The great god Shiva once chanced upon his wife Parvati
reposing most gracefully. Her breathing was like soft music; the exquisite
bosom rising and falling in rhythm. Her arms and wrists laden with bangles
caused music by their motion. Shiva was intoxicated by this ravishing
vision, and watched her for a long time in silence. Such was the impression
created in his mind that he found no peace until he discovered a way
of making a permanent record of the beauty observed. The result was
the veena, a musical instrument, whose long neck represents the straight
lithe form of Parvati, and the two supporting gourds her breasts, the
metal frets her bracelets, and the most expressive of all, the sound
generated by this instrument is said to recreate Parvati's own, rhythmic
Indeed, this tale but echoes the belief inherent
in all ancient traditions, that the first musical instrument was the
human body itself, and the first created music, the human voice. Most
stringed and wind instruments, which evolved with the human civilization,
recall some quality or aspect of this voice.
From the music of his inherent voice, man graduated
next to musical rhythms generated from his body externally. The age-old
human yearning for adorning the physical form including the head, ears,
arms, ankles etc is but a manifestation of the same. Ornamented in this
way, the body is transformed into a musical instrument. The tinkling
of the ornaments is not pre-planned; rather it arises spontaneously
from the natural movements of the person. This is especially highlighted
in classical Indian dance performances, where the elaborate jewelry
adorning the dancer emphasizes her graceful movements, and also the
rhythm that is laid down by the accompanying musical instruments.
Apart from the acoustic ornaments and jewelry worn
to accentuate the rhythm of the dance, a whole range of tinkling accessories
are used in conjunction with the apparel. These include small spherical
bells sewn onto garments, charms, sequins, ornaments for the forehead
and hair, acoustic rings, shards of glass, clinking chains for the arms
or ankles to emphasize the movement of the body, not to mention the
clacking of heels or sandals while walking. The last is reminiscent
of the most primitive form of music, namely stamping on the ground.
The deeply symbolic ritual act of treading the earth affirms the relationship
of human beings to their native soil. In this act, man for the first
time, shows himself capable of expressing and externalising the regular
rhythm of his heart beat, utilizing his feet for a dynamic movement
that is essentially an expression of joy translated into rhythm. Without
the use of any type of instrument to mediate between him and the ground,
the dancer thus communicates directly with mother earth, rooting his
inner rhythms within her depths.
Over time, the ancients realized that a greater amplification
was achieved by hollowing out the surface of the ground being stamped
upon, and covering the space created with a floor. This was the natural
precursor to the first drum. The drum is unique in the sense that though
almost all musical instruments have their origin in the practice of
ritual magic, it is the only instrument that has retained these associations
even to the present day.
From a hollow ground covered with a floor, the drum
progressed to a hollowed tree and then as the musical instinct of man
evolved, developed into a cylinder or bowl made of wood, covered at
both ends with a stretched membrane (like the 'floor' above).
is not an exaggeration to say that of all implements capable of generating
rhythmic music, the drum is the one imbued with the most mystery and
potency. Not only the music it generates, but its entire structure and
form is soaked in rich symbolism. Take for example its shape. The curvaceous
form is representative of a woman, and the hollowness inside has a likewise
similar significance. It is a receptive void, to be entered as a woman
is, protective, cavernous, a shelter and hence a symbol of the womb.
In contrast, its music is essentially thought to be masculine in nature.
This ambivalence expresses a dualism that is inherent in human nature,
and also signifies that the drum combines all the virtues of yin and
yang in a harmonious whole.
Also, a drum is most often made of wood. In addition
to enriching its acoustic abilities, the choice of this material has
a metaphysical and indeed primordial significance. Wood is a metaphor
for ascension to higher domains, which are experienced in the ecstatic
states of psychic trance. There is a physical reason underlying this
too. The tree, whose wood is used to construct the drum, is in itself
a symbol of the Cosmic Tree, which connects the earth to heaven, and
of which the earthly tree is but a microcosm. In primitive thought it
was believed that a spiritually evolved person could climb the cosmic
tree and journey back and forth from heaven. Such people were known
as shamans. Indeed, the drum serves as a bridge between the two realms,
terrestrial and heavenly, in more than one ways. Firstly is its round,
outer form, suggesting the celestial spheres, while simultaneously the
emptiness inside speaks of the inner void within each of us, and reiterates
that they are both one and the same.
