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The growing cult of Indian handpan players

A small community has grown around handpans, which emit a rare combination of drum-like rhythms and bell-like melodies

Valeriy Frolov performs on the handpan
Valeriy Frolov performs on the handpan

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Valeriy Frolov could pass for any Goa musician. Dressed in harem pants, the young Ukrainian hops from gig to gig, playing ethno-fusion music in the boho cafes of Arambol. What sets him apart from others is the UFO-shaped instrument on his lap. Its sound casts a spell on the visitors. They get up from their tables and dash towards Frolov when the music’s over, praising and probing what they just heard. “It blows their mind,” he says.

Invented in 2000, a handpan is a musical instrument that emits a rare combination of drum-like rhythms and bell-like melodies. Arthur Fernandes, a music therapist from Pune, thinks of its sound as “holistic medication.” He claims every acoustic instrument can sound therapeutic, but a handpan’s design makes it more special. “Because of the dome-like shape, a resonance is created inside it every time it’s tapped,” he explains. The resulting sound lasts longer and reverberates in the air. “It can feel very soothing and peaceful,” he says. “People don’t realise what happens within their body when they listen to it. But the way the oxygen, the blood and the electricity move, it provokes the nervous system to release happy hormones.”

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Vaibhav Chaturvedi got an inkling of this when he started playing the djembe. As a CA aspirant in Noida, it eased his exam anxiety. But he realised “the actual power of music” only when he discovered the handpan. After spotting it on Youtube, he began reading about it and stumbled upon a community of 20-odd people with handpans in India. In 2017, he joined them for a jam session in Goa, and his life was never the same again. “It was a different world. These people thought about music differently—as a means to reduce stress,” he says. “My thinking changed a lot; I left my studies and am a full-time instrumentalist now.”

The Indian handpan community has expanded over the years. Currently, it has more than a hundred members across the country. They hold small gatherings on a regular basis in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Bengaluru and Hyderabad.

As a ritual, all of them gather once a year in Goa, for three days, to jam, meditate and bond over the instrument. “Handpan really attracts non-musicians because you don’t require any training to play it,” says Chaturvedi. The notes are already tuned to one scale, which means it’s impossible for it to sound out of tune. “It just demands a connection, and you can play it as you want.”

The ease of playing a handpan certainly adds to its allure. According to Ashish Kasbe, former music therapist at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai, another unique aspect is its frequency range. Unlike conventional instruments, each note on a handpan has three frequencies. The second frequency is half the length of the first, and the third frequency is one-third the first. “The brain works in frequencies and likes structures,” explains Kasbe. “Since a handpan gives us structural frequencies, the brain enjoys it and instructs the body to release tension. Your muscle, blood pressure and heart rate relaxes, and you feel safe.”

These aspects would have made a handpan an exceptionally easy sell—if it wasn’t for its price. It costs upwards of 1 lakh (ten times more than an acoustic guitar). The amount accounts for the strenuous work that goes into developing the instrument. It is shaped, hammered and tuned by hand, and each piece can take up to a month to make.

When Vikram Shastri, a music composer from Mumbai, discovered the handpan in 2012, there were only five makers of the instrument in the world. Due to high demand and limited supply, they all had long waiting lists—up to several years. Besides, Shastri couldn’t afford it in the first place. “The pull for me was so big that I decided to make it on my own,” he says. With some barrels, metal sheets and internet guides, he started to teach himself how to build the instrument from scratch. It took him seven years to master the craft, and today his company, Mantra Handpans, is one of four handpan manufacturers in India.

At the annual Goa gathering (held last in February 2021), he arrives with a variety of handpans for new members to try out. Each model has a distinct scale, and each scale has a distinct character. Generally, major scales are uplifting or positive, minor scales are intense or melancholic and some scales which fall in between can sound mystic or exotic. These pre-tuned scales make the instrument desirable for non-musicians, but professional musicians sometimes disparage it. When instruments such as the guitar or piano are played alongside the handpan, they have to align with its tonality, and after a while, the music can sound monotonous.

Frolov is not dissuaded by these limitations. He works around them by playing multiple handpans simultaneously and creating smart combinations of notes. The way he sees it, a handpan’s charm lies in its novelty, and not spirituality. “It’s a new sound, a new vibration,” he says. When people hear it for the first time, they find it unreal, they call it the ‘magic sound.’ But I listen to it every day, and it’s as ordinary as a guitar to me now.”

In Goa, it’s easy to find gigs. “You see a restaurant, talk to the manager for 10 minutes and you have it,” he says. With his band, Heartbeatz Collective, he performs three nights a week. And every now and then, one more visitor discovers the magic sound.

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