India - String Musical Instruments

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

String Instruments

The Sitar is an extremely popular Indian String Instrument. It has a rich cultural heritage with its origin goes back to the ancient Veena. It has been in use for about 700 years.

The sitar has a little complex construction. It is crafted of natural materials by extremely talented and well trained craftsmen. It is carved out of teak wood and has a seasoned Pumpkin Gourd at one end. It has around 20 frets with six or seven main playing strings and nineteen sympathetic strings.

A plectrum which can be worn on the finger is used to play the instrument. Sitar was developed during the decline period of the Mughal Empire. In order to make the instrument more flexible, Amir Khusru in 13th century reversed the order of the strings of Veena and made the frets moveable. It reflects the culture of India and also of Persia.

Great artist Pandit Ravi Shankar brought in many changes and a new perspective to Sitar.


The Violin is the only western instrument that has been completely absorbed into Indian music. It was introduced to India about 300 years ago and is a very important string instrument in the Southern parts of India.

It is played in a sitting position and is held between the right foot and the left shoulder. The strings of the Violin in India are tuned to different notes than its western counterpart.

The light tone of the steel string and the deep, almost human tone of the fourth string enrich the peculiarities of the Carnatic music.


The Tanpura is an Indian string instrument used for the accompaniment by both vocalists and instrumentalists. It has four or five strings and produces very rich sound. It is a fretless instrument made of wood, and usually combined with gourd.

It provides the performing artist(s) with a tonic reference and enriches the background with its unique harmonic drone. There are three major styles which are the Miraj style, the Tanjore style and the small instrumental version called tamburi.

The Miraj style is used for the typical north Indian Hindustani Music. It is characterized by a pear shaped, well rounded tabali (resonator face) and non-tapering neck. The bridge is comprised of bone, usually deer antler and is slightly curved to not only provide a buzzing sound (as the strings are plucked), but also to generate various harmonics that enhance the tonal quality of the instrument. Unlike the Miraj style, in Tanjore style, the neck tapers toward the top, and the front plate is very flat. Resonators are almost always of wood.

The gourd of the tambura used in Hindustani music is made from the pumpkin shell. The one used by Carnatic musicians is made of jackwood.


The Sarod is the instrument which speaks eloquently of the close connections between India, Afghanistan and Persia. It is much smaller than the sitar. It sits comfortably on the player’s lap and produces excellent sound, without the jangling of sympathetic strings.

Amjad Ali Khan, born in Gwalior (Madhya Pradesh) in 1945, is the sixth-generation Sarod player in his family and his ancestors have developed and shaped this instrument over several hundred years. Initially, it was the Afghan rabab which was later modified into Indian Sarod.

The name Sarod comes from the Persian Sarood meaning ‘melody’, alluding to its more melodic tone. Some Sarods are made from mulberry wood, but most are made from teak which gives richer sound. The front of the wooden belly is covered with goat skin.

There are four main strings used for playing the melody, two drone strings, two chikari strings and fifteen sympathetic strings, all made of metal. These are played by striking with a plectrum made of a coconut shell.

The Santoor is an ancient Indian instrument and has references in Sanskrit texts and literature as the Shatatantri Veena or the Vana Veena. It is of great importance in Kashmir.

Santoor is used there for accompanying a type of classical music called 'Soofiana Kalam', along with other instruments. It is made of a trapezoidal wooden box having thirty bridges arranged in fifteen rows, two in each row and a set of four strings of metal which are stretched over each pair of bridges.

The length and thickness of strings vary according to the octave with the strings being thicker in the lower octaves.

The Indian Santoor is played with a pair of curved mallets made of walnut wood and the resultant melodies are similar to the music of the harp or piano. The sound chamber is also made of walnut wood and the bridges are made of local wood and painted black ebony.

The strings are made of steel from Germany and England. Since the Santoor produces soft, romantic, ethereal music, it is best suited for romantic shringar ras ragas like the Marwah, the Shri, the Puriya Dhanstri and South Indian ragas like the Keerwani and the Charukeshi.

