The tanpura is a plucked chordophone found in use all over India for the purpose of providing drone accompaniment in different types of music.Any music (except maybe film and pop) is juxtaposed with the melodic reference circle provided by the tanpura or one of its many varieties known by names such as ektara, tuntune, tambori, tambura, gopiyantra, premtal and so on.
The tanpura is invariably associated with the sages Narada and Tumbru, both mythological characters. However, based on reliable textual evidence it can be surmised that the present form of the instrument may have emerged in about the 16th century AD and has not changed much except for the manner of tuning and the extra strings added to it recently.
The classical music concert tanpura (as referred to in the north Indian tradition) or tambura (as referred to in the south Indian tradition) is perhaps unparalleled in the richness of its sound. The number of overtones generated from each string and the combination of these is so unique that the resultant sound quality almost defies scientific analysis. In the north Indian variety, the resonator is made from a large dried pumpkin of about 90 cm in girth, grown especially in the region adjoining river Chandrabhaga at Pandharpur in Maharashtra. The south Indian variety is slightly smaller and has a resonator carved out of a jackwood block. Attached to this is a long hollow wooden fingerboard. The total length of the instrument depends upon the desired pitch for the fundamental toning and varies between 105 – 150 cm. There are four to six metallic strings which are plucked with the fingers.
Traditionally, the tanpura is held on the right side of the body in a vertical position making the least contact with the ground. Usually, a pair of tanpura’s are used to make an adequately reinforced drone.
Functionally, the most important part of the tanpura is the wide bridge made of a single piece of ebony, ivory, camel bone or deer-horn. It is curved in a direction at right angles to the strings and sloping lengthwise. A fine thread of cotton, silk or wool is placed under each string on the bridge. A proper positioning of this thread brings about a grazing contact to ensure a rich and bright timbre. Tuning the tanpura is an art by itself. Furthermore, to tune the pair to sing in unison is indeed a challenging endeavor. Miraj in Maharashtra and Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu are well-known for the best craftsmanship of tanpura in the north and south Indian traditions respectively.
With the migration of Indian music, musicians, and musical instruments, the tanpura has even found a place in the meditation and yoga practice in the west.