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Did you know a baul’s ektara is also played in Rajasthan and Sind?

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A baul singing to his freedom with an Ektara, through the lush green meadows of Bengal is a common sight in paintings and literature. But Ektara is not an indigenous instrument just confined to Bengal and a baul legacy. Instead, it can be traced to other folk singers also, of Rajasthan, Punjab and Sindh. Ektar is a simple folk instrument and provides both a drone and simple rhythmic accompaniment to folk songs.  It may be the oldest stringed instrument in the Indian subcontinent and finds place even in ancient Sanskrit texts, where it is described as Ekatantri Veena, or one-stringed lute.  


In Punjab the ektar is known as the tumbi and is nothing more than a gourd, which is penetrated with a stick of bamboo. Another piece of bamboo forms the tuning peg. The bridge is merely a coin, piece of coconut, plastic or similar object. In the north, construction of this instrument is a little more complicated. A membrane is stretched over the gourd and the bridge is placed over the taut membrane.


Bauls of Bengal use a variety of indigenous musical instruments to embellish their compositions. The Ek-tara, is a common instrument of a Baul singer along with dugi, a small hand-held earthen drum; leather instruments like dhol, khol and goba; chime tools like ghungur, nupur, small cymbals such as kartal and mandira. The ektar was also very much associated with saint Mira Bai. The smaller Punjabi ver-sion (tumbi) is much associated with bhangra. Among the Gadaba and Paraja tribes of Orissa, it is known as dudumah and dung-dungi.


Ektara has been widely used by folk singers, especially by Sufi singers of Punjab and Sindh. Traditional and modern forms of bhangra sometimes use an ektara or tumbi to accompany the singer along with the dhol. The renowned Kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor who has performed at the famous ‘Hollywood Bowl’ in Los Angeles, had stressed on the similarities between Indian and Persian musical traditions which are brought to a focus by instruments such as the Ektara.


Bengal’s Ektara is however unique. A typical Bengali Ektara is constructed from half of a dried gourd shell, serving as the sound-box, with a metal string running right through the middle of the shell; at the top, the string is tied to a knob, which adjusts the tension the of the string and thereby, the tuning—the knob and the string-tension is supported by two bamboo-strips, tied to two opposite sides of the gourd shell. The playing style of this instrument is a simultaneous pluck and gong, matching the rhythm of music.