According to scholar Mircea Eliade, a shaman is a
man or woman who "journeys" in an ecstatic trance, usually
induced by rhythmic drumming. In its widest sense, a shaman is someone
who has the specialist techniques for communicating with the higher
reality by entering into an alternative state of consciousness, and
drumming is one of the most common means through which the shaman enters
In ancient times, it was said to be the shaman's
job to make sure that the relationship between the human and divine
world was kept harmonious and balanced. His essential role was to search
for the unifying connections between the two realms. This is the quest
of the mystic too. In mysticism, everything is vibration. Not only are
all material forms made up of vibrations; we as humans also live and
move in vibrations - they surround us as the fish is surrounded by water,
and we contain them within ourselves, as the pond contains water. The
drum, through its rhythms, replicates these vibrations, and it is not
surprising that when we move to the rhythms of a drum we feel as though
we're being carried along by the beat - a feeling of effortlessness
and harmony that defies synchrony. This is why that the rhythm of the
drum seems to lift time out of the realm of the ordinary as we know
it, and transmutes it into timelessness. Truly, one of the properties
of instrumental or sung music is that it can make time appear to stand
still, lulling the sense of the listener, or even literally inducing
sleep. That indeed is the principle of the lullaby, whose slow rhythm
and repeated words and phrases promote a state of soothing and calming
Another archetypal and natural human activity that
gave rise to a musical instrument is the simple act of clapping. All
over the world, this quasi-spontaneous gesture, the sound of which varies
according to the position of the hands, provides the most common rhythmic
accompaniment to the voice, and is also used to show enthusiasm in the
form of applause. Clapping is an instinctive action that has an invigorating
effect on the whole body by stimulating nerves residing on the palms
of the hands. Due to this attribute, it is often a part of yogic therapy
too. Truly, after or during a musical performance, this idiophonic beating
brings the listener's body into the experience and helps to release
the pent-up energy aroused by the music and the rhythm.
From clapping with his own hands, man graduated next
to crafted clappers, which were held in both hands and were clashed
together to produce sounds greater in intensity than those generated
by the mere hands.
Such a pair of instruments, known as cymbals, continues
to find use in religious rituals, including those of Hinduism and Buddhism.
cymbals are used to punctuate sacred texts, whether read aloud, sung
or chanted. In metaphysical terms, the beating together of cymbals is
said to signify the symbolic union of opposites, wherein the naturally
occurring male and female polar energies are combined, an activity which
is necessary to maintain the harmony of the dynamic universe. Thus says
an ancient Tibetan proverb: 'With only one wing, a bird cannot fly.'
As expressed in the example of the cymbals above,
after deriving music from his own body, the next natural step for man
was to devise instruments that were an extension of himself. Clearly,
such implements had to be in close physical proximity to the musician.
It is possible to imagine a variety of different such instrumental extensions.
The breath, for example, is extended into pipes (flutes), and transformed
into music when these are raised to the lips. Similarly, the tongue
and its vibratory capability is extended by the means of the primitive
reed that consists of a leaf or a blade of grass held by the fingers
in front of the lips.
to man's attempts to dominate, or at the very least placate the forces
of nature, is the need to establish an analogy between nature and instrument,
based on their common origin. Once the concept that all things are interrelated
is acknowledged, and that each one affects the rest at every level in
the relationship of cause and effect, then the magical principle is
established which states that it is only necessary to influence one
part of the whole in order to extend that influence to the totality.
Thus a harmonious relationship existed, and continues to do so, between
the human body and the musical instrument, for the one cannot operate
without the other. Without his or her instrument, a musician may be
likened to an amputee or a rider without his horse. Both are made up
of body and soul, and together they become like two human beings, whose
identities merge (as in the case of the cymbals mentioned above), in
the playing of the instrument, giving rise to a higher reality. One
only has to observe a sitar player in action to note the loving and
energetic tenderness with which he or she seems to caress the instrument,
speak to it, coax sounds out of it, making it vibrate and respond with
sweet melodies and eloquent phrases.
