Pepa, yazh, gubguba, sursingar, kuzhal, algoza… and so on. These aren’t just random words. These are a few of the lesser-known musical instruments of India, most of them used in our diverse folk music. Perhaps the terms tabla, santoor, harmonium, sitar, flute, tanpura would be more familiar to you. And then we have instruments like the dilruba, esraj, rudra veena, saraswati veena, jaltarang, pakhawaj, tanpura that are often confused with their more famous counterparts.
I often hear people calling the tanpura a sitar and vice versa, or asking me the difference between a tabla and a dholak. Well, there is as much difference between these instruments as there is between Priyanka Chopra and Alia Bhatt or between a Ferrari and a Mercedes or an apple and a mango (whichever example appeals to you the most)!
Indian music (folk and classical) is so diverse and vast, that I honestly cannot state a number to quantify the musical instruments we have in our country. Every region, state, culture, tribe has their own instruments and unique styles of playing them. These evolved over a millennium, some being new inventions and some improvised versions of other instruments.
Indian Classical music (ICM) has a more systematic approach towards classifying the endless number of instruments. Bharatiya Sangeet Vadya, written by Dr Lalmani Misra, contains one of the most exhaustive research works done on Indian music instruments dating from the Vedic era to modern times. ICM is what it is today because of a beautiful amalgamation and cross-cultural influence in the Indian subcontinent centuries ago. We have instruments that were created taking inspiration from day-to-day objects; existing instruments refined with better material and designs; accidental discoveries that led to new instruments and so on.
There are four basic categories into which music instruments can be compartmentalized, depending on the material used, structure and design or the technique of playing them.
Tat and Vitata Vadya (Chordophones) are more commonly known as string instruments. String instruments can be played either by plucking/striking the strings or using a bow. Accordingly, instruments like the sitar, santoor, tanpura, veena, sarod are examples of plucked string instruments and are termed Tat Vadya. Similarly, instruments like the dilruba, esraj, sarangi are bowed string instruments and are known as Vitata Vadya. An interesting fact to be observed is that Tat Vadya are used for pure ICM, while most of the Vitata Vadya are heard in folk music.
Next come the wind instruments — Sushir Vadya (Aerophones). The name itself clarifies the principle on which these instruments work. The most popular Sushir Vadya is the flute with all its variations. Few know that the harmonium also works using air, obstructed by reeds to create sound. The been, pungi and the ubiquitous shennai are also examples of this category.