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Ektara: a family of one-stringed musical instruments from India

Ektara: gopichand, tumbi and tuntuna
Mario Friscia

Mario Friscia

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What’s the meaning of the word Ektara?

If you’re passionate about Indian music you probably already know its most famous stringed instruments such as the veena, sitar, sarod, sarangi just to name a few.

However, have you ever asked yourself which was the most ancient stringed instrument that came to light in the Indian subcontinent?

According to an ancient musical treatise called Natya Shastra, the first chordophone ever played was the Ektara.

But what’s the meaning of the word Ektara?

By the term Ektara the Indians denote any musical instrument consisting of one string attached to a gourd, coconut, wood or metal resonator.

Each specific model of this one-stringed instrument differs from the others for a variety of reasons such as the structure of the neck, which can be formed by a stick or a split bamboo cane, the construction materials, the presence or absence of frets and so on.

The Gopichand, also known as Gopi Yantra, Tumbi, Tuntuna are all different types of Ektara instruments.

In today’s India these instruments can be called either with their specific names or with the general label Ektara.

Literally, the word Ektara derives from the combination of two Sanskrit words, ‘eka’ and ‘tara’, meaning ‘one’ and ‘string’ respectively.

As a result, the best English translation for Ektara is ‘one-stringed’ instrument.

 

Classification of the Ektara instruments

Each of the instruments belonging to the Ektara family can be classified as a tata vadya, that is, a category of musical instruments in which the sound-making process is generated by the vibration of a string.

More precisely, the Gopichand and Tuntuna are a plucked and non-fretted type of tata vadya.

The Tumbi, born as a plucked and non-fretted instrument, has recently been transformed into a fretted one, so as to facilitate the intonation process and enhance its melodic expression.

If you’re not familiar with the shape and sound of the Ektara instruments named so far, bear with me, since I’ll give you a detailed overview of each of these instruments in the next sections of this blog post where images and videos will be the master!

Speaking of the Indian classification of musical instruments, you might be interested in reading an article focused on the class of idiophones called Ghana Vadya and titled: “Ghana Vadya: 6 examples of idiophone instruments from India

 

Who plays Ektara in India?

If you’re looking to find Ektara players within the concert halls devoted to the performance of Indian classical music you are way off.

The best way to hear the sound of a Gopichand or a Tuntuna is to abandon the crowded urban metropolises and head towards the rural areas of India.

It’s here that these one-stringed instruments are played the most.

Mystics, yogis, beggars, street musicians are the categories of individuals that have historically been associated with the act of playing the Ektara.

A renown group of performers specialized in playing the Ektara Gopichand is located in the Bengal region, comprising Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal.

They’re called the Bauls and can be described as a community of mystic minstrels and wandering bards.

The Ektara Tuntuna is frequently played in Maharashtra during those socio-cultural events that include the performances of a group of professional musicians called Gondhalis.

Moving to the Tumbi, this type of Ektara has become a must in Punjabi folk music and its contemporary pop derivations.

I’m perfectly aware of the fact that this brief overview cannot be exhaustive, considering that the use of some type of Ektara instruments has been documented all across the Indian subcontinent and its proper recapitulation would require a book and not a blog post.

 

Some differences among the Ektara instruments

So, as I said, the word Ektara is somewhat ambiguous because may be used to refer to a group of musical instruments that present precise differences one from the other.

For example, what makes the Gopichand unique compared to the other Ektara instruments examined in this article is the fact that the player can squeeze the two bamboo strips together to get a new pitch and modify the timbre of the musical instrument.

This task is usually assigned to the performer’s left hand, while the right hand is busy plucking the only one string available.

The flexible v-shaped structure of the Gopichand (see the image below) allows the performer to generate a unique sound, especially when the plucking of the string combines with the simultaneous pressure applied to the rod.

Ektara Gopichand
Sanatan Das Baul playing the Ektara Gopichand (photo by Vernon HydeCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A swaying, elastic and comic timbre is what distinguishes the Gopichand from another type of Ektara instrument, shown in the image below, that has a rigid wooden pole attached to its body and looks more similar to a lute:

Ektara Tumbi
Tumbi player (photo by Nitin BadhwarCC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s the Tumbi, a one-stringed lute employed as a soloist in North Indian folk music to perform catchy melodic lines.

Melodically, the Tumbi seems to be the only one type of Ektara which is used to play simple tunes or songs.

This is possible because of its structure which allows the player to change notes by touching the neck of the instrument.

It is also noteworthy that some artists are used to play the Ektara employing a bow, turning this drone lute into a sort of one-stringed violin.

They are also capable of bringing some melodic patterns out of their instrument.

Ektara
Man playing the Ektara with a bow (photo by Bindass MadhaviCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Regarding the Tuntuna, I can say that may appear similar to the model of Ektara just shown above but it presents two significative differences:

firstly, the neck is not inserted into the body of the instrument but is fixed behind it; and secondly, its main purpose is to accompany the singer and, as a result, it’s never entrusted the role of melodic soloist.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found any creative commons image related to the Tuntuna.

