Dilruba / Esraj F.A.Q.s (Frequently Asked Questions)




Dilruba or esraj, which one should I get?

You only have a certain budget and you want to know whether to get a dilruba or an esraj.  Well the simple answer is that it really does not make much of a difference.  You will probably find that just as flute players have multiple bansuris of different sizes to suite different keys, and tabla players have multiple tablas for a similar purpose; you will probably find that this is not going to be your only purchase, but that it is merely your first purchase.  You will probably find that before too long you have purchased both dilrubas, and esrajs.  This is simply to allow you to have different instruments in different keys that allow you to handle the variety of solo and accompaniment jobs that fall your way.  You can get by with one instrument by switching out the first couple of strings; but this gets tiresome pretty quickly.

Ok so now you have modified your question to be "Which one should I get first".  Although I cannot pontificate as to which one you should go for, I will give you some information to help you decide.

First of all, there is very little difference between the sound, or the playing of the two instruments.  There is not really enough difference to give one a clear advantage, still there are a few pros and cons.  Let us go over them:

There is really only one "pro" of getting an esraj, but it is a big one.  The esraj is easily modified to become a tar-shehani.  The tar-shehani has a very distinctive sound quality that may be very useful to you in stage and recording.  Furthermore this modification is not permanent; you can put it on, or take it off at will.  Therefore, for just a small amount of extra money for the sound box attachment, you really are getting two instruments.

There are several cons of the esraj.  Since the resonator is smaller in the esraj as compared to the dilruba, the volume of the instrument is somewhat lower.  This places greater demands upon you when micing it for sound reinforcement.  Another disadvantage of the instrument is that the sympathetic strings attach directly to the pegs.  This is a much cruder arrangement than is found in the dilruba, and is often the source of minor problems.  Such problems can be a buzzing resulting from the string rattling against itself where it wraps around the peg.  The string can also rattle or bind against the neck or the last fret, if it wraps either too high or to low around the peg.  These are minor inconveniences, but they must be attended to if you have an esraj.

There are also pros and cons concerning buying a dilruba.  Let us look at these right now:

There are a few advantages to buying a dilruba.  The attachments of the sympathetic strings is more "pakka", and not nearly as crude as the esraj; therefore there are very few problems inherent to the design.  The dilruba also tends to be louder than the esraj.  This makes it a much easier to deal with in both recording as well as stage situations.

There seems to be only one disadvantage of the dilruba; tar-shehnai attachments are not available for them.

As a practical matter, the decision as to which one to buy is usually determined by availability and cost.  In other words, whatever you can find, and whatever you can afford, that is the one you are going to buy.


Who should I purchase it from?

That is impossible for me to say.  Dilrubas and esrajs are definitely not commodities; each one is unique.  A particular shop might have a good selection, good quality and reasonable prices now, but in six months it may only have junk.  All I can say is to look at the obvious things such as the reputation of the shop or maker and see whether you can establish some type of rapport with them.


Should I get it from the West or India?

A lot depends on where you are.  Obviously if you live in India, or even if you are planning to visit India, then purchasing it there is definitely the thing to do.  However, if you are living outside of India and are thinking of purchasing one from there by way of the internet, then obviously there are some concerns.  But on the other hand, purchasing from a non-Indian sources has concerns too.  Let us look much more closely at some of these factors:

There is only one advantage of purchasing from India by way of the internet; that advantage is cost.  You will pay substantially less money than purchasing instruments from non-Indian retailers.

However we must remember that there may be serious disadvantages associated with buying from India.  This process has been compared to "choosing a mail order bride, by looking at a picture of her sister."  Anything can go wrong.  If things do go wrong, then the shipping costs involved in sending instruments back and forth, can quickly erase any cost advantage.

There are many reasons why things can go wrong.  One common reason is because many unscrupulous retailers use international sales as an opportunity to unload poor quality instruments that they know the cannot otherwise sell.  Twenty years ago, this was the norm.  Fortunately these days it is less common.  The nature of globalisation (I generally do not like to use the term "globalisation".  It has become a euphemism for neo-imperialism) is such that retailers today are conscious of their international reputation.  If they want to keep selling their instruments in the international markets, they know that they must maintain a certain level of quality.

There is another reason why you may be hesitant to buy from form an Indian retailer from abroad.  This one is not a reflection of dishonest business practices, but is a reflection of fundamental differences in musical culture.

When you go into a music store in India, the instruments are generally in a somewhat unfinished state.  Invariably they are untuned, the strings are the wrong gauges, the frets are in the wrong positions, etc.  In India, when you purchase an instrument from a shop, there is seldom the expectation that you are going to walk out with it "as is".  It is a normal part of the negotiations to specify the finishing touches that you want done.  This is very different from the West, where instruments purchased from music stores are ready to go.

The reasons for the unfinished state of Indian instruments in the shops are varied.  Most of them result from valid technical, business, and musical considerations.  In general we can say that the stringing and tuning of Indian instruments is very much an individual thing.  Since the craftsmen have absolutely no idea who is going to purchase their instruments, or what their particular style may be, they just sort of get the instruments roughly "into the ballpark" and leave it that way.  We must remember that unknowns of stringing and tuning spill over into fret placements and jawari contours as well.  Therefore incorrect placement of frets on new esrajs / dilrubas and unfinished jawaris are common.

The result of all of this is that if you get your instrument directly form India, it will likely be in an unplayable state.  If you are a rank beginner you are in a quandary.  This is the time when you need the maximum knowledge and experience, yet this is the time of your life, when you know the least.  At this point you absolutely must have a good teacher to assist you in these practical details, otherwise you will be attempting to teach yourself on an instrument which may be completely unplayable.

