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The Jal-tarang, one of the most rarely heard instruments!

One of the oldest instruments in the world ‘Jal-tarang’ comes from ‘Jal’ meaning water, and ‘tarang’ that connotes to the “waves in water”. Jal-tarang is an ancient Indian wave instrument which continues to play till today in the Indian classical music repertoire to produce both ‘Ragas’ and light melodies. Jal-tarang is a unique instrument in the sense that it is both a percussion, as well as a non-percussion instrument, used to play solo performances accompanied by Tabla or as an accompanying percussion instrument.

The instrument was developed in ancient India around the 17thcentury and finds its first mention in the music treatise Sangeet Parijaat. This medieval musical treatise categorizes this instrument under ‘Ghan-Vadya’(Idiophonic instrument) in Indian music terminology wherein the sound is produced by striking the surface of the instrument primarily to produce vibrations, without the use of strings or membranes.

It is said that Alexander, on his return from India to Macedonia, managed to take some Jal-tarang  players with him. Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra mentions about a certain water instrument called ‘Udakavadya’ which is assumed to be the Jal-tarang as he mentions playing on musical glasses filled with water is one of the 64 Arts and Science to be studied by a maiden.

Jal-tarang was also called ‘Jal-yantra’ in the medieval times as mentioned by the ‘Asht-chhap’ poets of the Krishna Cult.  This instrument seems to have evolved from the ancient Gong and Gamelan made up of copper and other metal alloys that were molded in different shapes, to create various musical notes that were gently struck with bamboo sticks played with both hands. The instrument was earlier played across the Java, Bali, and Burma regions (Myanmar of today) and was in vogue in the ancient period, being played across the eastern border of India.

The musical treatises ‘Sangeet Saar’ considered a 22 cups Jal-tarang as a complete one, while the one with 15 cups to be of ordinary. The cups ranged from small to big sizes and were made either of bronze or porcelain. In the present era the preferred choice of the artists are the china bowls instead of bronze or porcelain, and the total number of cups preferred is around sixteen, while the number of cups depends on the melody being played.

The Jal-tarang has a pleasant characteristic tone similar to the Feng Shui wind chimes. In the 16th century Europe the glasses were used in place of cups. Similar cups are seen being played in Japanese Buddhist temples and in the music of the Kabuki theatre, where water is used for fine tuning and for creating sound ornamentations called ‘Gamaks’ in Indian music terminology that are created by carefully bringing the sticks into contact with the surface of the water.

The instrument includes a series of china clay bowls of descending sizes laid in a semicircular manner while the player sits in the center of the circle softly striking the cups on the edge with wooden sticks to create the sound. The cups used to produce the notes of  ‘Mandra Saptak’ (lower octave) are large in size while the ones used for the ‘Madhya Saptak’ (Middle octave) are medium sized, followed by those used to produce the ’Taar Saptak’ (higher octave) are small sized porcelain cups.

The cups are tuned to the notes of a Raga, being played by adjusting the amount of water. The instrument works on the principal of the motion of sound created or modified with the aid of water. When the edge of the bowl filled with water is stuck with wooden sticks it produces vibrations, that travels through the water and are transferred to the surrounding air to produce sweet melodic sounds. The instrument requires a skilled technique to play some fine nuances and is not as easy to tune as it sounds and needs proper guidance, practice and experience. While an accomplished player can display his skills by playing some fine nuances and vibrations if he is able to rotate the water through a quick yet soft touch of the stick.

Very few artistes have adopted Jaltarang as their chosen instrument for classical performances namely Milind Tulankar, Ranjana Pradhan and Anayampatti S Ganesan and  Dr. Ragini Trivedi who is one of the first women Jaltarang players, who has trained several students in this rare instrument. Due to its delicate built and design besides the difficulties and the lack of ease that the player faces, while trying to play the more complex Ragas, Jaltarang is losing its popularity and is a dying art that needs to be preserved!

This article was featured in our January 2018 issue:

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