The Chembur Fine Arts Society, one of the foremost cultural organisations in Mumbai, is going places with its innovative and pioneering efforts in promoting and propagating Indian music and dance. The recent thematic annual conferences on Carnatic music have certainly caught the imagination of the music-loving public. The last three years have witnessed detailed discussions and demonstrations on the Musical instsruments of Carnatic music. The first conference, on String instruments, was held in February 1999. Spread over two days, it highlighted in detail the various stringed instruments used in Carnatic music. Whereas the first day was dedicated to string instruments of Indian origin, like the Vina, Chitravina etc, the second day covered instruments of western origin that have been successfully adopted in Carnatic music (Violin, Guitar, Mandolin etc). The participants included top-notch instrumentalists. Wherever possible, different schools and styles were also featured. The conferences in 2000 and 2001 covered Wind instruments and Percussion instruments respectively.

In the coming weeks, Carnatica will bring you the papers presented by the participants at these Conferences.





- Prof. V V Subramanyam


The subject for the conference relates to Carnatic music. Nevertheless, in tracing the history of stringed instruments, we have to go back many thousands of years when there was no division like Carnatic and Hindustani music in our country.

From the Sastras, Puranas and temple sculptures, we have considerable information on stringed instruments. The Sastras state that the Saptaswaras were born from the five faces of Lord Siva. Nada is Siva's body and Lord Vishnu is the breath in the body. The Puranas state that Goddess Saraswati plays the Vina, Goddess Mahalakshmi plays Khanjira, Mahavishnu, the Mridangam, Lord Krishna, the Flute, Nandi, the Maddalam, Sage Narada, the (Mahati) Vina and Sage Tumburu, the Yazh.

Further, it is said that Hanuman and Ravana were exponents of the Vina. All this information is available through sculptures in temples all over India.


Research indicates that the sound that came from the tightly strung bow gave rise to the birth of stinged instrument. We can give the instance of an event described in an ancient Tamil text by Kannanar which states that a hunter, using the hollow branch of a tree as the bent rib with strong vegetable fibres (like hempen cord) as strings, fashioned a bow to strum notes to support joyous vocal music.

That the primitive man, who had hunted with the bow and arrow to kill birds and animals, later came round to utilize the same bow to play music, is a matter of pride for humanity. But combined with this pride is an uneasy doubt that violence and music were in a way linked!

By nature, human beings look for companions. One needs the support of the other. This supportive feature is reflected in our music also. The "Adhara sruti" (fundamental note) is a basic concept and necessity in Indian music. This gave rise to the stringed instrument called Tuntina as a support to the singer. Variations of Tuntina are instruments like Ektar and Eka Nadam. Religious devotees, wanderers and gypsies use these even now. Saints like Surdas and Meerabai also used one such variation to support their singing. These instruments later developed into Tamboori and Tanpura (or Tambura). Thus, as Adhara sruti is to music, so is the Tanpura to the singer.

The need for supporting instruments and etymology

As human intelligence, art and culture developed, the need for an instrument to support the human voice was percieved as a necessity. It was in response to this need that the Tuntina and Ektaar were fashioned out of the Yazh. In Sanskrit, the string of a bow is calle ‘Jya’. Accordingly, it is held that bow-yazh was the first type of yazh (as stated by some research scholars). I disagree with the view that ‘jya’ is the same as yazh. It is noted that the yazh did not develop under the circumstances in which Ektaar developed to support Sruti.

The Vina denotes stinged instruments in general in Sanskrit and the Yazh is the Tamil term for stringed instruments. Many of us will have noticed the figure of the pre-historic "Yali" in temple sculptures. It was this practice, which brought in the face of the animal in stinged instuments also. Some scholars even hold that yali and yazh are related and that the yali precedes the yazh.

