Melody is part of the Bangladeshi DNA, and no melody is complete without an instrument to go with it. Words often do not need a place as the sound of the bamboo flute mingles into the moonlight.
Bangladesh's heritage is home to myriad musical instruments, instruments that have come from afar and have been embraced by the locals through the ages, and instruments that have originated from these very lands.
A modern day ensemble easily accommodates from the much adored ektara to the specialised synthesisers. It is a wondrous trip when the list of instruments, known and unknown, are rolled out, and the wonder does not halt there!
To start this musical trip, it is best to start with the most familiar one — the string instruments, technically classified as chordophone instruments.
String instruments of this region have a prominent longer neck, one or more sound chamber, and more often than not, mistaken one for the other by the common eye.
Ektara, the ever prominent musical instrument in Baul performances, is what its name signifies — an instrument of one string.
Considered to be the original precursor of the complex beena, the ektara has a prominent presence with its haunting tunes. Without any accompaniment, the ektara can be used for any song.
An interesting mention should be the gopi-jantra, which is commonly referred to as the ektara! As both instruments have a prominent single string that is plucked or struck to create sound, the mistake in this case is understandable. However, Lalon followers throughout the greater Kushtia region use this instrument and have referred to this as the ektara.
The dotara, another slightly misleading instrument name that does not consist of two strings, is a traditional instrument of Bangladesh, and quite often attributed as a traditional instrument of the sub-continent as well.
Coming to the number of strings, this instrument actually has four strings. It is even often customised to three or even five strings, but never only two strings. An essential for all types of folk songs in this region, the dotara is a prominent life-bringer to the folk songs like Bhawaiya, Bhatiyali, Murshidi, Marfoti, and many more. Particularly for the bhawaiya, the dotara is so essential that the song is often referred to as 'the song of the dotara.'
An intriguing instrument in the string section would be the Anandalahari. Resembling a small open drum on one end, this is a one-stringed instrument that has a metal disc attached to one end of the string and is played by hitting the attached disc with another disc. The created tune lives up to its name as it resembles a joyous sound. Also known as khamak, this instrument livens up baul and bhatiyali performances, as well as providing an essential sound much needed for dramas, particularly for scenes that need a humorous touch.
Beena, sitar and tanpura — are all prominent, highly prized, separate stringed classical instruments of the region, and very often mistaken for the other. They are, as expected, different from the other, not only in appearance, but also in sound and usage.
The beena is probably the oldest, possibly originated and used from the times of the Indus Valley Civilisations, back in 3,000 BC. Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, is also known as beenpani as she is always portrayed with a beena.
The beena is made up of up to seven strings and creates a simply magical tune that cannot be replicated by any other instrument. Classified under the beena is the sitar, which is well known not only throughout this sub-continent, but also the world.
The sitar has been made famous in modern times by Pandit Ravi Shankar, and bands like the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. An essential for raga, the sitar, literally means “three strings” in Persian, but it can have anywhere from 18 to 21 strings, with student/learner ones coming with seven strings. The instrument requires immense dexterity to play and produce the desired sound.
The tanpura is distinctly different from both the sitar and the beena in two aspects. It does not have two prominent sound chambers. Also, while the beena and the sitar have frets (guiding divisions on the neck of the instrument), the tanpura is without frets. It is popular as an accompanying instrument.
The mentioned instruments so far require plucking the strings by fingers, or by a small plucking pick, or by other gliding hand movements to produce sound. There are, of course, a number of stringed instruments that require the usage of a bow (typically made of horsehair attached to a stick). The bowed string instruments produce sounds almost similar to the human singing voice.
Out of all the many bowed instruments, the most popular would be the violin; popularly known as behala (meaning an instrument that is played by placing on the bahu, or arm). It has enormous presence in local folk songs.
The violin, as we know in its modern form, came from Europe in the late 16th century, but organologists have placed similar instruments along the entire Eurasian region. Out of them, Ravanahatha as the name suggests, is a two-stringed bowed instrument used by the fabled King of Lanka — Ravana, and is thought to be the precursor to the violin.
Behala has a widespread usage, from folk music to raga, and has prominent presence in terms of styles and performance.
Just as the violin requires a bow, there are two more bowed, stringed instruments that are used throughout musical performances in the country. The sarinda, a three stringed instrument, is used by sufi practitioners in marfati songs as well as by bauls and shadhaks. The sarengi, another four-stringed bowed instrument, is rectangular shaped compared to the violin and the sarinda. Used as an instrument on its own or as an accompaniment, the sarengi too enjoys widespread usage across the sub-continent in folk music.
Following the stringed instruments are the membranophones, or instruments that make sound when a membrane is hit with the hands, or with any other object to create vibrations. Membranophone instruments were originally used to send signals in primitive times. The most common and well known instruments in this segment would be the tabla and baya, which are played by hitting the top of the instruments with the palm of the hand. Commonly referred to as tabla, the duo is essential for not only maintaining beat and providing bass, but also for a livening ambience in a performance. The baya is often paired with the ektara in baul performances.
For Rabindra Sangeet performances, the khol is widely used, and usually played while sitting.
It is widest in the middle and tapers down to two sides. It is also widely used in kirtan performances. Interestingly, the khol sounds similar to the baya on one side, and the tabla on the other!
Besides using hands to play, membranophone instruments can also be hit with sticks to produce sound, the typical relatable example being the various western drums.
Kara-nakara, often mentioned in classical Bangla literature, is still popular to this day. Both are drum like instruments, and were originally used at times of war to send special messages and signals.
