This film is held by the BFI (ID: 20041).


India' s most popular instruments.

Title card: 'Musical Instruments of India' over picture of instruments. Rolling script: 'Part of the great heritage of India is the rich variety of her musical instruments. There are more than 500 different sorts. Of these 300 are drums. Many of them are immemorially ancient in design and have deep religious significance. They are classified into three groups - string, wind and percussion - and each of these is again divided into many varieties'. Studio shot of Indian instruments; 'each one has its own special, and often extremely difficult, technique'. Focus on the saraswati veena, displayed for the camera and then played by one of the 'best-known exponents' who is accompanied by another musician playing the same instrument. The commentary explains that the saraswati veena is used primarily in southern India and that 'it is the key instrument because Indian music is the music of tones smaller than half tones, so called micro-tones'. Focus on the senai, which is displayed for the camera and then featured in a group performance. The commentary explains that it is commonly featured in wedding ceremonies and that 'in spite of its simple appearance it is an extremely difficult instrument to play'. Focus on the sursagar, which is displayed for the camera and then featured in a solo performance 'played by an expert'. The commentary states that this comparatively modern instrument 'plays its own solo and own accompaniments'. Focus in the sitar, which is displayed for the camera and then featured in performance by a 'master', who is accompanied by a tabla player. The commentary outlines the history of the sitar, which 'to the outside world is the Indian instrument'. It is northern India's equivalent of the saraswati veena and is capable of expressing various moods. Focus on the tabla and baya, which are both shown being tuned and then being played by 'one of the most famous tabla players in India'. The commentary explains the role of these instruments in providing 'underlying rhythm', and that they can also be performed solo. Credits.



In 1943 the Film Advisory Board (FAB), the body that had been created to oversee the production of wartime documentaries in India, was dissolved and Information Films of India (IFI) was created in its stead. Under this new organisation the Government of India assumed full responsibility for propaganda films. In addition, the government implemented the Defence of India Rule 44A, effective from September 1943, which required that every cinema in India show at least 2000 feet of government ‘approved’ film at each performance. To ensure that the IFI’s films reached as wide an audience as possible they were issued in separate English, Hindustani, Bengali, Tamil and Telugu versions (‘Note for Cut Motion’). This closer governmental control of film production was the response to two main threats: the unrest in the sub-continent caused by the nationalist Quit India movement, and the growing seriousness of the war in South-East Asia (Garga, 2007, 97).

Musical Instruments of India was produced by the head of the IFI, the Indian director Ezra Mir. During his period in charge, Mir increasingly steered the IFI documentary output away from military propaganda towards films that reflected the socio-economic and cultural life of Indian people (Garga, 2007, 108-09).  It was his belief that as Indians approached independence – which by 1943 was generally acknowledged as being ‘inevitable’ (Brown, 1994, 328) – they needed to be made aware of their heritage and of their arts (Garga, 2007, 108-09). The Indian government supported Mir’s aims. In March 1944, the Hon. Sir Syed Sultan Ahmed stated that ‘I believe this is the right line and this is why people are beginning to look forward to our films instead of groaning when the title is screened’ (Ahmed). Indian audiences had shunned IFI’s military films and industry critics had condemned them; in contrast Mir’s documentaries of national life gained greater popularity and acclaim (Garga, 2007, 110-11; Holmes, 1946, 44).

The constitution of IFI began to reflect these national interests. Winifred Holmes, a British filmmaker who at times worked for the organisation, noted that it ‘became more and more all-Indian during its years of growth’ (Holmes, 1946, 43). Musical Instruments of India is indicative of this change: all of its credited production team are Indian. It is edited by Pratap Parmar, one of the ‘mainstays’ of FAB and IFI (Garga, 2007, 43), and it is directed by Modhu Bose, who enjoyed a long career in Indian cinema as an actor and director, and who was married to the famous actress Sadhona Bose. An uncredited Englishman speaks the English-language commentary, however.

Mir’s productions received interest from abroad. Musical Instruments of India was one of several IFI films about Indian arts and culture that were sent to America and shown at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Walt Disney remarked that ‘These films are tremendously interesting . . . it is films like these that create a better understanding and stimulate interest in other cultures’ (Garga, 2007, 110). Nevertheless, the IFI’s films of this period were primarily aimed at Indian audiences: by 1944 only a handful of IFI’s films were being distributed non-theatrically in Britain, and none were receiving a commercial release (Brock).