Varieties of Yazh and Vina

The Makara Vina, Narada Vina and Maha Vina as mentioned in Sanskrit texts, correspond to ‘Maha yazh’, ‘Narada yazh’ and ‘Adi Kalattu Periyazh’ respectively in Tamil. The many names given to Vina and Yazh in the various Sanskrit works on stringed insruments are given below:

Types of Yazh:

  1. Adi yazh: A 1000-stringed yazh used for chasing away animals and rakshasa-s in forests.
  2. Narada periyazh: A 1000-stringed yazh, in the shape of a triangle. This instument had Mandara, Madhya and Tara sthayi (3-octave range) strings.
  3. Adi kala periyazh: A 100-stringed instrument.
  4. Periyazh: A 21-stringed instrument.
  5. Seeriyazh: A stringed instrument with 7 or 9 strings. It is stated that the instrumentalist playing Periyazh was known as "Banan" and that his wife (known as "Padini") played the Seeriyazh.
  6. Makara Yazh: A 17-stringed instrument.
  7. Sakoda yazh: A 16-stringed instrument.
  8. Sengotti yazh: A 7-stringed instrument. As in the present-day Vina, it had 4 main strings and 3 strings for tala.
  9. Tumuru yazh: A 9-stringed intrument.
  10. Kichaka yazh: A 100-stringed yazh.
  11. Maruttuva yazh: This was a single stringed insrument capable of presenting 62 types of notes and known as Deva yazh.
  12. Kurinji yazh, Palai yazh, Maruda yazh and Mullai yazh: Corresponding to the 4 regions of ancient Tamil landscape.
  13. Vallaki yazh : It is said that Brihaspati used to play on this type of yazh.
  14. Killai yazh: This instument had a face like that of a parrot.

Types of Vina:

  1. Audumbari Vina and Pichola Vina: It is learnt that while the rishi articulates the relevant mantras during a Yaga (sacrifice), his wife played the mantras on these Vinas.
  2. Maha Vina: A 100-stringed instrument. This used strings made of darba (called Munja). During the course of a Yaga, the devotees and the Rig Veda / Sama Veda guru-s played the Veda mantra-s on this Vina.
  3. Katyayana Vina: A 100-stringed Vina.

Ganga Pillai of Tirunelveli, who has authored the compilation "Natanadi Vadya Ranjanam" has compiled the list of instruments associated with different Hindu Gods. Produced below is the list.

Instrument God
Andam Brahma
Pindam Vishnu
Characharam Rudra
Rudrikai Gowri
Gandhari Kali
Sarangi Lakshmi
Kachchapa Saraswati
Chitra (Chitravina) Indra
Atichitra Kubera
Kinnari Varuna
Dikku Sikai Vayu
Kozhavali Agni
Hastakurma Yama
Varali Nruti
Vipanchaka Adisesha
Charavina Chandra
Naaveedam Surya
Vallaki Brihaspati
Vaadini Sukra
Mahati Narada
Kalavati Tumburu
Brihati Viswavasu
Vidyavati Budha
Ekavina Rambha
Narayani Trilottama
Vani Menaka
Laghuvakshi Urvasi
Kacchala Chitrasena
Hanumadam Hanuman
Ravanaswaram Ravana

Many more types of Vina are known. But, we will leave them to the specialists on Vina!

Going through the historical development of Yazh and Vina it is clear that distinctive shapes and structure gave rise to different types of tones. Further, they required special playing skills. 

Through purana-s we learn that when the sages Narada and Tumburu competed with each other on the Hanumad Vina, the resultant music even melted the rocks on which they were sitting. The purana-s also convey, that Ravana captivated Lord Siva by his Vina playing. Records show that Kovalan and Madhavi were experts on playing the Sengotti Yazh, whereas Tiruneelakanta Yazhppanar was known for his competence on playing the Sakoti yazh.

There is evidence showing that the Yazh and Vina were utilized as accompanying instruments as well. For example, there is a reference in Adi Sankara's 'Soundaryalahari' that Goddess Saraswati played the Vina in the court of Goddess Parameswari.

It is to be noted that Pinaki Vina, Koorma Vina and Ravanaswaram are in fact types of bowed instruments. Another instrument called Vinai Kunju is even today seen in Kerala where gypsies and tribals play on it. Gottuvadyam (Chitravina) was known much earlier as Maha Nataka Vina.


Historical facts: It has been pointed out earlier that instruments like Pinaki Vina, Koorma Vina and Ravanaswaram were bowed instruments. In the outer precincts (prakaram) of the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, there is a sculpture showing a female figure handling an instrument similar to the European Violin. This sculpture is dated around the 13th century. In Srirangapatna, Karnataka, there is a painting (dated 1784 AD) in which a lady is shown playing a violin-like instrument.

The above are called to bring home the fact that instruments similar to the violin had appeared in India before the European violin arrived.