This is where there can be advantages in dealing with non-Indian shops.  Many of the better shops in North America and Europe pride themselves on "tweaking" their instruments before they are sold.  They attend to all of these details before sending them out.  Furthermore, these shops are often the only reliable quality control step in the whole chain.  You may not see how many "dogs" they have had to quietly dispose of just so you can be certain that you get a decent instrument.

Now there is an obvious cost disadvantage to dealing with non-Indian retailers.  Their tweaking and quality control naturally adds to the price of the instruments.

This brings us to the bottom line.  If you are living outside of India, and you are not sure about your ability to "tweak" the instrument yourself, then you may be better off spending a little extra money and buying from a reliable non-Indian retailer.  However if you are confident in your ability to work on the instruments, then you will probably find that it is better to deal with Indian retailers.


Some esrajs have a resonator on the top; is this preferable?

It does slightly change the sound in a way that many people find pleasing.  However its influence is negligible when compared to more important considerations such as to the quality of the skin, the reinforcement pati (tasma), and the bridge.  Since its influence is minimal, you might be inclined to just consider it decoration.


Now that I have my dilruba/ esraj, how do I tune the strings?

see "Stringing and Tuning The Dilruba and Esraj"


I have a new instrument, but it seems that the frets are in the wrong position.  What do I do?

If you have a new instrument, then almost certainly your frets are in the wrong place.  But then if you move from a wet climate to a dry climate your frets are probably out of position.  Or if you go from dry season to wet season, your frets are probably in the wrong position.  Repositioning the frets is just part of the normal duties of owning a dilruba or esraj

The fact that the bridge rests upon taught skin has tremendous ramifications.  The strings will press the bridge down, while the tension from the skin will press the bridge up.  This system is in balance; but there are a number of things that will cause this balance to change.  Changing the pitch of the instrument changes the downward pressure exerted by the strings.  Changing the gauge of the strings also changes the downward pressure exerted by them.  But there can also be changes in the upward pressure from the skin.  For instance, changes in humidity affect the ability of the skin to exert an upward pressure against the bridge.  Age causes the skin to stretch, thus changing the skin's ability to exert an upward pressure.  Temperature also changes the skin's characteristics.

The bottom line is simple, as you own your instrument, there are any number of factors which will effect the precise position of the bridge.  Therefore, this will be reflected in the position of the frets.  These effects are most noticeable in the high pitch frets (e.g. high Sa, high Re, and high Ga).

Now that we realise that repositioning the frets is just part of owning a dilruba or esraj, the obvious question is how do we do it.  To begin with, your eyes will be of very little utility.  You must depend upon your ears.  If your ears tell you that a particular fret is off, then it probably is.  One word of warning; before you go messing around with the frets, you need to make sure that your strings are perfectly in tune.  If you have any doubt about your ability to hear the correct pitch, you can use an electronic tuner.  Remember that Sa, Ma, and Pa quite conveniently, are the same whether one is dealing with a tempered or untempered scale.  Therefore you can quite confidently uses an electronic tuner for your main playing strings without having to worry about the particulars of Indian intonation.


Should I move the Rishab fret or the Dhaivat fret whenever I want a komal Dha or komal Re?

If you are a rank beginner you might try this, but I don't really recommend it.  It is better to just do a little extra practice and get the correct "feel" as to placement of the fingers.  Remember, although the frets may look like the sitar's, they do not function in the same way.


Do I pull the string sideways to make a meend like one does with the sitar?

No, slide your fingers vertically like a sarangi.  Again, just because the frets look like a sitar's, they do not work in the same way.


What kind of rosin should I use?

This is generally a matter of taste, but most people prefere a dark sticky bass rosin.  See Rosin (A.K.A. Biroza, Biroja, Baroza) and Indian Bowed Instruments" for more information


Should I use oil on my fingers like sitar?

Generally yes, it does make things easier.  However in the case of the sitar, the oil is obligatory; in the case of the dilruba / esraj it is purely optional.  You will be able to tell from the feel whether you need it or not.

The use of oil on the strings does have some caveats on the dilruba / esraj.  The most important thing to remember is that you should never get any oil on the area that you bow.  If you do, then the oil will transfer to the bow, thus making your bowing unreliable.  As a practical matter, it is a good idea not to go above the Pancham in the upper octave.  Although you can easily hear the pitch and control it up to the upper Sa, this places your fingers in positions which are uncomfortably close to where you bow the string.

You must also remember that if you use oil, you must occasionally clean the strings, I prefer alcohol; but remember not to get any alcohol on the finish of your instrument or it will spoil the finish.


My bowing sucks, am I doing anything wrong?

This is the eternal question.

First look at your bow.  Is it properly "broken in".  New bows are notorious for being unresponsive.  Use a lot of rosin until the bow is broken in, then you can back off a bit.  Is the bow hair dirty?  If so, clean the hair.

Are your strings too heavy a gauge.  Many people like to use heavy gauges because it makes the instruments louder.  Unfortunately heavy strings make the instrument less responsive and harder to bow.

Is your rosin too hard.  The hard, light coloured rosins that many violinists use is generally too hard to work well for a dilruba or an esraj.  A softer bass rosin generally makes bowing easier.

After all of these points are considered, it brings us to the most common factor.  PRACTICE-PRACTICE-PRACTRICE!!!  Bowing is not easy and it takes a lot of practice, so have at it!!!



© 1998 - 2018 David and Chandrakantha Courtney

For comments, corrections, and suggestions, kindly contact David Courtney at [email protected]