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The role of Percussion Instruments: Present and Future

The role of Percussion Instruments: Present and Future

By Bangalore K. Venkataram


When one examines the role of percussion instruments, encompassing the whole gamut of music, a broad distinction of these can be drawn as practiced in Western music and as is in vogue in Indian music. Western music consists of various types of drums, gongs, bells, and the like. In Indian music, the mridangam, pakhwaj, and tabla stand out as exclusively different from other instruments like the khanjari (khajiral), ghata (ghatam, gummat, noot), morsing (morching, moharsangu), dholak, doky, dolu (thavil), etc., other folk instruments excluded.

While the Western drums exhibit a variety of drum beats with several types of basic sound patterns, individually and in joint actions, Indian drums stand out quite differently by producing melodic sound patterns. The three exclusive Indian instruments, the mridangam, pakhwaj, and tabla emanate melodic sound patterns because of the unique construction of their drumheads with more than one layer of skins/leathers. These percussion instruments are unique among all drums in the world, being the only ones that possess harmonic overtones (similar to the stretched strings in string instruments and vibrations in wind instruments) while presenting musical notes. Notes from a uniform stretched membrane like that of a Khanjari (khanjira) cannot produce such musical notes.


The sound patterns produced by the combination of two different drumheads evolve a highly skilled pattern of melodic percussion presentation. The percussion role of two great masters, Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani Subramanya Pillai, and Murugabhoopathy elevated the art of percussion through the mridangam to a new high, whether it was as an accompaniment or in laya vinyasa (thani avarthanam). Similarly, Ahmed Rakha, Shanta Prasad, Kishan Maharaj, and youngster Zakir Hussein have followed suit. The contemporaries like T.K. Murthy, Palghat Raghu, Umayalapuram Sivaraman, and Karaikudi Mani have built up the artistry with a band of enthusiastic, energetic, and artistic presentations along with Guruvayoor Dorai, Dandamudi Rammohan Rao, Kamalakar Rao, A.V. Anand, and other youngsters continuing the trend. The khanjira has revealed artistry of the likes of H.P. Ramachar and youngsters like Harishankar. The speed and clarity of Ghatam Vinayakaram has made its mark in the international scenario. Many youngsters have taken up these arts and fostered it.


The role of percussion in Indian music – Karnatak system (mridangam, pakhwaj, and tabla) has been mostly of supporting and embellishing the melodic music of the vocal or instruments. In the Hindustani system, the pakhwaj plays a role similar to that of the mridangam of the Karnatak system in supporting the Dhrupad music. The role of the tabla has been mostly to indicate the thaala; the vocalist or the instrumentalist depends on the tabla as a taalaadhaar. Specific “bols” are structured with preset ‘thaalis and khaalis’ with which the main artist would be familiar with. Bols of different ‘Gharanas’ adopt specific varieties of these sound patterns. There are also solo performances for the tabla and mridangam when the artist improvises with the assistance of a ‘Lehra’; the Lehra has the role of keeping the thaala with specific sound patterns and play-contents.

In the classical Karnatak system, the main percussion is the mridangam, which is evidently a must in any classical musical event. There are rare cases of some artistes indulging in a recital exclusively of Raga-malika renditions, without the support of a Laya instrument. There were veena recitals broadcast from the Madras and Trichy stations of All India radio where the ghatam was the only rhythmic (Laya) support. But in the contemporary Karnatak classical music scenario, the mridangam is the indispensable percussion. Supportive additional percussions like the ghata, khanjari, or morsing (either one of them or two ore more), are included to provide sustained additional percussion support to provide variety of tone, timbre, and volume. Exclusive laya vinyasa programs (or solo or thani recitals) are of recent origin, planned and presented by well-known artistes, which draw a different clientele. While the laya vinyasa in the regular concert format (called thani) is restricted to the requirements of the particular context of the concert, exclusive laya vinyasa programs are scheduled in every Hindustani music festival and even AIR provides it for these Hindustani classical percussions. Karnatak music conferences and festivals do not provide such exclusive slots for percussions. Of late, some such events are scheduled on and off; there have been exclusive laya vinyasa schedules by a few top-notch artistes in the field. However, after protracted discussion, requests, and correspondence, the AIR has also been scheduling such laya vinyasa events in the Radio Sangeet Sammelans, though there have been occasional cases where such laya vinyasa events have not been included.

Tabla /Pakhwaj

There has been an awakening, and awareness among the percussion artistes about the role of percussion as an independent entity of its own. That there is an individual personality exclusively for percussions, apart from its role as an accompaniment or supporting instrument, is of quite recent origin. The International Mini Drum Festival organized by I.C.C.R. in coordination with the Percussion Arts Centre revealed a new dimension in the appreciation of percussion arts. Exclusive compositions for percussions have been thought of and attempts in this direction have been going on. Jnana Prakash Ghosh and Dr. Vijay Raghava Rao have made significant contributions in this direction. Audiocassettes of percussions like ‘Swara Laya Mela – Thaalavaadya Kacheri (T.H. Vinayakaram)’, ‘Thaalavaadya (T.K. Murthy)’, ‘Garland of Rhythms (Sivaraman)’, ‘Laya Sudha (T.V.G.)’, ‘Laya Chitra (Karaikudi Mani)’, ‘Thaala Tharangini (T.A.S. Mani)’, ‘Laya Lahari (Ayyanar College of Music)’, and ‘Laya Vrushti (Percussive Arts Centre)’ have been on the market. However, there are not as many cassettes with only Thaalavaadyas. The Percussive Arts Centre brought out an audiocassette, ‘Laya Vrushti,’ exclusively with percussion instruments. Even the equivalent of Lehra (the basic thaala drone), the thaala was provided by a rhythm composer. In the conference of the Bangalore Gayana Samaja, presided by Bangalore K. Venkataram, a program was presented exclusively by percussions only.


Recent innovations include attempts to explore possibilities of electronic instruments and the use of computerized data bases. In spite of the confirmed fact that the human element guiding the se presentations is of vital importance, attempts to present varied patterns of percussions of several variety of colors, tone, timbre, and volume representing percussions has been recognized. Even patterns of Dole, Sammela, Chande, Chowdike, etc. can be produced along with the patterns of the Mridangam, Ghatam, Khanjari, and Morsing, etc.

Percussions of the future may incorporate most of these electronic gadgets, computerized floppies to provide a wider variety of laya vinyasa. While Western drums in use are being matched with Indian drums, the practice of intricate laya combinations is being further attempted. The sophisticated ‘Nadai Bheda’ and ‘Solkattoos’ combination of varied gaits, tempos, and speed are all used profusely in the experiments that are going on. In fact, the sounds produced by these instruments are precise and perfect when played individually by artistes themselves. The future of percussion appears exhilarating in the world scenario. While the scholars, academians, and practitioners in the classical arena may hold onto the tradition and innovation, a need for a refreshing new concept of rhythm and tempo is gradually being seen.