NATIVE LIFE IN TRAVANCORE
The REV. SAMUEL MATEER, F.L.S.
Of the London Missionary Society
THE native instruments used in Travancore are of all three _classes, pulsatile, or drums and such like to mark the rhythm-wind instruments, as pipes and horns-and stringed instruments, like the guitar. The conch shell, which is blown in temple worship, and the kokra, used in demon worship (p. 49), can scarcely be classed as musical instruments. The gong also, a flat plate made of a composition of copper, zinc and tin, is beaten in temple worship, or as calls to ceremony, and gives a deep rich tone. Strings of small ankle-bells are used by devil—dancers, tied round the leg as symbols of their profession. They produce a faint clashing sound. Larger ones are tied round the necks of bullocks like sleigh-bells on horses. And small hand- bells are rung in all idol-worship.
“No ceremony of sacrifice or oblation is ever performed without preliminary tinkling of the bell, which is repeated at certain intervals according to the ritual. No set of sacrificial utensils is complete without them.”
Drums are of various classes, some played with a stick, others with the hand. One kind, called the tambattam, or tom-tom, is so closely associated with devildancing that it is disused by Christians, as are also the kokra, chunk, &c. A performance is sometimes given on drums alone.
Small basin-shaped cymbals of bell-metal are constantly used with vocal music to beat the time. Generally the edges only are struck together, producing a sweet tinkling tone, but some-times the faces, which make a hollow, unmusical sound.
Various wind instruments are used, resembling respectively our fife, clarionet, horns, trumpets, and bagpipe drones. Reed pipes are in universal use, like flageolets in appearance, but with a sound precisely similar to that of the bagpipes, only rather more melodious.
Stringed instruments are the most popular for private use, and are generally of the guitar or lute family, in varied forms and sizes. This will be evident from the accompanying engraving of a party of native musicians in Trevandrum, in which five of the instruments are of this class, and one is a small drum. A rude instrument is made of the cocoanut shell as a body, covered over with parchment or bladder, a long reed or bambu for string-board, and two or four wires (in the latter case one being of brass). It is played with a small bow, or with the fingers, as a simple accompaniment to singing, and help to the voice. These are usually called Tamburus.
“The four-stringed lutes are tuned to one chord, in whatever key is required — generally of C — and the finger passed rapidly across the strings; or the notes are played separately but quickly, so as to form the chord in vibration.” The wire-strung guitar is much used by mendicants and religious devotees in recitation of hymns, and other sacred singing.
The Vina (Been) or lute is an Indian guitar of peculiar construction, the best and standard musical instrument of India, and one of the most ancient. The make somewhat varies in different parts. It is a fretted instrument, usually having seven wires or strings, and a large gourd at each end of the fingerboard. Its usual extent is two octaves or two and a half. “It is the instrument,” says Willard*, “of the greatest capacity and power; and a really superior Veen in the hands of an expert performer is perhaps little inferior to a fine-toned piano — and, indeed, for Hindoostanee music, the best devised, and calculated to be adapted to all practical modifications.
The Veen is strung with seven metal wires — three steel, and four brass; but, as is the case with the Sitar and the Rubab, the melody is generally played on one of the steel wires, and the rest are chiefly for accompaniment. Several fingers of the right hand striking simultaneously on several of the wires, each of the fingers to be thus employed is armed with a plectrum, usually made with the large scales of fishes, and fastened on with springs, or tied down with thread.”
The finger-board of the Vina with nineteen frets is two and a half octaves; and the frets themselves represent the following notes in English music : —
D D# E F F# G G# A B# C C# D D# C F F# G# A D
The following details are given by Fowke (“Asiatic Researches,”vol. i.) : — ‘’The finger-board is 216/8 inches long, and about two inches wide. The whole length of the instrument is three feet seven inches. The wires are seven in number, and consist of two steel ones, very close together, in the right side; four brass ones on the finger-board, and one brass one on the left side.
They are tuned in the following manner : —
The notes given by the frets will appear on the following scale. I have added below the Indian names of the Surgum, which the performer himself gives to the notes. It is very observable that the semi-tones change their names on the same semi-tone as in the European scale : —
On the wires R and S, which are those principally used, there is an extent of two octaves— a whole note with all the half notes complete in the first octave, but the G# and Bl wanting in the second.
The performer’s apology for this was that he could easily get those notes by pressing the string a little hard upon the frets F# and a &, which is very true, from the height of the frets; but he asserted that this was no defect in his particular instrument, but that all Beens were made so. The wires T U are seldom used except open. The frets are stopped with the left hand; the first and second fingers are principally used. The little finger of the hand is sometimes used to strike the note V.”
“From the nature of the instrument,” says Rajah S. M. Tagore,* “the Vina is tuned in fourths. Although the three Saptakas, in which the whole scope of Hindu music is confined, are considered as natural, yet the human organism of voice is not so powerful as to produce more than two and a half octaves. In imitation of vocal music, the finger-boards of our instruments also are adjusted so as to exhibit the same extent of notes.
