The vast world of South Asian percussion instruments


Illustration: Ellie Suh

Percussion is one of the oldest musical traditions in the world.

The Latin root of the word ‘percussion’ literally means striking a surface to create rhythms and sound. Percussion instruments traditionally fall into one of two categories based on how they produce sound:

  • Idiophones: Instruments that produce sound through vibrating the entire body (ex. bells or rattles)
  • Membranophones: Instruments that produce sound through beating a surface, skin, or membrane (ex. a two-headed drum)

As the categories above begin to suggest, the world of percussion instruments is vast, manifesting uniquely across geographies and cultures and shaped by local traditions and beliefs. The Indian subcontinent is a great example of this diverse landscape, where folk-drumming practices—often for the purposes of devotion—laid the foundations for more widely-known classical and popular rhythms.

Subcontinental percussion is perhaps most commonly associated with instruments used in the commercial music and the film industries, like the tabla and the dhol. However, there are many less familiar instruments that might be of interest to lovers of percussion and polyrhythm—below, we examine just a few.

The mridangam


The mridangam (category: membranophone) is a very ancient two-headed cylindrical drum, dating back to over 2,000 years ago in the subcontinent. Originating in South India, it’s used in both Hindustani classical music from North India and the Carnatic musical tradition from South India.

As you’ll notice across many of the instruments on this list, many Asian drums are traditionally built from jackfruit wood. With jackfruit trees being prevalent in lush tropical regions across South and Southeast Asia, their wood is considered superior to teak and widely used to build furniture and instruments due to their extreme durability. For this reason, jackfruit wood is also the basis of some drums used in Indonesian Gamelan, and the Kutiyapi boat-lute of the Palawan people in the Philippines.

Because of its ability to generate nuanced treble and bass frequencies, the mridangam is valued for its harmonic strength. Common to many two-headed drums in the subcontinent, the mridangam’s two tunable heads are called the ‘syahi’ (one for bass and one for treble) and are typically made out of goat skin and laced to the body with leather straps. Adjusting these straps changes the tension of the drum heads, which affects their pitch.

Posture is critical to playing the mridangam. Players are seated on the floor, and the drum rests above the right ankle with the player slightly extending their right leg. The left leg is bent, resting against the body of the drum and the torso of the player. It’s worth noting that poor posture can be detrimental to a player’s body and cause misalignments leading to altered gaits, scoliosis, balance problems, and other issues stemming from physical asymmetry.

The ghatam


The ghatam (category: idiophone) or ‘matka’ is an instrument that literally means ‘pot,’ shaped like a rounded vessel with a narrow opening at the top. Like a lot of earthenware from India, it’s traditionally made from clay or terracotta.

The history of the ghatam is quite unique. It originated as a folk instrument across several parts of India, including the northern Punjab region where it’s known as the ‘gharha’ and Rajasthan where it’s known as the ‘madga.’ In the 19th century, renowned musicians like Polagam Chidambara Iyer introduced the ghatam to Carnatic classical performances, which amplified the instrument’s appeal across the subcontinent—it’s now a popular accompaniment to the mridangam. Later, Palani Krishna Iyer developed more intricate rhythmic patterns and techniques specific to the ghatam.

Musicians love the ghatam for its earthy timbre. Due to its shape, the body, neck, and rim produce both treble and bass tones when struck. Striking the ghatam with the lower wrist will produce lower frequencies, and striking it with the fingers will produce higher frequencies.

Traditionally played while seated in a cross-legged position, the player holds the ghatam on their lap with the mouth facing their stomach. Adjusting the distance between the pot and the stomach can also affect the tone of the instrument.

The chenda


The chenda (category: membranophone) is a sacred instrument or ‘melam,’ with variants rooted in several cultures across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. Considered one of the rarest South Asian percussion instruments, it has several variants based on its diameter, foundation, and structure. Different versions of the chenda (spanning vekku, acchan, uruttu, and muri) are used to create bass and lead rhythms or ‘thalams’ in local ensembles and orchestras.

Similar to the mridangam, this drum’s cylindrical body is often carved from jackfruit wood, and its two heads are traditionally made from cow skin. Suspended vertically by a string along the drummer’s neck and played with two sticks on each head, the chenda produces a distinctly loud and rigid sound.

The most interesting fact about this instrument is perhaps the difference between its two drum heads: the ‘edamthala’ (the left side) and the ‘valamthala’ (the right side). While the edamthala is typically made of only one or two layers of cow skin, the valamthala is made with five or more layers. This allows the two sides to produce treble and bass sounds, respectively.

Like many folk-percussion instruments, the chenda is a popular part of religious ceremonies and traditional dance practices, such as Theyyam and Kathakali from Kerala, a lush state on India’s Malabar Coast. Before playing the instrument, students of the chenda are traditionally instructed to learn its rhythms on a stone or piece of wood, with a stick made from the bark of a tamarind tree. As a sacred practice, players in Kerala are known to start and end with an invocation or prayer to the Hindu god Ganesh or Ganapathi—widely known as ‘the remover of obstacles.’

The thavil


The thavil (category: membranophone) is another dual-headed drum, originating from India’s ancient city of Thanjavur, located on the coastal state of Tamil Nadu.

The instrument is used in Southern folk and Carnatic music, and it’s seen as an essential part of the Thanjavur style of ensemble called nagaswaram, which features a double reed woodwind instrument (also called a nagaswaram) and small cymbals.

Like the mridangam and the chenda, the thavil is often made of jackfruit wood, and interestingly, both heads have historically been made from different skins: water buffalo skin on the left head and goat skin on the right, perhaps for their unique tonal properties. Like the other instruments on this list, it’s also an integral part of ceremonies and processions, and its techniques are taught by renowned masters.

