mouth of the instrument facing his belly.

At times, the ghatam is turned around, so that the mouth faces the audience, and the performer plays on the neck of the ghatam. Sometimes, the performer tosses the pot in the air and catches it, in rhythm, much to the delight of the audience.


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