Khanjira, Ganjira or Khanjari is a frame drum. Frame drums are classified under membranophones of the percussion group of instruments. Membranophones are instruments where the sound source is vibrating skin or membrane. They have generally three parts namely a skin, a frame and a connector to attach one to the other. In the case of frame drums only two parts are found – a frame over which stretched skin is attached. With only a few exceptions the playing surface of drumheads in every nook and corner of the world is round. The fact that, the stretching of the leather on the frame is even, if it is round, is the reason behind this.

Small pottery statues of women playing round frame drums with their hands are found dating back to as far as 2000 BC. Frame drums with or without jingles attached are found all over the world. Popular in Pan-Islamic tradition in the South and East of Mediterranean these have several names common of which are Duff, Tar or Bendaire; it is well known as the Tambourine in Europe. Without the jingles it is the principle instrument of Central and North Asian Shamanism (a religion of northern Asia, in which shamans are believed to be able to intercede between humanity and powerful good and evil spirits); it is found among the Eskimos in the Arctic; it is also found among native Indians of North and Central America. Square Frame drums quite large in size are played in Ghana in West Africa while in Sub Saharan Africa frame drums of the circular variety with hoops made of wood or clay are found. In Yoruba land of Africa, a rectangular frame drum with wooden shell is used.

References to Khanjari in musical literature are comparatively recent. The nearest reference to Khanjari is by Ahobala (Sangita Parijata) with names such as ‘cakravadya’ and ‘karacakra’. ‘Maduraikanji’ and ‘Malaipadukadam’ – which are Tamil books of the Sangam period (1 A.D.) have references to an instrument called ‘chiruparai’ which has construction, usage and playing pattern similar to khanjira. These books refer to chiruparai as a drum made of deer skin which was used along with other drums such as ‘Tadari’, ‘Muzhavu’ and ‘Tannumai’ in Yal concerts. Chiruparai also referred to by names such as Aaguli and Thoodagam was an instrument played with hands, applying a small amount of force. The sound produced was very musical and loud. The construction and structure was unique since the instrument which was small produced sound which was loud in spite of the small amount of force applied. Bharata in his Natyashastra describes a frame drum referred to as Dardura or Dardara in Chapter 33 and also describes the playing of the Dardara from verses 72-76. It is described as a circular single faced frame drum which is held in the left hand and played with the right hand. Describing the playing – free strokes by the right hand fingers and holding the Dardara by the left hand and fingers to raise the pitch. These instruments may be treated as forerunners of the present day Khanjira. Khanjira has been earlier referred to by names such as ‘Sallari’ and ‘Kaipparai’ in Tamil literature.

The Khanjira is a relatively difficult Indian drum to play, especially in South Indian Carnatic music, for reasons including the complexity of the percussion patterns used in South Indian music. It is normally played with the palm and fingers of the right hand, while the left hand supports the drum. The fingertips of the left hand can be used to bend the pitch by applying pressure near the outer rim.

Normally, without tuning, it has a very high pitched sound. To get a good bass sound, the performer reduces the tension of the drumhead by sprinkling water on the inside of the instrument. This process may have to be repeated during a concert to maintain a good sound. However, if the instrument is too moist, it will have a dead tone, requiring 5–10 minutes to dry. Tone is also affected by external temperature and moisture conditions. Performers typically carry a number of Khanjiras so that they can keep at least one in perfectly tuned condition at any given time.

Though there have been many references to vadyas which resemble the Khanjira it is believed that Khanjari in the form that we see today was the creation of ‘Layabrahmam’ Pudukkottai Manpoondia Pillai. In a speech made in Tamil over All India Radio, Tiruchirappalli by mridangam and Khanjira maestro Palani M. Subramania Pillai (the manuscript of which was given by Pallattur C.T. Lakshmanan, a disciple of the maestro, and published by another one of Palani’s disciples K.S. Kalidas, Managing Trustee, Palani Sri. M. Subramania Pillai Trust) mentions about the Gurukulavasam of Manpoondia Pillai in the house of his Guru Tavil Vidwan Mariappa Pillai. He elaborates about how Mariappa Pillai realized the extreme intelligence and diligence of his disciple and was quite amazed that the latter could play on one hand, whatever he had demonstrated by using both his hands. In response to his Guru’s advice that he should try playing a one sided instrument, Manpoondia Pillai went to devise the khanjari that we see today and inquired of the guru whether the instrument qualified to be played as a percussion accompaniment in concerts and the guru readily agreed that, Khanjira, as the instrument was called, was best suited to Manpoondi’s talent and style and prophesied that he would become a great vidwan.

Manpoondia Pillai then started practicing on the Khanjira the various ‘nadais’, ‘mohras’, ‘korvais’, ‘tadinginathoms’ and laya patterns that sprang from his fertile imagination. The quality of his playing and the content were absolutely unique and had not been heard earlier. Pillai started playing in various ‘bhajan’ congregations and gradually introduced ‘sollukkattus’ employed by mridangists in the Khanjira playing also. He was not satisfied with all this. He wanted to find a place for the khanjira in classical music concert and thus gain recognition for the instrument from stalwarts. He traveled to Thanjavur, considered the Musical capital of those times and proceeded to meet the doyen among percussionists Narayanswamy Appa. He requested Appa to provide him an opportunity to present his prowess on the new vadya. He was provided an opportunity the next day evening when he was asked to play on the Khanjira for bhajan rendered by a large gathering of bhagavathars. In the vast gathering, Manpoondia Pillai got a place in a corner and none in the crowd took any notice of him. However, when Pillai sprinkled a few drops of water on the inside of the Khanjira and fine- tuned it to the drone of the tanpura, it almost sounded like the mridangam and Appa and others immediately were drawn to the sound of the Khanjira. It was more so when Pillai started playing for the keerthanas and employed ‘sollu-kattus’ and beats that were unique and totally novel to those assembled. Appa then asked Pillai to play a solo on the Khanjira which he did. Initially about fifteen of those present started keeping tala but as the playing got more and more complex, all but Narayanaswami Appa gave up. Pillai not merely played complex sollu-kattus and the like, but played ‘nadai-bedham’ which was changing the ‘jaati’ while keeping the ‘kaala’ intact, a practice none had heard earlier. An overwhelmed Appa exclaimed that if Khanjira could be played thus, even mridangam would become redundant. He foretold that Manpoondia Pillai would become a world-renowned maha vidwan, presented him with a shawl of honour and an amount of Rupees ten, feasted him and bade him farewell with his blessings. This was a sort of an arangetram of the Khanjari. Thus started the journey of Mampoondia Pillai towards greatness and also the journey of the Khanjira towards becoming an instrument for Carnatic classical music concerts.

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