"Such being the case, ma or F, which occupies the middle position in the octave, i.e, between the two perfectly similar tetrachords, must be adopted as the key-note , otherwise the compass of notes would either fall short of, or exceed two and a half Saptakas allowable in practice. Should the Vina, instead of being tuned in fourths be successively tuned in thirds, seconds, &c, the extent of notes would fall short of two and a half octaves; and, again, should it be tuned in fifths, sixths, &c., the extent would by degrees exceed the limit.”
In Travancore and South India, the Vina is the instrument which is learnt by ladies of high caste in the seclusion of their zenanas, and some of them play very prettily on it, accompanying their voices in songs. None of the music is written. The airs are very pleasing, wild, or rather plaintive and some require great execution. The Vina, as used here, has six strings made of metal, and at the side are three very fine strings, which are played with a backward movement of the little finger before each bar or phrase of the music. The best instruments are procured from Mysore.
Vinas are made chiefly of blackwood or jackwood, which are said to give the best tone. They are generally much carved and ornamented, the long neck of the instrument ending in a carved dragon. One made of blackwood and ornamented with silver, costs Rs. 60; but they are procurable down to ten rupees, only there is much trouble and waiting to get them. The gourd at one end is rested upon a cushion in playing.
“The musicians of Hindustan appear not to have any determined pitch by which their instruments are regulated, each person tuning his own to a certain height adapted by guess to the power of the instrument and quality of the strings, the capacity of the voice intended to be accompanied, and other adventitious circumstances.” (Willard)
The want has long been experienced of suitable musical instruments for social enjoyment at Christian marriages and other festival occasions. The people are very fond of music, and at times sit up to hear it night after night. But some of their amusements are simply a nuisance to neighbours not interested in them, if indulged in at hours when people require rest; and the tom-tom and other instruments produce only barbarous noises, besides being objectionable on other grounds. Rev. F. D. Ward says of the common music :
“What renders the music of India so unwelcome to a cultivated ear is the limited number of their tunes, and, therefore, constant reiteration of the same notes, and the small variety of their instruments, together with the imperfect manner in which they are played. The most common article, and one that is dinging in your ear wherever you go is the tom-tom, which is nothing more than a half-tanned sheepskin drawn, when damp, over a wide-mouthed earthen or iron vessel from six to twenty or more inches across, and when dry beaten with a stick or leathern throng.
"This is often accompanied by a pair of sharp-sounding cymbals. A funeral procession is preceded by two persons blowing each a long horn, which emits a doleful and prolonged note of a distinctive, and, at times, very plaintive and sorrowful character. Every pagoda of any note has a band of musicians, who are obliged to attend at the temple twice every day to make it ring with their discordant sounds and inharmonious airs.”
The caste difficulty also crops up here, as everywhere. Shanar Christians consider it degrading to play these instruments, and hire a lower caste to do it for them : these are mostly officiators in devil-worship, who cannot sympathize with Christian sentiments or principles, and who should not be called in at such * “Six Principal Ragas.” times.
A barrel organ has been thought of, but this could only meet the want to a very limited degree, being too expensive for general use, uninteresting with European tunes, and lacking sufficient variety or adaptation. Missionaries are, however, working gradually to this end by the training of Christian musicians and singers; and it is principally with this view that I have entered into the subject so fully in the present chapter, and attempted to offer practical suggestions.
The violin is highly popular with the men, and readily procurable : handcymbals and tambourine are also in use. But some inexpensive and simple instrument is wanted for Christian females educated in the mission schools, and for the senior girls’ classes under instruction. Many have acquired a simple and solid elementary education, and sing pleasantly by ear; but they have no instrument for their amusement when at leisure in the house, or on social occasions. To encourage such singing, and help the people to procure instruments, would at the same time tend to bring into notice and training any superior voices, or musical talent that exists, enable our converts to interest and benefit their Hindu neighbours, and ultimately aid in the general improvement of the service of song in the house of God. “Let the people praise Thee, O God; let all the people praise Thee.”
The Vina is too costly, and is not procurable without much trouble and delay; the concertina, and some others, do not appear to meet the national taste; and if injured, would not be so easily repaired. The banjo seems the most promising instrument for this special purpose, as an accompaniment to solo or domestic singing. It is simple — of the stringed class most appreciated in India — can be had much cheaper than the guitar, say for five or six rupees — can be ordered without difficulty, and in any quantity, from makers in London — and is easily learnt and played.
This instrument is capable of producing the sweetest harmony, and may be used either as an accompaniment to the voice, or with piano or guitar. Four- part music may be played with four banjos, each taking one part. With this instrument even such a simple accompaniment will be of service as the following to the Lyric tune of “Tuthi tangiya’ p. 270 : —