Today, the Santoor is played with all Indian ragas and is also used extensively in Indian film music. The notable players include Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, Pandit Bhajan Sopori, and Kiranpal Singh.

There are many younger generation players like Rahul Sharma, Abhay Rustum Sopori, Saurav Chatterjee, Kakan Ghosal, Versha Aggarwal, Roshan Ali, and Sandip Chatterjee.

The Sarangi is a small gut strings instrument which is carved out of a single piece of wood. It is a premier bowed instrument for accompanying the North Indian music.

The name Sarangi is believed to mean “hundred colours" as it has greater adaptability to the wide range of musical styles, with flexible tuning ability, and capacity to produce a large pallette of tonal colour and emotional nuance.

Coming from a large family of folk fiddles, the Sarangi became very popular and preferred melodic accompaniment for musicians during 18th and 19th centuries. Even though, today it is replaced by the Harmonium, it still retains its vital role.

The Sarangi consists of squat, truncated body with the sound board made of goat skin. The neck is fretless and the bridge is seated on a skin stretched over the body of the instrument.

It has three gut playing strings which are bowed, one bronze rhythm string tuned on the high tonic, 11 sympathetic strings placed on two flat bridges near the pegs tuned on the notes of the raga, and at last 25 sympathetic strings tuned on all the shrutis of two octaves.


The Dilruba is a cross instrument between the Sitar and the Sarangi. It is very similar to the Esraj and the Mayuri veena.

The difference can be seen only in the shape of the resonators and the manner in which the sympathetic strings are attached. Its neck has approximately 18 strings. There are a number of metallic frets, some of which will be moved according to the requirements of the rag. It has a series of sympathetic strings which are tuned to the notes of the rag.

The dilruba is popular in north-west India. It is believed that the Dilruba was developed in India to accommodate the female player. It is also believed that a few hundred years ago, the Dilruba was developed by taking the best features of the Sitar and the Sarangi instruments.

The Dilruba is smaller and more easily held and played with a bow. Today, the Dilruba is a favorite accompaniment of the vocalist as it is easy to carry and play. Also, the Dilruba’s higher tone compliments the women’s high pitched voices. The musicians also feel that the bow of the Dilruba creates longer sustains than the Sitar.


The Esraj is very similar to the Dilruba. It has lesser sympathetic strings and a differently shaped body than the Dilruba.

The base of the instrument is like the Sarangi while the neck and strings are like the sitar. It gives a sound very much similar to the Sarangi. It is only around 200 years old and quite popular in West Bengal. When the Esraj is played, one is not supposed to use the frets on the finger board. The frets are simply to let one know where the notes are located.

The fingers of the left hand are not pressed behind the frets to play as a Sitar or Guitar. The fingers press gently onto the string above the fret of the desired note. The player can then slide up and down to create the characteristic sound of Indian music.

The Esraj can be a very squeaky instrument. The traditional bow for this instrument is much heavier than the bows for the violins and the cellos. The Esraj has a medium sized Sitar-like neck, with 20 heavy metal frets. Its neck holds on a small long wooden rack of 12-15 sympathetic strings. It has four main strings which are bowed and are made up of metal. The soundboard is covered of goatskin.

The Ektara is simple one-stringed musical instrument commonly played by folk singers and fakirs. One string has the ability to give a range of tones with different pressures at various points along the neck. It is also the most popular instrument for the Baul which is one of the few widely known and appreciated types of folk music in Bengal.

The body of the ektara is made from the shell of a bottle gourd or a wood apple or a coconut. The instrument has different names based on the material of which it is made. Ektaras made of wood-apple shell or coconut shell is comparatively smaller in size.

The bowl of the instrument is covered with skin and fixed to a prepared bamboo, approximately three feet long which has been split into four at one end. Two strips of bamboo are carefully cut away and the bowl is fixed between the remaining strips.

The string, which is usually made of steel, is attached to the bottom of the bowl and then to the wooden knob, called kan or the ear, at the other end. The string can be tightened or loosened by turning the knob. The ektara may be held in the right hand and played with the right forefinger. The Veena is believed to have developed from the Ektara.

