An interview with Jala Tarang artist, Milind Tulankar.
After we finished the interview with Milind Tulankar, he played a video of a jugalbandi featuring him playing the jala tarang, Taufiq Qureshi on djembe and Ramdas Palsule on the tabla. A few minutes into listening the sometimes fast, and sometimes slow pieces, we felt waves of joy washing over us. That experience connected us with what Tulankar was trying to say earlier, “Water is what we seek. It’s the biggest destresser.”
Tulankar, who began playing the instrument when he was nine or 10 under the tutelage of his grandfather, Pt Shankar Kanhere, explains that jala tarang is an ancient Indian music instrument, dating back to 2nd or 3rd century BC.
“It’s mentioned in Sanskrit texts as Jalatantri Veena or Udak Vadya. It was played even before we started using or discovered China Clay crockery. Earlier, it used to be played on metal utensils like copper or bronze,” says Tulankar.
Jala tarang is a basic instrument in the sense that there is not much skill or artistry involved in making it. To play it, you need some bowls of different sizes filled with varying levels of water and two sticks. The varying levels of water emanate different swars (tones), although playing classical raagas and tuning them is very difficult. Those who have an ear for music can differentiate between the tones and the pitch which depends on the water level.
“A player uses minimum of 12 and maximum of 25 bowls. The bowls and the water levels in them should be planned or tuned accordingly so that you can play the required tone or the song. Jala tarang is not like a harmonium in which there is scope for improvisation. If you are playing one particular raag, which has two komal swar (flat tone) and one teevra swar, (high tone), then the bowls have to be tuned accordingly,” the musician adds.
In the present generation, besides Tulankar, there are a few more jala tarang players in the country. Some of them are senior citizens who can’t travel, while others don’t play classical music on jala tarang. So that makes Tulankar the only jala tarang artist who plays classical music on the instrument for three hours.
“My grandfather learnt to play tabla and pakhawaj under Pt Dattopant Mangalvedhekar’s tutelage. Pt Mangalvedhekar also used to play jala tarang, so my grandfather expressed an interest to play it. Even in that period, there were around seven jala tarang artists,” says Tulankar.
How to play it
A chat with Tulankar reveals that he is consistently fine-tuning the instrument, the way it’s placed to the way it’s packed for his performances abroad. Says he, “If we play on two bowls placed next to each other, then the constant movement might push them into each other, get stuck, or cause water to spill. This might affect the way tones emanate from the bowls. So my grandfather devised wooden seating for placing the bowls. But it had its own issues like the spilling of water caused the wood to swell up etc. So I replaced the seating panel with the corruagted plastic. The two panels intersect into each other and reduce the air vacuum thus improving the tonal quality. The seating of the bowls is more fixed and there is less spillage of water. I also place packing material below the corrugated plastic setting, which gives it a firm base. ”
Initially, the two sticks used to stroke the bowls were made of sheesham wood, and then cane. Tulankar uses nylon rod for sticks and he coats the tips with surgical tape.
The water available in various cities or villages can also affect playing of jala tarang. “In Canada or USA, the water is very hard. So I use distilled water, about six litres, when I am playing in these countries,” he adds.
Sourcing of bowls
Tulankar, who has composed music for a BBC film West is West, uses his grandfather’s set of jala tarang. “My set of bowls is about 80-years-old. My grandfather had collected them from across the country and some from China and Japan. I have about 300 bowls in my collection. These bowls are not crafted as music instruments. So it’s a gamble. I play them, if I find the right swar and the right size, then I pick it up,” he concludes.