The kara is seen during the Ashura fairs and performances and is played with two sticks. It is also referred to as the 'side drum.' Nakara, in olden times, was called the Dunduvi. It is usually placed on the ground, or a platform for playing. An essential in Muharram performances, the nakara is also used in 'nouka baich' (traditional boat rowing of the region) to control the pace in rowing.
Dhak and dhol are often referred to as similar instruments, but these too are different in use and performance. Usually, the dhak is one of the most prominent and larger musical instruments. It is carried on one side, and played on one side with a stick or two.
The dhol differs from the dhak not only in size, but in playing style as well. It is played on one side with a stick, and on the other by hand. It can be played using hands on both sides as well.
A smaller version of the dhol is the dholok. It is widely used in jatra, and theatre, and immensely popular in Ghazal and qawali performances. Dhak, dhol, dholok — all three are prominently used in performances during puja, Baishakh, as well as for any joyous performances and processions.
The dug-dugi, an easily playable instrument, can be found in local fairs. The popular instrument is also used to draw attention and used by snake charmers and hawkers. This simple instrument however is also fabled to be the world ending musical instrument, as the Hindu God Shiv is said to play it as the world crumbles!
After string and hitting instruments, the next set of instruments are the wind instruments, or aerophones. The instruments that are part of this type are identified by their tubular build, and are played using various blowing techniques.
The very first mention in the category would be the banshi. It is easily the most melodious instrument in any type of local music, and can resonate feelings of joy to sheer sadness in the hands of an expert player. Although usually translated as flute, the banshi, is vastly different from the flute that is used in western music.
Sri Krishna, the grand avatar in Hinduism, is always portrayed with a banshi that is played by holding it horizontal to the ground. Known as 'Arr Banshi' this one is somewhat similar to the western flute, but the playing mechanism and the instrument itself are different. From Bhatiyali to Bhawaiya to solo performances, the Banshi is simply a stand out instrument.
While not used in performances, the tubri cannot be left behind. This is commonly known as the 'been,' used by snake charmers for their trade. Made from a dried gourd, the instrument has two distinct bamboo tubes that produce sound.
No grand wedding in the region is complete without the sound of the shanai, which is another much used flute like instrument. A deceivingly easy looking instrument, the shanai requires not only proper breath control, but also proper synchronisation of fingers. In ragas, the shanai, when used, is given a solo as a main instrument.
The shakh has a particular place as an aerophone in this subcontinent. Made from a hollowed out conch shell, the shakh has origins as a signaller in wars.
In modern usage, the shakh is most prominently used in various Hindu religious festivities, as well as an indicator of good tidings. It produces a solid single burst of sound without any rise and fall in sound. How long the sound will last depends on how long the player can hold his or her breath and blow through it.
Another instrument that has its origin in wars is the shinga, or the horn. Originally made from buffalo horns, the shinga can also be made from wood. This instrument too, is used in local festivities like Chaitra Sankranti, and Ashura.
Moving away from the various tubular instruments, the harmonium too falls in this category as it uses wind to produce sounds. Often compared to the western accordion, the instrument is believed to have originated in France in the 1800s.
Of course, the form that we are familiar to took much time to evolve, but over the centuries, the instrument has become a standard for the beginners to experts. Not only is it used for essential vocal practices, but also for practicing classical dance paces. The harmonium and the tabla-baya are quintessential for any and all classical performances throughout the region.
The last segment on this journey of musical instruments would be the idiophonic or autophonic instruments. These types of instruments produce sound without any strings or membranes. The entire instrument body is used to produce sound. These instruments are used to mainly keep pace and add a unique dimension of sounds to the other main instruments in a performance.
The kortal, made up of two tied brass discs that are slightly raised in the middle. The kortal is often paired with the khol, and is used to create variations in tempo and sound. The kortal can be incorporated into various musical performances, but it has a prominent place in Kirtans.
The mandira is often mistaken with the kortal, but it is distinct in shape, as it resembles two small bowls that are slightly different in size. It is used extensively in Rabindra Sangeet, as well as in Baul and Kirtan performances.
Clay pots are also used as idiophonic instruments in various performances for a resonant sound. South Indian music is incomplete without the ghatam, an upside down clay pot. Locally, this can be seen in any type of performance for that added sound, accompanied by plates. There is a known trend in the Dinajpur region to announce the birth of a child with hitting brass plates.
A highly customisable instrument is the khat-tal or Krishna Kathi. Resembling two wooden spirit levels with miniscule discs placed in the holes, the khat-tal is used by a wide range of people from performers to hawkers.
Coming to the ghungur, the much beloved accessory for classical dancers, it is made up of miniscule enclosed bells made of bronze, copper or in cases silver. While it is not an instrument on its own, when added to a dance, it can create a mesmerising ambience.
In conclusion, it can be said that local instruments most definitely are not limited to the handful that have been mentioned here. For expert musicians, even the simple desk or a piece of brass can be an instrument, if used in harmony with a complete ensemble!
All in all, musical instruments are a sign of how culturally inter-connected humanity really is. As of now, organologists around the globe are yet to agree on a chronological origin of musical instruments, but the lack of history cannot be a factor to not enjoy, and even practice an instrument. It is, after all, through playing and creating music that makes an instrument thrive through the ages.
By Iris Farina
Photo: Shahrear Kabir Heemel
Performance by Joler Gaan
Location: PRAN Premium Ghee-Anandadhara Pitha Fest 2019, Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel