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While the guitars and trombones of the world might amuse us plenty, there’s something about the rustic tumbi that the western music doesn’t quite match. Here’s a look at some artistes from the region who haven’t lost touch with their love for the single-string instrument.

chandigarh Updated: Feb 20, 2014 10:39 IST
Mehakdeep Grewal
Mehakdeep Grewal
Hindustan Times

Almost four decades ago, Tumbi used to be one of the most prized possessions of folk singers, for it gave impetus to the rhythm and melody to their high-scale vocals.

A modern, handy, singlestring instrument, tumbi was introduced to the traditional music world by Punjabi folk singer Lal Chand Yamla Jatt in the 1970s. Today, the very instrument that once struck chords at all musical gatherings, is losing its impact and, needless to say, its presence.

While technology and western instruments have taken over tumbi’s place in the world of music, HT City goes back in time and traces artistes from the region who never surrendered the instrument to the hands of modernisation; they stuck to their rustic, self-made tumbis and continue to play it today with the same fervour.

Jagdish Manak, 52, Sunam

Jagdish, who owes his existence to the instrument, says, “I derive my strength from the tumbi; it has accompanied me during the darkest of my days, when all that life had to offer was poverty and hurdles.”

“In my blues, I saw a rainbow when every time I picked up the tumbi,” he adds. artiste, who discovered his love for tumbi at the age of 13 during his stay with his maternal uncle, says, "I used to make my own tumbis with dry gourds. I used to play them then, rearing the cattle in and around the fields."

Jagdish then went on to receive formal training from a folk singer in Sunam village. For almost two decades, he accompanied his teacher to marriage gatherings and fairs.

An artiste’s talent indeed is chiseled through hardships. Such was Jagdish’s case — in order to earn his bread and butter, Jagdish had to pedal a rickshaw through the day. As the night set in, the tumbi used to be his constant companion.

Recalling his days of struggle, Jagdish says, “There were days when even one meal of the day wasn’t a surety. Then, courtesy the tumbi, I got the opportunity to taste international cuisines, as I got to travel many parts of the world to perform for international delegates.”

Today, Jagdish is serving in the Punjab Police as a havaldar. “It’s the tumbi that got me a government job, and family. Both my children have learnt to play this magical instrument.”

Jagdish also taught Salman Khan to pluck his favourite instrument’s strings when the actor was shooting for Bollywood movie Bodyguard in Bahadurgarh Fort.

Vijay Yamla Jatt, 26, Ludhiana

Genetically blessed, the grandson of the founder of tumbi, Vijay shot to fame at the age of 12. “Instead of toys, my grandfather gave me the tumbi to play with when I was three; since then, there’s been no looking back,” recalls he. of the youngest in the club of tumbi players, Vijay made the country and the tumbi fraternity proud in 2009 when he bagged second position in the single string competition at Delphic Games, held in South Korea. Participants from 56 countries participated in the event.

The inventor’s grandson shares the story behind tumbi’s birth: “Music has been in my family for generations — my grandfather used to play the sarangi and other heavy string instruments. So, once when he was travelling with his instrument bag, he realized how heavy and inconvenient these instruments are to carry around. Hence, came about the idea of making an instrument that was melodious-yet-handy. He dried up a gourd and put a stick through it, attached a string and for the base used goat leather. And the tumbi was born!”

He adds that after his grandfather’s maiden creation, many modifications were made by artistes. “Some made the tumbi using a coconut shell, while some others used steel bowls. However, the oldest and the most preferred option remains dried gourd.”

Vijay has been teaching Tumbi across government colleges in the state. He says, “My entire education was sponsored by my tumbi; my parents never had to spend on me. I started earning through my performances during school days.”

Vijay has recently shot an episode on the lines of the Coke Studio series, where he has extensively used folk instruments. Presently, he is waiting for the show to air, besides working at the Punjabi University as a junior programme assistant.

Jagatram Lalka, 62, Lah Majri village (near Ambala)

Jagatram, whose vocals and tumbi produced unparalleled sound waves, still has the power to reach out to a gathering of hundreds without the help of a microphone. He shares his saga — from performing at village fairs to performing for former Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi."Tumbi, though a singlestring instrument, reaches scales that most other instruments can’t. There was a time when singers used to perform epic love stories and folklores with their tumbis for many days at a stretch," recalls Jagatram.

He, however, rues the decline of the instrument. “After insurgency hit the state, tumbi lost its sheen; it could not find its way back. Later, with the introduction of western instruments, it lost its place — neither could singers scale those high notes that are required to be pitched with the tumbi, nor could old tumbi artistes fuse their instrument with modern orchestras.”

Jagatram took formal training from Saudagar Ram of Shahbad and later from Bhuta Ram, before performing for the radio and Doordarshan. He is known for Mirza, Puran Bhagat, Dulla Bhatti and other folk renditions.
He says, “When I started performing, I used to get paid only Re 1. There was a time we used to be invited to perform at all weddings and other important occasions. Now, the audience has lost appetite for folklores.”

Jagatram, who teaches the tumbi to children in his village, adds, “It’s important that the youth learns this instrument and treasures this art form. They are only a handful of tumbi players left in the state. Children must learn from them before the art dies out.”

First Published: Feb 20, 2014 10:33 IST