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Title: Inde – Rajasthan, Musiciens professionnels populaires—Fanfare nagara kettledrums and shanai oboes; Nagarshi ensemble. Label: OCORA. Format: CD. Catalogue#: C 580044. Track: 12.


Contextual Associations

The nagara is a pair of kettledrum membranophones of the Indian subcontinent. It is historically and at present employed in several distinct domains of Indian life, from royal courts and religious shrines to folk dances and film music. In many of these domains it is used in conjunction with oboes (such as the sahnai; listen to audio #1) and horns, and is almost always played by male musicians. Nagara drummers are often considered specialists, and in some folk/tribal settings only members of certain castes play the instrument. Depending on the context, the nagara used come in a wide range of sizes with their bowl-shaped shells made of clay or metal. Unlike the nagara pictured here, generally the two units of the pair differ in size, sometimes significantly.


The shells of the nagara pictured and described here are each constructed from seven pieces of sheet metal (probably iron). (See detail #1.) The base of the shell is a shallow bowl about two inches deep pounded out from a single sheet of metal. The sidewalls of each shell consist of five overlapping wedge-shaped pieces of sheet metal riveted to one another, the bottom bowl, and the shell’s circular rim, which is made from a 1.5 inch wide band of sheet metal. The interior surface of the shell can be coated with a mixture of tree resin and vermillion (Dick et al, p. 564), though it is not possible to confirm that the drums pictured here have been treated in this way. A small hole at the bottom of the shell (detail #3) can be utilized for modifying the tension of the drumhead by pouring water through it. Each drum’s head is made from a circular hide (probably of ox or buffalo) the edge of which is rolled over upon itself (or possibly a flexible hoop of rawhide) to form a frame with a diameter that is slightly greater than that of the shell’s rim. Rawhide lacing is sewn around this hoop frame in a zigzag pattern (see detail #2), and then another very long length of rawhide lacing is used to connect this membrane hoop to a counterhoop, in the form of a ring made from twisted rawhide, on the bottom side of the bowl-shaped shell (detail #3). The drum maker creates an elaborate pattern of W- and X-lacing patterns that runs over and around a second rawhide counterhoop situated around the middle of the shell. Before the heads were attached, the metal shell was painted brown. After head attachment, the membrane hoop, the counterhoops, and the lacing were also painted brown. This gives the impression that the drum shell is made from clay rather than metal. Two wooden stick beaters are used to strike the drums (gallery #1).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Nagara, depending on their size and context of use, can be either mounted across the shoulders of a horse or camel, hung from the waist of the drummer, or rest on the ground in front of the performer. Usually the two drums in a pair vary in size, the larger of the two producing a lower pitch and a more resonant sound than the smaller one, as is the case with the instrument heard on audio #1 (the nagara pair pictured here does not produce sounds as contrastive as those heard on the clip). Typically, when played with the instrument resting on the ground, the larger drum rests on its side to the player’s left, while the smaller one is placed upright to the right (as seen in gallery #1). One beater is held in each hand of the performer.


Derived from the Middle Eastern naqqara (the same source as for the European nakers also found in this collection), the nagara was most likely introduced to the Indian subcontinent during Arab conquests in the 8th century CE. The place of the nagara in Indian court life was further strengthened during the Delhi Sultanate after 1192 CE, when it was incorporated into the naubat, or the palace ceremonial band. (Dick et al, p. 564) As the use of the naubat ensemble in the court waned in subsequent centuries, a new context for this tradition evolved at Muslim shrines, at which it can still be experienced today. When exactly the nagara began to be utilized in in folk/tribal contexts is unclear. Its use in Indian films since the middle of the 20th century is intended to conjure associations in the minds of the viewers with court, religious, or folk settings in a film’s storyline.

Bibliographic Citations

Arnold, Alison, ed. 2002. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 5. South Asia. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.

Dick, Alastair, Carol M. Babiracki, and Andrew Alter. 2014. “Nagara [naqqara, naghara, etc.]” GDMI v.3: 563-565.

Miner, Allyn. 2002. "Musical Instruments: Northern Area." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 5. South Asia. ed. Alison Arnold. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., pp. 331-349.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: South Asia

Nation: India

Formation: Indo-Aryan

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.11 membranophone--separate vessel drum, the single playing head encloses a body in the form of a vessel that is curvilinear or rectilinear in profile

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: pair of drums

Shell design: vessel with opening

Number and function of membranes: one, for sounding

Membrane design: framed with stiff woven hoop

Membrane attachment: framed membrane hoop laced to smaller-diameter ring counterhoop

Membrane tension control: none, tension set at time of manufacture

Sounding for membranophone: striking with two handheld beaters

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


10.2 in. diameter 7 in. height

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin
lacing - rawhide

Entry Author

Roger Vetter