True to its character, Tantric philosophy takes this
identification of man with instrument to its physical extreme, even
to the extent of fashioning instruments out of different parts of the
human body. For example, the Tibetan ritual trumpet 'rkang-gling' utilizes
the male femur, the name itself means 'made of a man's leg.' This ideal
is further expressed in the hourglass shaped drum with whirling balls,
known in Sanskrit as 'damaru,' its shape echoing the inexorable passage
of time. This drum is fashioned out of the human cranium, and is comprised
of two skulls, taken respectively from a boy of sixteen and a girl of
twelve. To consecrate it, and metaphorically infuse it with a magical
life, the male side is smeared with sperm and female half with menstrual
Essentially, the damaru is composed of two inverted
triangles with their apexes meeting at the center. The upward triangle
suggests the fiery linga of Shiva, and the lower pointing triangle represents
the female yoni. The point where they meet is of course once again the
higher, transcendent reality, where all dualities merge giving rise
to a refreshing oneness. This point is the primordial bindu, or the
dimensionless entity that gives rise to all creation.
The damaru is considered so sacred in Indian thought
that rules are suggested even for the correct positioning of this drum
when it is not being played. It is canonized that it should never be
put down on its end, but positioned so that the male skull is to the
musician's right, while the female skull is to his left. This arrangement
follows the traditional established order of father/mother, right/left,
The use of materials taken from human bodies has
magical implications, linking the human, animal, vegetable and mineral
worlds in an indissociable whole. By taking possession of these elements
and controlling them in this way, man expresses his all embracing mystical
and harmonious vision of the world.
Indeed, music has since time immemorial been the
universal vehicle for man's attempts to reach out to a higher dimension
of reality. The Upanishads state that this supreme domain is not a physical
state of being, but is intangible and unsubstantial. Therefore, to gauge
this supernormal state, man requires a symbolic medium that is similarly
abstract, yet spiritually potent enough to withhold its essence, and
is at the same time discernable to one or more of his sense organs.
Music is the means by which he makes this leap into the unknown. To
communicate with the intangible other world that lies just beyond our
reach, it is necessary to transcend the material universe, so that no
physical obstacle stands in the way of divine influence. Apprehending
the material world solely in terms of its sounds has the effect of rendering
it insubstantial, so that it becomes no more than a vibration in the
air, intangible, yet graspable to a sense organ (ears). Hence does man
fulfill his mystical destiny.
If any instrument retains its primal simplicity,
it is the flute. Even today it is still the mere hollow stick through
which Lord Krishna expressed himself with minimum adulteration.
It is not subject to complicated sets of rules, and
anyone who wants to make music can fashion his own instrument. The flute
is light in weight and easily transported. It is thus essentially nomadic,
and hence naturally associated with Krishna, who is visualized as the
divine cowherd. Krishna is said to have charmed his stock of cows with
the music he composed with his flute.
Charming animals by means of sound is a common theme
in world mythology, from Orpheus playing his lyre and attracting wild
beasts to seat themselves at his feet to the snake charmers of India.
Indeed, in a fantastic flight of imagination, a lady
singing in a particular musical mode is believed to have the power to
tame even ferocious tigers. Visually, she is shown caressing two tigers
on their heads (Ragini Sehuti).
According to Indian thought, each animal species
is affected by a different musical mood, thus for example the gentle
deer requires a concert in the mode known as Ragini Todi.
Coming back to the flute, it gives forth a clear,
pure and simple sound, which can be both intensely melancholy and entrancingly
sprightly. In either mood, its haunting notes sound as if they come
from a world beyond the din of the ordinary. The sacredness and reverence
for the flute can be gauged form the fact that it is often deified as
an extension of Krishna's own beauty. In a poetic vision of mystical
harmony, the ancient Indian texts known as the Puranas state that when
Krishna played his flute, even the river, in which grew the reeds from
which was later fashioned the flute, wept tears of delight. Numerous
legends describe the flute as having a seductive (and by implication
feminine) voice, but at the same time, within certain traditional societies,
it is played almost exclusively by men, presumably because of its phallic
form - in the same way as the rounded shape of the drum is associated
with a woman's belly. The flute too thus encompasses within itself both
yin and yang.
Mysticism is the inherent desire to seek oneness
with the ultimate reality, which transcends the human limitation of
sensual perception. But for ordinary mortals like us, in the absence
of a trained mind, the sense organs provide the only window to perceive
this supreme state of being where the essential unity underlying all
elements of the universe shines through. This state is non-material,
just like music is. The latter has the distinction of being graspable
by our sense organs (ears), and can then seep through our beings, gently
resonating our inner chords with the same melody that characterizes
the rhythm of the universe.
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