Musical instruments fall into three main categories, percussion, wind and string instruments. Percussion instruments are those that are the most ancient closely following the human voice.  Percussion instrument produces music when it is struck or scraped by a beater or simply rubbed by hand or struck against using another instrument. The melody created by a master craftsman is so beautiful and pleasing to the senses.

JalaTarang literally means waves in water. The music that is produced when bowls full of water are struck is sonorous and lilting. Jal tarang or jalatharangam is a melodic Indian percussion instrument where ceramic or metal cups or bowls are filled with water and tuned appropriately by the musician who will then strike the edge of the bowls with beaters one in each hand to produce waves of music. Complex songs can be played by a swish of the hand and there are full length jalatarangam concerts in India and abroad. Connoisseurs of music feel saddened that this once popular instrument is diminishing in popularity and there are only handful of masters who can now play the instrument. Jalatarang was also known as jal yantra in the medieval times.

History of the art

Jalatarang is mentioned in the list of sixty-four arts in the ancient Indian scriptures. There were many who had mastered all the sixty-four arts which were known as chausath kalas or chatusashti in the Vedic times. Lord Krishna and Lord Hanuman are hailed as masters of the chausath kalas. Many great kings were well versed in many of these arts. Vatsyayana listed these arts in his Kamasutra and an important point to observe was that these were gender neutral though the popular line of thought recommended many of them for women.

Jalatarang is first mentioned in Sangeet Parijaat which is a musical treatise from the medieval age. The work is believed to have been authored by Ahobal, who lived during the seventeenth century. His father was a Sanskrit scholar named Krishna Pandit. This musical treatise classifies the instruments used for Jalatarang under ghan vadya that is those instruments where the sound is produced when something strikes their surface. Such instruments fall under the category of concussion idiophones.

It is believed that this instrument was popular in Greece during the time of Alexander.

Characteristics of Jalatarang

Sangeet Saar written by the Raja of Jaipur, Sawai Pratap Singh Dev considers the Jalatarang using 22 cups alone to be a complete one. That which uses only 15 cups was given a status of mediocrity. These cups were originally made of bronze or porcelain. But now only China bowls about sixteen in number to be precise, are preferred by artistes. The cups are of different sizes. What do these signify? Large cups are used to bring out notes of the lower octave while smaller cups are used to produce higher octaves. The cups are filled with water and the pitch is adjusted by changing the volume of water in a cup. There is no hard and fast rule for the exact number of cups and it depends greatly on the melody required to be played.

The artiste arranges the cups in a semi-circle in front and should be able to reach them all easily. The beaters are usually beautifully shaped wooden sticks. The artiste hits the cups with the beaters to produce the desired notes. Only if the artiste is skilled, he/she can have great control over the movement and execute the notes with precision. Finer variations of the notes and intricate nuances of the raga are delineated when the artiste rotates the water deftly with the sticks.

Principle of the Jalatarang

This instrument which gives out sweet music, works on a simple scientific principle. The quality of the sound changes with the change in its frequency. When the cups are filled with water at varying levels and hit with sticks, the ensuing vibrations at different frequencies produces the nuances and gives out melodious music. A perfect example where a scientific principle is harnessed to produce an art!

The Ashta-Chaap poets have mentioned about this wondrous instrument in their works. The Ashta Chaap or eight seals were a group of Hindi poets who belonged to the Krishna cult and were disciples of the Vaishnava saint Vallabhacharya.

Seethalakshmi Doraiswamy popularized the instrument with her amazing concerts starting to play the play from the age of ten till her demise in 2013. Some of the other accomplished artistes of Jaltarang are Shashikala Dani, Miling Tulankar and Nemani Somayajulu.  George Harrison played this instrument for the title track of his album Gone Troppo( 1982)

Also known as water music, this is certainly an instrument with a difference.