The thavil is played by using a short stick on the left head and the player’s fingers (which are protected with thimbles traditionally made from flour and water) on the right. This drum can be played by sitting behind it on the ground, or by suspending it from the player’s neck with a cloth strap called the ‘nadai.’

While tradition is an important aspect of the thavil—and the other instruments on this list—over decades, many aspects of this drum have been modernized for the sake of comfort and convenience. Nowadays, a metal frame is often used to tune the drum heads rather than leather straps (that allegedly take many hours to tighten and loosen), and the flour paste used to coat players’ fingers is often replaced with a synthetic, water-sealing compound.

The khanjira


Also called the ganjira and the khanjiri, the khanjira (category: idiophone) is a single-frame drum also originating from South India. A member of the tambourine family, the khanjira gets its bright and unique sound from a set of bells (‘zils’) inlaid in the frame on one side. Some of the bells fastened to older khanjiras were made from old coins, but now metal is more commonly used. Although frame sizes can vary, their sizes are usually comfortable, often ranging from approximately 17 – 19 centimeters in diameter and 6 – 10 centimeters in depth. Covering the frame is a skin (attached by glue) that was traditionally sourced from a monitor lizard; today, it’s more often made from goat or synthetic materials.

The khanjira naturally produces a high-pitched sound without tuning. To generate bass frequencies, players reduce the tension of the skin by sprinkling water on it. To play it, the player holds the frame in one hand, and the other more dominant hand strikes the skin with the palm and fingers. The khanjira is typically positioned vertically and in the middle of the player’s body for maximum speed and efficiency.

The khanjira is also used to accompany many folk devotional ceremonies, processions, and rites, and was gradually absorbed by the canon of South Indian classical and Carnatic music. This drum is also often played to support the mridangam.

The khol


Last but not least, khol (category: membranophone) literally means ‘open sound,’ indicative of this drum’s very hollow timbre. Like the thavil and chenda, the khol is also a popular accompaniment to traditional devotional or ‘bhakti’ rites like bhajans and kirtans, most popularly in the eastern and northeastern states like Orissa, West Bengal, Manipur, and Assam. The khol is also an integral part of Bengali folk and Baul music, a style of folk music from communities of mystics and bards spanning parts of East India and Bengal, influenced by aspects of Sufism and Buddhism.

Also known as the ‘mridanga’ (‘mrit’ meaning clay or mud—not to be confused with the mridangam mentioned earlier in this article), the khol is traditionally made from terracotta. The body of this drum is barrel shaped and its two heads (made from cow hide) are played with both hands.

An asymmetrical drum, the khol’s right side produces higher frequencies, and the larger left side produces lower ones. The pitch difference between both sides is about an octave. Unlike the other instruments we explored, the pitches on the khol are fixed, meaning the drum can’t be tuned on the spot. To get around this, players have been known to occasionally layer the left head with a wet cloth, which lowers its pitch.

To play the khol, drummers use both hands and employ techniques similar to those used with the cyclical rhythms (or ‘taal’) of the tabla. That said, the khol’s ‘bols,’ or mnemonic syllables, are slightly different.

Finally, like the other drums in this article, aspects of the khol have also evolved over time for the sake of convenience. For example, khol bodies are now often made from fibreglass due to its lighter weight compared to clay.

The bigger picture

While the instruments we explored today don’t come close to representing all of the vast percussion traditions in South Asia, they begin to paint a picture of the subcontinent’s musical diversity. That being said, this list also suggests a set of common practices, techniques, and materials that unite these instruments.

Moreover, when it comes to rhythm, the larger techniques for playing percussion are very much influenced by the cyclical core of South Asian percussion: the ‘taal.’* Therefore, the rhythms played by the instruments in this article are also offshoots of this system, and the language of bols—which are also at the heart of South Asian percussion—is often influenced by tabla.**

Lastly, as with many traditions in the Indian subcontinent, caste—a very hierarchical structure of social organization—is unfortunately also a dimension in music making. While many of these traditions have been challenged over the years, societally constructed perceptions around the cleanliness of the animal-sourced materials used to construct these instruments (e.g. buffalo skin for the thavil, goat skin for the mridangam, and cow hide for others) still shape the culture of making and playing Indian instruments.

While the institution of caste has been dismantled in many ways, there is documentation of players refusing to associate with instruments that ‘fall below’ their caste and its rules. The mridangam has historically been associated with Brahmins (the highest caste in the hierarchy), but the makers of the instrument have historically been Dalit Christians.

As Dalits are considered one of the most marginalized caste groups in the subcontinent, their communities are traditionally tasked with societally ‘unclean’ duties such as sanitation and working with animals. Unsurprisingly, the work of sourcing, cleaning, and crafting the skin of drums is considered below the status of the middle and upper castes. Conversely, the knowledge around making instruments is interestingly often in the hands of the most excluded.

*At the core of Indian classical music is a structure built of repetitive patterns of 4, 16, or 12 beats. These various taals are at the heart of ‘ragas,’ a set of 12 notes (derived from the Western concept of the scale, but with ascending and descending versions) that build a framework for improvisation.

**’Bol’ literally means ‘to speak’ in Hindi, and it’s also a system of mnemonic notation for Talal and other forms of South Asian percussion (with slight variations depending on the instrument). It can be understood as the phonetic language of tabla playing.

Explore the sounds of more percussion instruments from around the world in our curated Collection below:

May 26, 2021

Ayesha Chugh Ayesha is a DJ, music producer, and former talent booker based in New York City. She is currently working on the Content team of Splice.