Now that you know something more about the shape of the various models of Ektara and how they actually work, we can move to the next section and explore some examples of live performances involving all the instruments described so far.

Ektara and Tumbi

The best way to start our journey across the sounds of the Ektara is by listening to this performance by Rivesh Vade, in which you’ll see how this simple instrument is perfectly capable of supporting the devotional singing, both melodically and rhythmically:

 

 

The index finger of the right hand is used to pluck the string while the index finger of the other hand strikes the animal skin that covers the body of the instrument, as it was a drum skin.

In this example we can also notice how the Ektara acts as a drone lute providing the base pitch for the man’s devotional chanting.

This other performance allows us to change scenario:

from a devotional singing session held in a urban environment to Pashchim Das from Lucknow, a wandering artist who plays Ektara in a rural context and sings a Bhajan in honor of Lord Hanuman:

 

 

It’s easy to note how the man holds the Ektara differently from Rivesh Vade:

the instrument is placed diagonally and played with the right hand, while the left hand, decorated with a couple of chimes, strikes the body of the Ektara enriching the drone sound with a gentle tinkling.

In both these examples the performers didn’t change any note on the Ektara as they kept on repeating the same basic frequency.

It was just a drone accompaniment for the main melody intoned by the singer.

There’s another way to play the Ektara though.

I’m referring to those Punjabi musicians that play a particular model of Ektara, called Tumbi, allowing them to produce a good number of notes and, as a result, to create real melodies.

Listen to this solo performance by Vijay Yamla:

 

 

The same capacity to vary the notes of the Ektara is found in this other footage from Rajasthan where a musician rubs the string with a bow, producing a sound similar to that of a violin:

 

 

Now it’s time to explore the sounds of two other Ektara instruments: the Gopichand and the Tuntuna.

 

Gopichand

The Gopichand is the second example of one-stringed instrument I’ve chosen to illustrate how an Ektara sounds.

Let’s start analysing a solo performance by Mrighanabi.

As you watch the video, notice how the repetitive sound produced by the only one string mounted on the instrument gets altered artistically by the musician, through the intermittent pressure applied on the bamboo sticks with his left hand:

 

 

The sound is hypnotic and the small variations of timbre and pitch are the result of the bending produced by the performer.

There are many ways to play the Ektara Gopichand and the range of sounds generated by this instrument also depends on the specific type of performance in which it gets involved.

Parvathy Baul, one of the most inspiring and intense Gopichand solo player, employs and holds her instrument in a peculiar way which differs completely from the example just shown.

Take a look at this performance which took place in Trivandrum (2011) at Parvathy’s home, during a shooting session organized by Kabir Project Team:

 

 

Instead of holding the Ektara Gopichand horizontally, she plays it vertically.

The right hand is used to pluck the instrument while the left hand strokes a small drum, hanging from her left shoulder.

Since her left hand is dedicated to playing the percussion instrument, it cannot be used to bend the Ektara and alter its sound in line with what we’ve seen in the previous videos.

This other example demonstrates how the Gopichand can lose its status of soloist instrument and becomes part of a larger ensemble.

As you can imagine, its thin and delicate buzzing sound tends to lose presence when surrounded by other musical instruments such as the violin, the tabla and veena.

Let’s listen to Shader Ektara, a song by Shumir Baul:

 

 

Shumir keeps playing its instrument nonetheless, because the act of plucking and waving the Ektara is so intimately connected to his vocal performance that it seems impossible to separate the two components, even when the actual musical contribution provided by the instrument to the whole performance is almost imperceptible.

No bending takes place and the instrument serves the main purpose of creating a drone sound for helping the singer remind the pitch of the song.

The idea of combining the delicate sound of the Gopichand with other musical instruments is found in this other performance by Baul Sumanta Das, who includes more than one type of Ektara within the ensemble.

It’s important to note that Baul Sumanta Das plays a particular kind of Ektara which is quite different from the one shown and analyzed so far.

Have a look for yourself:

 

 

The type of Ektara played by the soloist is always a one-stringed instrument but this time the musician places it under his arm and plucks it with a sort of plectrum.

Compared to the Gopichand, this Ektara does not feature the bamboo V-shape structure and is used to produce different notes as well as unpitched strokes, as it was a sort of drum.

Even though its timbre and overall structure differ from the traditional Gopichand,  we’re still dealing with a type of Ektara and this confirms what I said in the opening section of this blog post, regarding the multiple forms of instruments that are commonly called Ektara by the Indian people.

I want to conclude this overview of the sounds produced by the Ektara Gopichand with a performance coming from Nepal.

Here we can see the musician exploiting another part of the body of the instrument:

he’s stroking the skin placed at the bottom of the Gopichand as it was a drum.

