A brass drum from Rajasthan, a Rabab from Kashmir , Edison’s patented phonograph,  a glass Mridangam and so many other instruments from across India at the National Museum New Delhi’s Sharan Rani Gallery of Musical Instruments narrate the fascinating story of India’s musical heritage.

musical instruments national museum
View of the Musical Instruments | Photo : Nomu

The Museum has a collection of 450 old and rare instruments from various regions of India, depicting different musical traditions. Of these, 207 objects are currently on display. Most instruments belong to the 17th-19th century period; but there are some that date as far back as the 15th century. How did this collection reach the museum? Have you ever wondered what the instruments sound like? What is special about them? We’re exploring all this and more in this post, with some fun activities for kids! 

musical instruments national museum

Sharan Rani : the undisputed Queen of Sarod

musical instruments national museum
Watercolour art by : JL Anil Kumar

Back in the 1930’s women in India could not have imagined a career in Music unless they belonged to a family of musicians. Colonial rule had changed mindsets towards music and dance to be the profession of nautch girls or “baiji’s”.  Sharan Rani Backliwal – born into a family of Delhi’s businessmen and educationists,  went on to become India’s first woman Sarod player, and it’s “Sarod Queen”, breaking all societal barriers and paving the way for future generations of women instrumentalists.  She travelled extensively for performances and collected old and rare instruments from wherever she went.

Sharan Rani’s vision was to build a collection from which future generations could learn about the musical heritage of India.
musical instruments national museum
The Sharan Rani Backliwal Gallery of Musical Instruments, National Museum New Delhi | Photo: Nomu

She donated her entire collection to the National Museum, first in 1980, then in 1982 and again in 2003. The gallery of musical instruments is therefore named after her, as a tribute.

Highlights of the Sharan Rani Gallery of Musical Instruments, National Museum Delhi

Of the many instruments on display, here are a selected few,  that you must not miss! The selection is based on recommendations from Gunjan Tripathi – an art & history enthusiast who volunteers at the National Museum.
Click the SoundCloud links to know what each instrument sounds like. !

Sharan Rani Backliwal’s first Sarod:

musical instruments national museum

As the story goes, a young Sharan Rani found a Sarod, lying neglected, gathering dust on a bookshelf in her own home.  Her brother had acquired the instrument and forgotten all about it! It was love at first sight, and by the time she was 10, she gave her first Sarod performance. This was remarkable on two accounts; one being the instrument itself, which was dubbed to be a man’s instrument given the posture needed to play it. The other reason was that Sharan Rani took to the most powerful stringed instrument at such a young age !

We particularly love the use of Sarod in this contemporary Bollywood movie theme: 

 

A Glass Mridangam

musical instruments national museum

The Mridangam is the instrument of choice when it comes to Hindu deities like Ganesha or Shiva’s Nandi. Nandi, the bull actually holds the Mridangam when Shiva performs his Tandav dance.  Mridangams, in ancient times would be made of clay, but with time, the use of jackfruit wood (can you imagine how much they’d weigh?) became common. Today, even fibreglass Mridangams are available! Mridangams are widely used for Carnatic music performances and are popular around the world.

Activity: Take a moment to think – what could be the material of the future Mridangam?

 

Rudra Veena

musical instruments national museum

Visitors are most fascinated by ‘King of Instruments’, the Rudra Veena. Popularly known as the “been”, this instrument dates back several centuries . The Rudra Veena has been spotted in cave paintings. However the popularity of the instrument reached its height during the Mughal period as music entered the King’s court.

musical instruments national museum
Ali Khan Karori was a prominent Indian classical music composer, musician and instrumentalist. He was an influential musician of his time & ‘Naubat Khan’ was the honorary title conferred by Mughal Emperor Jahangir on him. The rudra veena, (aka bin), came into prominence during the time of Tansen’s contemporary, and son-in-law, Naubat Khan. In the paintings of the time, it is clearly Naubat Khan and not Tansen who is associated with the instrument. Source

 

The instrument is made using Two dried gourds, and takes anything between 6-8 months to  create.  It is a large and heavy instrument with strings  that are thick.  playing a Rudra Veena requires strength. In addition, the playing posture requires keeping the instrument on the body, which means carrying 3.5 to 5 kg for two or three hours in one playing session.

musical instruments national museum
The rudraveena cannot be bought off the shelf. It’s making is unique, as it is connected to the player’s body. For instance, its length should be 11 times the hand span of the player. The tuning can be completed only after it is placed on the body. The playing of the Rudra Veena is connected to the player’s breathing rhythm.

The instrument’s centre should fall between the navel and the heart. It is believed that while playing a Rudra Veena, The vibrations emanating from the instrument circulate through the body of the player with the sound of ‘om’ entering the left ear from the left tumba. The right tumba’s vibrations go through the lower body through the right thigh. These vibrations produce inner well-being and help tune the player to the universal nada (sound). The instrument is itself a tool of pranayam and yoga. For those who have not mastered breathing, it is a difficult instrument to learn.

This is a World Heritage instrument, protected and promoted by UNESCO.

Activity Suggestion : Try figuring the size of a customised Rudra Veena for yourself based on the size of your hand-span! 

Esraj

musical instruments national museum

The Esraj is commonly used as an accompanying instrument to play Rabindra Sangeet in West Bengal. Interestingly, the use of the instrument had become almost extinct during the 1980s and was revived by the Sikh sect of Namdharis.

 

Saraswati Veena

musical instruments national museum

Known as the Queen of Instruments, this form of the Veena is what we all associate with the Goddess of Learning and Knowledge, “Saraswati”.

#DidYouKnow : The Saraswati Veena is India's National Instrument!! #heritage Click To Tweet

 One who is skilled in veena-play, attains salvation without effort -Sage Yajnavalkya

 

Also see the Mayuri Sitar (1850 ) which Sharan Rani procured from a royal family in Rajasthan.

It is special because of its inlay work and craftsmanship !

Check Out : Thomas Edison’s patented phonograph!

Activity suggestion : Tell kids about Edison’s suggested uses of the Phonograph. What are the modern-day devices / instruments they can think of, that remind them of this invention? 

Explore the Musical Instruments Gallery at the National Museum with the Beatles:

India and its music inspired the Beatles so much, that they wrote 48 songs during their time here!  Have your kids listen to this song :

 

Fun Fact: The above composition, Within You Without You, was arranged by George Harrison with Indian musicians only. No other Beatle was involved. 

Can you recognise the instruments from the gallery that might have been used in this composition? It includes the Tabla, Sitar, Tanpura, Sarangi, and the Jal Tarang ! 

There are several other songs by the Beatles where you can spot Indian instruments.  For example, The Inner Light (short 30-second clip) includes the Sarod, Pakhavaj (Mridangam), Shehnai, Sitar, Sarangi, Dholak, & Harmonium

Till the day I die, I still believe (Indian music) is the greatest music ever on our level of existence.
– George Harrison to the Rolling Stone magazine in 1968

A visit to the National Museum’s Musical Instruments Gallery will surely leave you echoing the thought, and you’d silently thank Sharan Rani Backliwal for the legacy she left us!

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Images & Instrument Recommendations : Gunjan Tripathi | YuvaSaathi volunteer at the National Museum New Delhi since 2013. 

The Heritage Lab is a digital platform connecting museums & citizens through campaigns, public-engagement programs & free access content for youth, families and kids.

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