Bulbul tarang, shahi baaja, benjo. Rarely has an instrument had so many names as vivid as the music it produces.

The bulbul tarang, whose origins can possibly be traced to the Japanese taishogoto, was widely used in Indian film music, bhajans, ghazals, qawwalis and mehfils in the 1950s through the 1970s. Its popularity had many reasons. This string instrument was easy to learn the basics of music on, it was affordable and it served as a gateway for youngsters entering the field of instrumental music. A little 10-page booklet came with it. In it were musical notations of popular movie songs as number sequences mapped to the keys of the instrument.

It is believed that the bulbul tarang was a favourite instrument of composer RD Burman, who used it extensively in his compositions. In parallel, there were ustads or exponents who tried to turn it into a classical solo instrument.

Time was not kind to the bulbul tarang. As music and musical instruments changed (via keyboards, organs and synthesizers) and as recording studios evolved (via loops, editing software and precise recordings), the sounds of most instruments got ported to the keyboard and software. Live recordings no longer needed instruments like the bulbul tarang. By the 1990s, an instrument that had been available in most musical stores across India started vanishing from their shelves. It was rare to find both the instrument and music lovers who wanted to play it.


If it managed to survive at all, it was because of a set of musicians and instrument-makers who continued to love its ability to sing like a bird and its charm, which set it apart from pure classical instruments like sitar and sarod. Today, it is no longer in the mainstream. Its live performances are rare, limited to a few geographies and genres such as bhajans and ghazals. Rarely is it played in South India and finding good musicians who can work it is nearly impossible. The young today are more fascinated with the keyboard, guitar or violin, and the purists prefer the sitar, sarod or santoor.

Perfecting the art

How does one play this instrument and what do musicians today think of it?

I am an amateur bulbul tarang player and have performed on a few stages over the past few years. In this period, I have gained several insights. The bulbul tarang is difficult to play if one has not picked it up at an early age or is predominantly right-handed. The primary challenge is that it can only be played when one strikes the string and depresses the key at the same time. It demands a combination of rhythmic striker strokes and subtle key movements, within and across, to produce note transitions, modulations, and the flow and nuances of an Indian song, especially if it is based on a classical raga. The instrument is by design not meant for classical style of play since, as in a sitar, it cannot do meends (smooth glides). What also makes it tough is that the strings cannot be plucked and stretched.

TP Vivek on vocals and Ullas Ponnadi on bulbul tarang. Courtesy: Ullas Ponnadi.

Purushothama Kamath, a senior musician living in Fort Kochi, agrees with my assessment. Among the musicians who can play the bulbul tarang very well, he believes a serious limitation of the instrument is that it cannot produce polyphonic melodies.

Rajendra Naik, an exponent of the bulbul tarang and a pioneer of sorts, has been perfecting the instrument for classical rendition for the past 25 years. He now has a repertoire that consists of popular Hindustani classical ragas as well as a few hundred pieces based on classical music. Being trained in the sitar, he is able to adapt those learnings to the bulbul tarang while maintaining its unique identity. A popular artist who performs across India and the United States, he has teamed up with a good manufacturer in Mumbai to create a custom instrument he calls the “Pratham Tarang”.

In the month of May, Naik came to Kerala to perform a series of events organised by Sanu Satyam, who runs an NGO called Petals Global Foundation, and Vivek TP, an accomplished Hindustani vocalist. Naik was accompanied on the tabla by Retnasree Iyer, a recipient of the Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi award.

Rajendra Naik performs on the Pratham tarang. Courtesy: Rajendra Naik.

During his tour, I had the good fortune of learning from Naik the nuances of the instrument and was able to perform small sections, along with Vivek and Iyer, at the events. Seeing the success of the events, possibly the only solo bulbul tarang concerts in Kerala, I have confidence it has potential as a solo instrument.

What’s next?

Does that mean it can go mainstream? Will we ever find a Vilayat Khan or an Amjad Ali Khan who can mould the instrument and create from it not just the sound of a chirping bird but the smooth flow of a Hindustani classical raga in all its flavours and mathematical structures, thus taking the audience to a sublime level? Will it then emerge stronger?

History is always a great way to learn and telescope into the future. A few decades ago, no one played classical music on the guitar, mandolin or saxophone. Today many do. Sitar itself was refined and modified to play the Gayaki style. And we all know how the santoor went mainstream after intense research by Shiv Kumar Sharma. Even the mouth organ and melodica have been incorporated by some into the Hindustani classical canon.

Purushothama Kamath. Courtesy: Ullas Ponnadi.

If these are any guide, I have no doubt that the bulbul tarang, or its more refined cousin pratham tarang, will find a future. But things do not happen overnight. For change to come, we need passionate musicians who are willing to experiment, audiences who encourage that experimentation, senior musicians and critics who can vouch for its authenticity, and eventually stages that attract crowds and sponsors alike.

Once that magical mixture is in place, there will be no holding back the bulbul tarang. For the bulbul tarang must sing and keep singing, exploring the depths of music and its intricate formations. It would be a tragedy if it meets the fate of a caged parrot that can only imitate and not create. Creation needs freedom that can soar up in the sky. Only then can it produce beautiful experiences, original and deep from within the heart.