The gopichand, also, known as the gopiyantra or the khamak, is a very popular folk instrument of Bengal. It has two legs made of the bamboo and are squeezed together by the left hand while the right hand plucks the string. This produces a peculiar bending of the pitch making the sound very distinctive. It is typically a rhythmic instrument rather than a melodic instrument.

The normal length is between 2-3 feet. It consists of a length of bamboo that is split through most of the length. The two ends are pried apart and attached to a resonator which is made of a coconut or gourd or metal container or a hollowed out cylindrical section of wood.

The open end of the resonator is covered with tough skin and a string penetrates the centre and is attached to a reinforced section in the centre. This string then passes through the hollow of the resonator and attaches to a tuning peg located in the bamboo. It is used to accompany the instruments such as the kartal, the dotar, or the khol.

Saraswati Veena

The Saraswati Veena is the form of Veena which can be seen in many of the sacred pictures of the goddess Saraswati.

It is one of the most ancient and revered of the South Indian instruments. Its body is made up of wood, generally, the jackwood. In the highest quality Veenas, the entire body is carved out of a single block of wood, while the ordinary Veenas have the body which is carved in three sections such as the resonator, the neck and the head.

There are 24 frets made of brass bars set into wax. There is another resonator at the top of the neck of the Veena. This is not a functioning resonator, but is mainly used as a stand to facilitate the positioning of the instrument when it is played. Unlike north Indian instruments like the Sitar, the Saraswati veena has no sympathetic strings.

It has only four playing strings and three drone strings (thalam). The main bridge is a flat bar made of brass. This bar has a very slight curve. It is this light curve which gives the veena its characteristic sound. The Saraswati Veenas are manufactured mainly in Tanjore.

Rudra Veena

The Rudra Veena is also called as Been and is associated strongly with Dhrupad. It has its musical roots in ancient times. The Dhrupad is often presented as the oldest Indian music. It is perhaps the most direct development of Vedic chanting.

The literal respect for text in dhrupad is the representative of those scriptural ideas. The Been or the Rudra Veena was traditionally studied by all dhrupad students until the 19th century. This stringed instrument has been developed to follow the precision of Indian classical music, and the quality of the long and slow moving (vocal type) glissandos that are so typical of dhrupad.

The duration of notes is incredibly long. Its body is made of a hollow tube of teak wood, on which the strings are fixed at both ends. It has a flat bridge, multiplying the depth of the note's spectrum. Metallic frets are disposed on that tube on a slightly angled axis. They are always movable and so can be adapted for every raga.

There are two resonators made out of pumpkins placed on each side of the Veena, not far from the two ends of the body. Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar introduced many important changes to this veena and transformed it into a Bass instrument.

Vichitra Veena

The Vichitra Veena is an Indian classical modern instrument which is evolved out of been in 19th century. It is a plucked string musical instrument and a traditional instrument of classical Hindustani music. It borrows lot of features from the Been.

It has kept the flat bridge (jawari), the two pumpkin resonators (tumbas) and a body which is a hollow tube made of teak wood on which the strings are fixed at both ends.

The Vichitra Veena of the North and a rare instrument was introduced by Ustad Abdul Ajij Khan, a court musician at Indore. It has a broad stem with six main strings fastened to the wooden pegs fixed to the other end. It is played by means of a plectrum on the right hand finger.

The Vichitra Veena's strings are sometimes stopped by a glass egg, a technique originating most probably from the playing of the tampura. It is usually played with a glass or metal bar. It has no frets.

The Swarmandal is played by Khyal singers with the fingers. It is used mainly for vocal accompaniment. The Swarmandal is tuned to the 3 octaves on a specific raga.

The singers play arpeggios of notes with its right thumb. It is also known as the Surmandal, which is basically a small harp. There is no such thing as a standard tuning for Swarmandal.

There is no standard size for a Swarmandal and also there is no standard number of strings. Different individuals sing from different keys.


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