The Sarangi is of North Indian origin and is not popular in South India. Nevertheless, it is used in some of our temples as accompaniment to Tamil vocalists. Similarly, the Dilruba which is a North Indian instrument is used by instrumentalists like K J Jose instrumentalists, who play Carnatic music on it. It is to be noted that the Sarangi is essentially an Indian Instrument.

The Carnatic music concert (dominated by the vocal-violin-mridangam trio), as seen today, is a comparatively recent development. In the 18th century and earlier, there were vocal concerts mainly in the courts (durbar) of Maharajas, temple festivals and private functions organised by Zamindars and other rich people. The vocalist then was mostly accompanied by the mridangam, flute and Vina. The fact is that Vina and Flute are by nature solo instruments as their tonal aspects do not quite complement the human voice.

With the British came the violin. When Baluswamy Dikshitar, the younger brother of Muthuswamy Dikshitar (one of the Carnatic trinity), Varahappier (who served as a minister in Tanjavur under Sarabhoji Maharaja) and Vadivelu Nattuvanar (well known as one of the Tanjore quartet) picked up the violin, they could not have imagined that the instrument was going to dominate the Carnatic scene in the next centuries and probably thereafter! The timing was providentially just right and the introduction of the violin was a boon for vocalists.

The long notes that could be produced in the violin by deep bowing, a contained sound volume, innate ability to play fast music etc. gave much relief to the vocalists when accompaned by violin and it became the main accompaying instrument in virtually every concert.

The Viola, which belongs to the Violin family, also has appeared in the Carnatic music concert stage. Vidwans like Dr. Balamurali krishna, Chitoor Kumaresan, and sons of violinist Vedagiri (viz, V L Kumar and V L Sudarshan) are playing the Viola. But this instrument has not become popular as yet, perhaps because the violin is more compact.


Gottuvadyam is also one of the earliest instruments and was known as Maha Nataka Vina earlier. This instrument had obtained popularity more than 60 years back in the hands of vidwans like Budalur Krishnamoorthy Sastri and Gottuvadyam Narayana Iyengar. After that, there was a lull in the popularity till Ravikiran, the grandson of Gottuvadyam Narayana Iyengar brought it back to the concert stage as Chitravina. More details on this instrument are expected to be provided in Ravikiran's presentation.


Guitar: In the early 70’s a young engineer called Sukumar Prasad introduced the Spanish Guitar to the Carnatic music stage. He did not however perserve here with it. It was left to Prasanna Ramaswamy to bring it back to the stage in the early 90’s. As a concert instrument, the Guitar is still not popular. But there are quite a few who are playing on it now.

Though the Bass Guitar has not yet been introduced to Carnatic music, it is known that there was an indigenous instrument called Swarabat, similar to the Bass Guitar. Records show that Umayalpuram Krishna Bhagavatar, a disciple of the great composer Tyagaraja, was good at playing this instrument.

There are instruments called Villadi Vadyam, Idakka (in Kerala) and Gettu Vadyam, which are essentially percussion instruments and not suitable for playing music. Villadi Vadyam has been used in "Villu Pattu" and even today there are a few exponents of Gettu Vadyam.


It is only after the appearance of the music Trinity that Carnatic music concerts, of the type seen today, became popular. With the increasing sophistication in arts, Carnatic music has absorbed western culture and the fruits of industrial revolution by way of foreign instruments, electronic Tanpuras, mikes, electronic synthesizer etc. At the same time, it has to be mentioned that appliances like the contact mike do not enable the listener to hear the true tone of the instrument. Further, when electric power supply fails, instruments like Guitar and Mandolin would require the services of battery sets.

At this juncture, it is imperative that we give some thought and attention to this scenario using the information given in this paper from which it can be seen that stinged instruments employing hundreds of strings have been in use in our country. The various forms of Yazh and Vina have developed to reflect and heighten various aspects of music. It was a result of such developments that the Vina that we see today has come out of the Kachchapi Vina in a much-improved fashion.

The way we have adopted instruments like the Violin, Mandolin and Guitar are very good examples to show that we have the capacity to absorb the best from any system. But, the fact remains that the only three genuine indigenous instruments namely Yazh, Vina and the Tanpura have not been developed to keep pace with other developments. It is necessary that efforts are made to develop the Yazh etc. to come to the centre stage. Further, some development is also necessary to bring forth instruments which do not require electricity.

Long live Carnatic music! Long live musical instruments!


Related links: Musical Expressions