Disclaimer: Tabla is considered to be one of the most difficult percussion instruments in the world, not only because of the playing technique required, but also due to its music's rich and complex rhythmic system. Here we attempt to provide an understanding of the basics. This primer is by no means exhaustive.
What is Tabla?
Tabla is a versatile percussion instrument that is widely used in north Indian classical music, also known as Hindustani music, devotional music, folk music and popular music. Its music involves skillfully composed rhythmic patterns, intriguing compositions and complex beat structures. It has gained popularity around the world for its range of sounds and rhythmic possibilities.
Tabla is comprised of two drums: a treble drum called daya and bass drum called baya. The tabla is comprised of two drums, one played by each hand. Each drum consists of a hollow interior covered with a leather surface. The larger of the two on which low, bass tones are produced, is the baya. The smaller drum is the daya, on which numerous tones can be produced at a fast pace with the ﬁngertips. The beauty and essence of tabla-playing lies in the harmonious balance between the daya and baya. A unique characteristic of the drum is that both components can be tuned to be pitch-perfect, meaning that tabla players not only play with rhythm, but also with tone.
Tabla as a Language
While tabla is a percussive instrument, it is also an oral tradition. Everything that can be played on tabla can be spoken; in fact, everything that is to be played must first be spoken. Speaking the language of tabla is itself an art. A good tabla player's vocal recitation, known as padhant, should mimic the exacts sounds that would be elicited from playing the same composition.
The words of tabla, known as bol, correspond to strokes on the drum, be it on the bayan, dayan or both simultaneously. Each note has a name, such as Ta, Tin, Ge, Tita, etc. These notes are the “letters” of this language. Just as words are put into sentences in a organized way, tabla notes ﬁt together in a speciﬁc way to make a musical poem; one with beauty, grammar and expression.
What is Classical Tabla playing?
The history of tabla is subject to speculations and stories. The widely accepted history is that the instrument has been around for millenia as a folk instrument and was introduced into classical music approximately 800 years ago when Hindustani music emerged from the confluence of Vedic and Persian music. It is believed that the tabla was adopted by the eminent musicologist of his time, Amir Khusro, to especially accompany the soft and romantic singing style of India known as khayal gayaki.
The classical art of tabla playing is the instrument's most refined form, dictated by many rules about how the instrument is played and how compositions are created and performed. A classical tabla player undergoes years of intensive practice and study under the guidance of a teacher, learning the nuances and intricacies of Hindustani rhythmic structures and compositions. Traditionally, a student is taught and bound to a specific gharana or genealogical and musical lineage of tabla, which is distinguished on the basis of repertoire, methods of presentation, musical influences and practical application on the drum. Today, while students may formally train in the gharana of their teacher, it is not uncommon for them to be familiar with the compositions of other gharanas.
Classical tabla playing serves several purposes: as accompaniment for the north Indian classical dance style of Kathak, as rhythmic accompaniment for melodic Hindustani vocal and instrumental performances and as a solo instrument. Tabla is largely heard in an accompanying role.
The Study of Tabla
A very special aspect of Indian classical music is the method in which it is taught. Once an individual is accepted as a student, he or she is expected to dedicate themselves to the art and to serve and honor the teacher. Because learning music is a lifelong journey, the relationship between teacher and student is also a lifelong one. The term given to this traditional apprenticeship-style of training is guru-shishya-parampara. (The meaning of guru is teacher; the meaning of shishya is disciple; and the meaning of parampara is tradition.) Many stories have been told of the strong bond between great master gurus and their devoted shishyas.
Riyaz, or practice, is an integral part of a tabla player's life. The tabla student spends most of his day in concentrated and prolonged practice. Because of the vast number of hours that a tabla player must spend practicing, he must truly ﬁnd joy and fulﬁllment in his daily practice in order for his art to ﬂourish and for him to reach future success. The Indian classical musician treats his practice as a time of personal reﬂection and meditation. With eyes closed and mind free, with healthy body and healthy spirit, he delves into his practice deeply with involvement. The classical artist has been known to sacriﬁce common pleasures in order to become a recluse, only committed to his practice, his art, and his guru.
Components of Tabla Music
Tabla music is comprised of several important components such as taal and laya.
The constant underlying foundation of any Hindustani music performance is the taal or rhythmic cycle. Time is cyclical in Hindustani music. The first beat of any rhythm cycle is very important and is known as the sum
Each taal is given a name and is made up of a specific number of beats and distinct divisions of these beats. A taal is composed of bols. There are many taals in tabla repertoire. Examples of taals include jhaptaal (10 beats), ektaal (12 beats), etc.
