Instrumental music has universal appeal, the richness and soothing tones can be appreciated without language and regional barriers. The history of Indian musical instruments can be gathered from various sources such as Literature (folk, general, music), Visual representations (paintings, sculptures, reliefs, models). Most of the Indian musical instruments remain still in use.
Almost every Indian God is associated with a musical instrument. Brahma's consort Saraswathi is seen playing the veena. Vishnu holds the conch, Siva the damaru. Krishna - an incarnation of Lord Vishnu is supposed to have mesmerised all the gopikas by playing his flute (Venu Gaanam). Sage Narada carries the tambura, Nandi - Lord Siva's disciple plays the Mathalam. Musicological texts ascribe the mahati ( a twenty-one stringed veena) to sage Narada.
In the Ramayana and Mahabaratha, there are several mention of use of musical instruments. When Rama performed the Aswamedha Yaga, several skilled musicians were said to have performed. Ramayana refers to veena, dundhubi, mridangam, bheri, ghata, panava, pataha, dindima. When the priests performed puja, their wives were supposed to have played the veena. The conch had been used during wartime to signify the beginning and end of the day, to alert the army about intruders. Drums were used to convey messages not only during wartime, but also during peace.
There are many musical instruments to be found among the sculptures existing in various temples, cave temples and Buddhist stupas in all parts of India. The therapeutic use of musical instruments had been understood from early days.
The instruments are mostly made using wood, leather, skin, clay. The making of the musical instruments requires great skill & practice in the manufacturing process, combined with some basic knowledge of music & acoustical principles.
The Indian musical instruments are classified into four major categories:
Tata vadya, Sushira vadya, Avanaddha vadya & Ghana vadya.
Tata vadya - String instruments (Chordophonous)
This is further classified based on the mode of playing:
- by friction with a bow like the violin, sarangi, dilruba, esraj, etc
(Ravanastram is one of the earliest known bowed instrument)
- by plucking the string like the veena, rudra veena, gotuvadyam, sitar, sarod, guitar, mandolin, harp, (tambura, ektar -drone instruments) etc.
- by striking with a hammer or a pair of sticks like gettuvadyam, swaramandala
Sushira vadya - Wind instruments
This section comprises hollow instruments where wind is the producer of sound. These can be further classified by mode of playing:
- those where wind is supplied by some mechanical means, commonly bellows - e.g. organ, harmonium
- those where the wind is supplied by the breath of the performer, which can be further classified as mouth blown & nose blown.
* those where wind is blown through the mouth pieces in the instrument - e.g. clarinet, oboe, nadaswaram, shanai
* those where wind is blown through the orifices in the wall of instrument - e.g. flute
Avanaddha vadya - Membrane covered (Membranophonous)
This section comprises all percussion instruments. These can be further classified by mode of playing:
- those played by hand - e.g. mridangam
- those played using sticks
- those played partly by hand and partly by stick - e.g. tavil
- self struck - e.g. damaru
- those where one side is struck and the other side stroked - e.g. perumal madu drum
Ghana vadya - Solid percussion instruments
This covers instruments made out of metal, wood, stone or clay but those that are solid like the ghatam, kartal, gongs, cymbals, etc.