The Pakhawaj: resonations of Dhrupad

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

The mother of all North Indian drums, the pakhawaj is also known as the mridang, the generic word for any barrel-shaped drum. A two-headed drum descended from the much older South Indian mridangam, it produces a deeper, more resonant tone than the more popular tabla. The pakhawaj was originally made of clay but now it is more commonly made of wood, with two parchment heads each tuned to a different pitch. It is tuned, like the tabla, by knocking the wooden side-blocks into place. A tuning hammer is also used to alter the pitch on the treble side of the drum.

The pakhawaj is the usual percussive accompaniment for Dhrupad music, including whether vocal, veena or the bass sitar known as surbahar - as its low, mellow tone and rich harmonics are ideally suited to pure, less heavily ornamented classical styles. It was also used for the accompaniment of the rabaab, a predecessor of the sarod.

The pakhawaj was also the mainstay of a temple genre of song known as haveli sangeet and is the main percussion accompaniment for Odissi dance. At one time it was also the preferred percussion accompaniment for kathak dance too, but gradually waned as the tabla grew in popularity (however many kathak dancers are now reverting to the pakhawaj).

It is played by being placed on a cushion in front of the percussionist who usually sits cross-legged and plays the treble head (which looks almost identical to the tabla), with the dominant hand. This head is covered with a paste of boiled rice, manganese dust or iron filings mixed with tamarind juice. The larger bass side is covered with a paste of wheat flour. Unlike the tabla, these paste centres have to be stripped and reapplied, freshly, for each performance.

It is this coverage, the application of which is an art in itself that gives the pakhawaj bass an exceptionally rich and resonant texture. The pakhawaj bass-side is played using the whole palm of the hand as opposed to just using the fingers but the treble face of the drum is hit using different fingers and strokes to produce different sounds. As with the tabla, pakhawaj rhythms are also identified by syllables known as bols.


Listen to the music | Leading young pakhawaj exponent Sukhad Munde accompanies master Dhrupad vocalist Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar on the morning Raag Ahir Bhairav, live from Darbar Festival 2018.

Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia. 

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