In addition to that, he plucks the string with a plectrum and not with the finger, in line with what we saw in the previous video:

 

 

Tuntuna

Let’s move to the analysis of the third example of musical instrument belonging to the family of Ektara: the Tuntuna.

Tuntuna has an onomatopoeic name that seems to suggest the repetitive and percussive sound that this one-stringed instrument is able to generate.

In terms of structure and shape, the Ektara Tuntuna is formed by a hollow wooden or metal cylinder. The neck of the instrument is nothing but a stick inserted into the cylinder and presents a tuning peg at the top.

You cannot play melodies on this instrument, whose main function is to sustain the singer’s vocal performance by reminding him the tonic note.

Compared to the other members of the Ektara group (Gopichand, Tumbi) the Tuntuna is less widespread in the Indian subcontinent.

As if to confirm this, there are just a few videos available on Youtube that can help us discover the performing contexts and the playing techniques related to this instrument.

One of the most interesting clips I’ve found is focused on a Tuntuna player and his small band from the city of Dapoli, Maharashtra.

The brief documentary is part of a research project carried out by Taluka Dapoli.

What’s intriguing about this footage is that shows, on the one hand, an example of how the Tuntuna is played, on the other hand, it provides evidence of one type of ceremonial context in which this instrument can be employed in today’s Maharashtra.

Have a look for yourself:

 

 

As you can see, the musician holds the Tuntuna and plucks it with his left hand, while the right hand is used to play a small pair of cymbals.

The old man sings, accompanied by the drone sound emitted by the Tuntuna that keeps him away from breaking the pitch while providing a supporting rhythm.

There’s a moment, near the end of the clip, when the musician and two other performers are welcomed by an old lady, who invites them to take a sit near her house and sing in exchange for money.

And it is precisely here that the devotional and ceremonial implications of playing the Tuntuna become clear.

It must be said that there are other ritual occasions and cultural events in which the Tuntuna takes the field in Maharashtra such as the folk theatre form called Tamasha and Gondhal, a religious practice from which a unique folk art form has emerged.

The following clip illustrates an example of Gondhal in which you can see a musician playing the Tuntuna horizontally and not vertically:

 

 

Online resources to learn the basics of the Ektara instruments

Every musical instrument, no matter how simple it may look in terms of structure and melodic possibilities, requires the knowledge of a specific set of playing techniques and body postures to sound good.

This consideration applies perfectly to the class of the Ektara instruments.

But how can I learn Ektara – you’re probably wondering- if I don’t live in India or don’t have the opportunity to take lessons from a traditional Ektara player?

Don’t worry, I’ve found a couple of Youtube tutorials that will help you learn how to play the Ektara Gopichand: one is in Bengali, the other in English.

I do encourage you to watch the Bengali tutorial even if you don’t understand this language because it’s a step by step guide, that contains a lot of examples of rhythmic patterns and playing techniques:

 

 

The other video can surely be useful to get a brief overview of the instrument but it does not offer the same amount of musical examples presented in the Bengali tutorial:

 

 

As you may have noticed, these two tutorials were related only to the Gopichand.

If you want to learn the basics of the Ektara Tumbi then you can start by taking a look at this series of lessons by Sangtar:

 

 

 

How to purchase these instruments online

We have seen that by the term Ektara the people from India refer to a group of folk instruments born to be employed by mystics in different areas of the Indian subcontinent to accompany their prayers and religious chanting.

This doesn’t mean, though, that the spread of this instrument is limited to rural areas and small communities of yogis.

I’ve done a Google search and it seems that people from different parts of the world are interested in knowing where and how to buy an Ektara online.

If you’re one of them, here’s a list of some websites that allow you to purchase various models of Ektara on the Internet:

Indiamart

Flipkart

Afroton

In addition to the above mentioned specialized websites, you can also find a good variety of Ektara models on the most important global market places, such as Amazon, Etsy and Ebay.

In terms of price, one Ektara instrument costs from 27 USD up to 190 USD depending on the quality of the instrument, its dimensions and the kind of materials used in its construction.

 

Is it possible to make them at home?

If, for any reason, you don’t want to buy an Ektara online and you’re good at building things, you can make your own Ektara Gopichand at home using a coconut and a bunch of other wooden items.

I’ve done a search on Youtube looking for a tutorial that could help you in the process of construction and came across this interesting video by Habib Art & Crafts Studio:

 

 

Another way to make a Gopichand at home is by replacing the coconut and the other wooden elements with waste materials, like ice cream box, tissue paper roll, old newspaper, thick paper straw, matchstick and other items.

This tutorial by The Craft Show illustrates all the elements of the Ektara making-process:

 

 

Moving from the Gopichand to the Tumbi, this wonderful tutorial by Harsroop Singh will lead you through the entire process of making a professional Tumbi:

 

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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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