Font Size
Return to Previous Page

Hand Drum
Hand Drum, 17th century
Black and gold lacquer on wood
10 x 3 3/4 inches (25.4 x 9.5 cm)
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Purchased with the Hollis Family Foundation Fund and with funds contributed by the Mary Livingston Griggs and Mary Griggs Burke Foundation, The Annenberg Foundation, Priscilla Grace, Colonel Stephen McCormick, the Honorable Ida Chen, Mr. and Mrs. Gary Graffman, Hannah L. and J. Welles Henderson, 2002
[ More Details ]

About This Drum

This lavishly decorated carved wood object is a small hand drum that was used in Buddhist ceremonies and traditional Japanese theater. The lacquer artist created a bold design of pear leaves and fruit in varying shades of gold against a deep black background. The fruit and veins of the leaves are outlined in thin gold lines and filled in with a light dusting of gold powder called makie-e (ma-KI-ee), or "sprinkled picture." In some places, the powder is applied densely to give a deep gold color, and in other places more sparsely, showing a soft reddish glow. The designs crowd the surface of the drum, making it seem much larger than it actually is. Originally, this drum had two circular drumheads made from horsehide pulled tightly against the ends by long cords. Players would hold the drum in their left hand with one end pressed against their right shoulder and strike the opposite end with their right hand. The horsehide drumheads and linen cords of this drum wore away long ago. The wooden drum itself has been protected from decay by its surface covering of lacquer, which was made from the sap of the Japanese Rhus vernicifera (lacquer) tree. Once refined to remove impurities, black color was added to the sap, and then it was applied to the wood surface in many thin layers. Just before the final layer was dry, the artist set in the gold decorations. Once dry, lacquer is resistant to water, insects, and other damaging effects, and gives the drum an elegant, shiny surface.

Japanese Theater

Drums of this type were used in two different kinds of traditional Japanese theater.

Nō is a classical Japanese theater art developed in the fourteenth century combining dance, drama, music, and poetry into a highly stylized stage art. Nō plays are short, plotless, and tragic in mood. The actors speak and move extremely slowly. Nō performances consist of a modest stage and present a main character called shite, a few supporting characters, a chorus, and instrumentalists. All the elements of the stage work in unity without one dominating the others. Today, Nō is not a popular theater art among the Japanese, yet its supporters are enthusiastic and its performers are highly trained, busy entertaining and teaching throughout the country. Approximately 1,500 actors make their living largely through performing and teaching Nō.

Kabuki is a major Japanese urban commercial theater art, founded in the early seventeenth century. In contrast to Nō, Kabuki performers present more action on the stage. Kabuki was created by a woman named Okuni; however, as in Nō, all the roles, male and female, are performed by male actors. Performers of Kabuki depend on a popular audience so they constantly create plays with new stories, music, characters, and costumes to meet the demands of the times. In Kabuki the plot is heavily emphasized, as well as the conflicts between characters. Musical instruments like this hand drum are played on stage and offstage along with percussion, string instruments, and flutes. The magnificent blend of movement, music, and drama is still recognized as one of the world’s great theatrical traditions.

This object is included in Learning from Asian Art: Japan, a teaching kit developed by the Division of Education and made possible by a grant from the Freeman Foundation of New York and Stowe, Vermont.

Return to Previous Page