Perhaps you’ve heard the drone-like sound of a tambura (tanpura) and not actually known that’s what you were hearing. You may have heard it in the background at a kirtan, or in a traditional yoga shala. If you’ve been to a classical Indian music concert, you may have seen the tambura player sitting at the back of the ensemble plucking his four-stringed instrument to set the tonal stage for the melodic dance of the virtuoso players.
The sound of the drone is a tonal constant, rather than a melodic variation. The other instruments and the vocalist (assuming there is one) create melodic soundscapes undulating, peaking and cresting, moving away from and towards the steady key-note provided by the tambura, always the reference point. You could think of it is as representing the eternal, that which is unchanging over time, the one in contradistinction to the many.
Hang on, you’re thinking, I may have heard this sound at a kirtan, or in a traditional yoga room, but I don’t recall seeing a tambura player plucking away. That’s because there’s a genius contraption called a ‘tambura box’ – an electronic drone that replicates the sound of the instrument and can be set to different keys. We have a tambura box going 24/7 in our living room (I’m married to a musician who has spent a lot of his career swimming in the seas of Indian musical forms). It adds a wonderful musicality to our home and all other sounds filter through it, traffic on the street outside, the ice-cream truck, the garbage collection vehicles.
I love the sound of the tambura so much that I often play it while teaching yoga classes. (Conveniently you can download an app called ‘iTanpura’ and play it from your phone.) I find the dronal sound soothing, it provides white noise without being a distraction, the way music with lyrics can be sometimes.
But there’s another reason. In asana practice the breath is the constant, at least ideally, that which is unchanging. The dance of shape shifting forms, the movement from pose to pose supervenes on the steady rhythm of the breath. Inhale; exhale. Repeat. This metronome of the breath is the reference point for everything else in the practice. The sound of the tambura, is a reminder to come back to this rhythm, to the flow of the breath, the most potent tool we yogis have for experiencing ourselves anchored in some thing, some place, beyond the vrittis, the fluctuations in the mind, the ever-changing stream of physical sensations. The ancients believed the breath was the spark of the Divine. In the words of Kabir
“ Student, tell me, what is God? He is the breath inside the breath.”