The khanjira is a popular percussion instrument in Carnatic concerts. A frame drum – with a membrane mounted on a wooden frame – it belongs to the tambourine family. The circular frame is made from the wood of the jackfruit tree. Between 7 and 9 inches in width and 2 to 4 inches in depth, it is covered on one side with a drumhead traditionally made of the skin of the monitor lizard, while the other side is left open. The frame has a single slit which contains three or four small metal discs – often old coins – that jingle when the khanjira is played.
Primarily a upa-pakkavadya – supporting instrument for the mridanga, the khanjira has been in vogue since the 1880s. It was introduced in classical music during the 1930s. It is quite difficult to play as it is a single-hand percussion instrument required to produce intricate rhythms. It is normally played with the palm and fingers of the right hand, while the left hand supports the drum. The fingertips of the left hand are used to bend the pitch by applying pressure near the outer rim. It is not tuned to any particular pitch, unlike the mridanga.
Normally, without tuning, the khanjira has a very high pitched sound. To produce a good bass sound, the performer reduces the tension of the drumhead by sprinkling water on the inside of the instrument. This process is repeated during a concert to maintain good sound. However, if the instrument is too moist, it will have a dead tone, requiring 5-10 minutes to dry. The tone is also affected by external temperature and moisture. Khanjira artists usually carry a couple of khanjiras so that they can keep at least one in perfectly tuned condition at any given time.
The credit for making the khanjira a concertworthy instrument goes to the versatile laya vidwan Pudukottai Manpoondia Pillai. His versatility in playing percussion instruments, his brilliant fingering techniques in playing the khanjira to meet the varied demands of a concert, and the tone and rhythm he developed on the instrument are proverbial. During his lifetime, he had no equal. His proteges included Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai and Palani Subramania Pillai, adept in playing the mridanga and the khanjira. Other famous khanjira artists.
The kutcheri circuit now include B.S. Purushotham, N. Ganesh Kumar, Latha Ramachar, N. Amrit, Sreesundar Kumar and Anirudh Athreya. V. Selvaganesh has given the khanjira an international status by playing with well known fusion groups. Though the khanjira is now popular in Carnatic kutcheri-s and fusion concerts, its manufacturing has been affected by the ban on the sale of the skin of the monitor lizard which is now an endangered species in India. Khanjira-s are also made with goat skin. The ‘synthetic skin’ khanjira which is gaining in popularity, will of the past included G. Harishankar, V. Nagarajan, and H.P. Ramachar. Well known khanjira vidwans in probably be the frame drum of the future.