One way that an Indian music shishya (student) serves his guru is to play the instruments that provide both tonal and rhythmic foundation in classes and performances. The tanpura, which provides the tonal foundation, repeats four notes over and over again with no change in order or rhythm, even when the tabla and melodic instrument dramatically build to a crescendo. There are no virtuoso tanpura players, because any variation from this pattern is forbidden.
Tabla players are encouraged to play expressive complex parts during performances. During lessons, however, they must provide the rhythmic foundations. This means playing the essentially the same pattern for hours on end, so that the student can be sure that he is playing the complex cross rhythms exactly right. Traditionally, these foundations had to be produced the same way everything else was produced in the days before electricity and steam: by the muscle power of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
There is a tremendous amount of ego submission involved in mastering the techniques of a great guru, and performing this kind of drudgery is thus traditionally seen as part of the learning process. Today, however, many of us can only see our gurus for short lessons and then spend long hours practicing at home, where there is no obedient shishya to play these parts over and over again. Consequently, there is now a need for machines to do what manual labor did in olden times.
The first mechanical tanpuras were a few electric organ oscillators in a box, which were tuned by knobs that would jump an octave when turned less than an inch. They could adapt to the idiosyncratic tunings used by different Indian musicians, but they were almost as hard to tune as sitars, and sounded terrible. The tanpura was in no danger of obsolescence at that point. However, as India began to dominate the world of computers, some of the cleverer minds in India’s Silicon Valley used the sampling technology of computers to create two revolutionary products: the Ragini Digital Tanpura and the Riyaz Master Tabla Machine.
Because their cases are so similar, it seems probable that these devices are made by the same company. However, their origins remain shrouded in mystery, at least on the web. An Amazon listing says that they are manufactured in Maharashtra, but there is no address or company name on the devices themselves. Even the instruction booklets, which promise a one-year warranty, do not say where they should be sent for repairs. Their presence seems ubiquitous, but everyone seems to have bought them from someone else.
The Ragini Digital Tanpura is used in concert by essentially every contemporary Indian classical musician, even though there is usually also a live tanpura for appearance’s sake. Not only is the sound of the Ragini remarkably close to a real tanpura (although with less jawari “buzz”), there are also a variety of controls that simulate what little flexibility the tanpura does possess. There are buttons that enable tuning to all twelve notes in the most commonly used combinations, and a fine tuning knobfor those who prefer tonal centers between the western concern pitches. There is another knob for controlling the speed at which the imaginary strings are plucked. And there is a tone control knob whose extremes are labeled “Ladies” and “Gents” to approximate the differences between the bass “male” tanpuras, and the treble “female” tanpuras.
Most importantly for Westerners, the intervals are tuned to Indian, rather than Western, temperament, which is a great aide to ear training. The Ragini does have its drawbacks, however. The earliest model tended to drift out of pitch as it heated up. It provides only the standard drone pitches of Sa, Ma, Pa, and Ni (root, fourth, fifth, and seventh), which makes it difficult to play certain esoteric ragas such as Hindol. And although it is less bulky than a tanpura, (and a shishya!), it takes up a lot of space in a suitcase. Even worse, a strange metal box filled with wires and batteries often looks like a bomb to airport security agents, who rarely rewrap it with protective underwear and T-shirts once they have finished inspecting.
The Riyaz Master Tabla machine is an effective study aide, but its crude simulation of tabla sounds provides only rough hints for the timing of the taal cycle. Consequently, I always preferred to use Ashwin Batish’s well-engineered tabla accompaniment recordings, which feature 15-minute-long versions of the major taals in Western concert C, each in four different tempos. Unfortunately, some of the recent compositions I have been learning are in other keys and tempos. I was reluctantly considering buying a Riyaz, and thus burdening my suitcase with another large metal box. Fortunately, I discovered two programs for the iPhone and iPod touch, the iTabla Pro and the iTabla Pandit, which performed all of the functions of both the Riyaz and the Ragini, for less than half the cost and a tenth the size.
The iTabla Pro was written by Prasad Upasani, an Indian living in Los Angeles.
The iTabla Pandit was written by Christof Bartalay, a Frenchman living in Delhi. Both of them perform and study classical Indian music, and know exactly the strengths and weakness of the Ragini and the Riyaz. Each of their programs fully duplicates, and goes beyond their predecessors, providing beautiful fidelity and flexibility in a device that you’re going to be carrying in your pocket anyway. Among many other virtues, both enable you to practice esoteric ragas like Hindol again. Bartalay’s program is more expensive, and provides many more functions. But you could still buy an iPod touch and his program for less than both old metal boxes. Upasani’s program costs less than two movie tickets with popcorn. There’s really no reason not to buy both programs, if you play Indian classical music regularly.
Prasad Upasani’s software is available at the Apple App store. Christof Baratay’s software is available at www.itabla.com/en/tabla.html.
Teed Rockwell, a student of Ali Akbar Khan, is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.