Sunday, September 2, 2007


While looking through my files I came across this photo, which immediately reminded me of an evening two years back at Dakshinchitra on ECR, Chennai. I was attending the Founding Day celebrations of ABL Biotechnologies Ltd., a fast developing bio-tech company. The focal point of the function was the enthralling jaltarang performance by the lady in the photo.

Who is she? Unfortunately I don’t remember her name. Is she Seethalakshmi Doraiswamy, the octogenarian who is one of the great exponents of jaltarang? (You can read a splendid article on ‘Seetha mami’ by Hema Vijay titled ‘’And The Granny Goes To…" at I plan to check with ABL Biotechnologies (must congratulate them for including such a program for their annual function) for her name, but don’t have the patience to wait till the answer comes, to post this.

Jaltarang means water waves or waves of the water. Perhaps ‘song of the waves’ would be a more appropriate translation. It is music produced by tapping China bowls (usually), filled with water to different levels, with wooden mallets to produce heavenly notes. The bowls are of different sizes. Lower octaves are produced by the larger cups and the higher octaves by the smaller ones. The tuning is done by adjusting the level of water in the bowls.

I wonder if the specific gravity of the water that is used makes a difference to the sound. Perhaps it does. For instance, a bowl filled with salt water could produce a note different from the one that has potable water. I suppose that it can be corrected by adjusting the level. Will those readers who know these things kindly share the information with others either through comments on this post or by email to me?

How many cups are used in jaltarang? It seems that the complete set is considered to be 22. But some artistes use lesser number, say 14, or 16. I suppose that each performer finds an ensemble that is best suited for him.

Jaltarang is ancient. It is mentioned in old Indian, Byzantine and Greek texts. According to Vatsyayan’s Kamasutra playing this instrument is one of the sixty-four skills a woman should acquire. It is also mentioned that Alexander the Great took jaltarang players from India to Macedonia in 4thc B.C.

The music of jaltarang is divine. Nevertheless, it has become rare these days. In fact, it was after a long time that I had a chance to listen to jaltarang at the ABL Technologies function.

Why is this instrument fading away? Historically, a language or a system dies when it becomes incapable of absorbing new developments. Is that happening to jaltarang? I am not competent to judge. Perhaps some of the readers can enlighten us.


Photo acknowledgement: ABL Biotechnologies Ltd. Click on image for enlarged view.

Also see: Dances for the gods.


Maddy said...

hi AT, I think the only liquid used in the jaltarang is water and that of course gives it the name. the air column above the liquid vibrates to give the note, so the SG of the liquid may not have any significance.

Chitrangana said...

The vibration is of the cup or bowl. Depending on its size, wieght and material, the vibration matches one particular frequency of the Indian musical scale. Water is used to bring the note to a lower position in octave. Generally, it is lowered by one note. Any liquid can be used as far as it serves to lower the frequency to the satisfaction of the musician.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thank you Maddy & Chitrangana for your comments.