Various factors work together to make Musical Instruments of India a markedly different and more successful film than earlier FAB and IFI productions. Most of the earlier films had complicated propaganda aims, addressing both the War and (less overtly) India’s political situation; they were further complicated by being aimed at diverse audiences in India, Britain, the USA and other Allied countries (Woods, 2001, 298).

With its direct ambition of outlining some of the most widely used musical instruments in India, this film has none of the confusion of the earlier productions. The filmmakers make the most of their opportunity: this is a simple but elegant film. It is consistent in approach: the various instruments are all filmed in the same studio; they are all lit in the same way, with hard lighting that casts bold shadows on the studio wall behind them; and they are all treated in the same manner, with a general introduction to the instrument followed by a well-recorded musical performance. It is notable that this film gives more detailed and specific credits than earlier FAB or IFI productions, with K. Prabhakar being responsible for photography and Balkrishna Shah being responsible for sound.

The filmmakers provide a setting in which the instruments and the musicians can be treated with great respect. The film evolves at a measured pace, each instrument is filmed in great detail and from a number of angles. The commentary is provided with the appropriate images and the appropriate amount of time in which to explore the history of each instrument as well as their construction. There is regard here for India’s culture (we learn that the sitar has evolved over a period of 700 years, and that the drumhead of the tabla is made with goatskin) and for its craftsmanship (the saraswati veena and the sitar are both ‘beautifully carved’). Each instrument is highlighted with the performance of a short piece of music. Here the commentary respectfully withdraws, having made clear that we are hearing skilled exponents (the sanai is ‘an extremely difficult instrument to play’; the sursagaris ‘played by an expert’; the sitar is played with the ‘delicate fingers of a master’). These performances begin with camerawork that focuses on the featured instrument, before moving to medium shots that reveal the master players.

Musical Instruments of India appears to be primarily concerned with fulfilling Ezra Mir’s aim of informing Indians about their traditions and their arts. It begins with a rolling title, which boasts that a ‘rich variety’ of instruments is part of the ‘heritage of India’, and the film informs Indians from around the country about their different musical heritages (the commentary states that the saraswati veena is the principal stringed instrument of southern India, while the sitar fulfils this role in the north). However, the English-language commentary of the film at times gives the impression of being addressed to audiences beyond the sub-continent. The music is explained in relation to the western scale (‘Indian music is the music of tones smaller than half tones, so called micro-tones’); and the viewer is informed of the fame and regard that the musicians have within India (‘best-known exponent’; ‘one of the most famous tabla players’), information that would presumably not have been necessary for the home audience. Nevertheless, one of the factors that differentiates films such as Musical Instruments of India from the FAB and IFI films that address the War or contemporary political events, is that they are not concerned with fulfilling different propaganda aims for different audiences. Rather, with independence approaching, these films began to explore the sub-continent’s rich cultural heritage.

Richard Osborne (July 2010)


Works Cited

Ahmed, Hon. Sir Syed Sultan, ‘Speech at the Meeting of the Publicity Advisory Committee, Delhi, 11 March 1944’, in Extract from “Indian Information”, Vol. 14, No. 134, April 1st 1944. [document in India Office materials held at the British Library: File: L/I/1/692 ‘Films – India’].

Brock, R.W. (India Section, Far East Division), letter to A.H. Joyce (India Office, Whitehall, 26 February 1945) [document in India Office materials held at the British Library. File: L/I/1/692 ‘Films-India’].

Brown, Judith M., Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Garga, B.D., From Raj to Swaraj: The Non-fiction Film in India (New Delhi: Penguin, 2007).

Holmes, Winifred, ‘Postscript to India. An account of the work of Information Films of India’, Sight and Sound, 15/58 (1 July 1946), 43-45.

‘Note for Cut Motion on 15th March 1944: Defence of India Rule 44A’ [document in India Office materials held at the British Library. File: L/I/1/686 ‘Films for Publicity’].

Woods, Philip, ‘From Shaw to Shantaram’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 21/3 (August 2001), 293-308.




Technical Data

Running Time:
10 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film
431 ft

Production Credits

Production Company
Films Division, Government of India





Production Organisations