The word “Ektara” translates into English as “one-string” – which is no coincidence. It is one of the many musical instruments used in the folk or devotional music of India, that makes use of an individual steel string tightened over the length of a long neck made of bamboo. This is different to a more familiar musical instrument, the sitar, which has many strings and is made of wood. The ektara is considered to be a contender for the oldest stringed musical instrument in the Indian subcontinent.
The body of the ektara is a wooden bowl that can be covered with skin. This gives the ektara a resonant sound, which players make use of when playing it as a drone instrument to provide rhythm. But it can also be used to lead melodies, separating it from similar wooden folk instruments like the Tanpura and Tumbi from other regions of India. It’s versatility allows it to take on both roles that those instruments provide (drone and rhythm). It’s also worth noting that these instruments (tanpura/tumbi) are not made from bamboo, but are constructed with the skin of a gourd.
When playing an ektara, the instrument is held with the gourd in one hand, and the neck supported by the other. The string is plucked with the finger. Some players may hit the gourd or body of the instrument with their palm to add a percussive element to the performance. Some even hold bells while they play for variation and additional musical elements.
There are two main variations of the ektara – one is a smaller instrument intended for playing melodies, and one that is larger. The larger has a different neck; instead of being one straight block of bamboo or wood like a traditional lute or guitar, it’s split into two, attached on either side of the bowl to form a triangle, which the string is stretched through the middle of. With this particular version, squeezing the sides of the neck with the hand lowers the string’s pitch.
The One-string musical instrument in Traditional Music
Traditionally, the ektara would be used to accompany folk songs or religious poetry, particularly in Hindu, Sufi and Baul cultures. However, there are other examples of a single string instrument used in religious practices across the Indian Subcontinent. Other folk instruments include the aforementioned tumbi, which has a place in traditions across Punjab.
Earlier, recitations of the holy text of Gurbani were performed with this musical instrument. Performances of the bani of Kabir often use this instrument. This body of text has been adopted in sufi music, Guru Granth Sahib and Hindu bhajans.
The Ektara in Modern Music
Despite its ancient heritage, the ektara (and similar single stringed instruments) are still heard in modern songs. In fact, Missy Elliott’s 2001 superhit “Get Ur Freak On” features a sample of a punjabi tumbi as the main instrumental hook. The ektara is featured in contemporary songs from artists like Kailash Kher (Indian performer singing Sufi songs, Bhajans) and Shankar Mahadevan.
The Ektara instrument, while being traditional, has found a way to survive through this electronic age.
1. What religions traditionally make use of the ektara?
The ektara is typically used in Islam, specifically in the Sufi form of Islamic mysticism. It’s also present in the music of the Bauls from Bengal. Lastly, sometimes, it’s played alongside Sikh Kirtan.
2. Who is the best ektara player?
Arguably the most famous contemporary ektara player is Saieen Zahoor Ahmed, a preeminent and award-winning Sufi musician. His ektara/tumbi is particularly recognisable because of its three strings.
3. What does an ektara sound like?
The ektara has a very unique and recognisable sound. It has a bassy, resonating hum that allows the instrument to serve as a droning underscore to a melody, but also has enough versatility to lead a melody line by varying the string’s pitches. The sound of an ekara is unmistakable.