The most common taal in Hindustani music is Teentaal. Teentaal is a 16 beat rhythm cycle, divided into four equal segments of four. Below is a representation of the 16 beat cycle and the corresponding bols of the taal. The "X" under the first beat indicates the sum.
Laya is the speed or tempo. Slow tempo is called vilambit laya, medium tempo is madhya laya, fast is referred to as drut laya, and very fast is ati-drut laya.
Tabla as a Solo Instrument
A tabla solo is an artist's presentation of his musicianship, creativity and expertise. A tabla solo can be hours in length, as the artist demonstrates the diversity of tabla repertoire that is not usually heard in its role as an accompanying instrument for vocal, instrumental or dance. A solo tabla performance is comprised of several parts. It is divided by tempo (laya) and types of compositions.
Usually a Hindustani music concert has two components: a melodic one and a rhythmic one. The main performer provides the melodic element (on vocals or instruments like sitar, sarod, flute or saarangi), while a tabla player provides the rhythmic component. In a tabla performance, rhythm takes center stage and the accompanying instrument plays the lehera.
The lehera, also known as nagma, is the melodic refrain or ostinato based on a Hindustani raag set to the rhythmic cycle or taal of a performance. Just as the sum, first beat, of the taal is emphasized, similarly the first beat of the lehera is also emphasized. The lehera provides the foundation on which all the compositions are performed. The lehera can be played on a variety of instruments such as the harmonium, sitar or saarangi.
Common Types of Compositions:
The word peshkar comes from the Persian words pesh (to present) and kar (hands). It is an opening composition unique to the Delhi and Ajrada gharana that is comprised of all the major tabla >bols. As the name indicates, through peshkar the artists presents his / her hands and level of musicianship. Traditionally, a peshkar is a slow composition which gradually develops into a kayda. The kayda that follows a peshkarhas a particular musical quality to it and is known as a peshkar kayda.
Kayda is a Persian word meaning law or system of rules. The kayda is one of the first types of tabla compositions to be created for classical tabla playing. The presentation of a kayda is a mix of fixed (pre-composed) and improvised music. The kayda itself is a fixed composition that becomes the theme for the improvisations (known as palta) that follow. As the name indicates, the improvisation of a kayda is regulated by a series of complex rules that vary between gharanas.
A sophisticated presentation of a kayda would involve introduction of bols in the kayda through a composition called chal meaning walk. Through a series of variations, the chal develops into the kayda which is then improvised. A kayda presentation generally ends with a particular style of composition called tihai.
A tihai is a rhythmic pattern that repeats itself three times and lands on the sum or first beat of the rhythm cycle. Tihais have a wide range of difficulty and involve a lot of mathematical calculations in the form of fractions. A basic tihai in the 16 beat rhythm cycle of 16 would be as follows 1 2 3 4 5 (beat) 1 2 3 4 5 (beat) 1 2 3 4 5. Where the 5th beat of the 3rd
iteration is also beat 17 or the sum (1st beat) of on the 2nd round of teentaal.
[illustration to show this]
A rela is similar to a kayda in structure and presentation. Notable differences are that relas are >comprised of fewer bols, have a lot of repetition and are faster in speed. The sound of a rela is akin to undulating waves.
Gat is an abbreviation of the word gati which means movement. A gat refers to a broad categorization of fixed tabla compositions. There are many types of gats, each identified by particular compositional characteristics. Gats often include bols taken from other Indian percussion instruments like the pakhwaj.
Gender Bias in Tabla?
The tabla is primarily a male-dominated instrument. This is due to the fact that the tabla is associated with a certain degree of strength and aggression. And historically, the art was generally passed on to male members of the family. Today however, there is an increasing number of female aspirants across the globe and, in fact, there are several skilled professional female tabla players who are breaking the barriers.
Maestros of Tabla
Numerous legendary maestros have contributed signiﬁcantly to the development and advancement of tabla. These individuals are highly revered and honored by Indian classical musicians and musicologists. A few notable names to remember are: Latif Ahmed Khan, Allah Rakha, Habibuddin Khan and Ahmed Jan Thirakwa. Several of today’s contemporary tabla players who are making a mark on the world with their music and knowledge are: Zakir Hussain, Anindo Chatterjee, Swapan Chaudhuri, and one of the great gurus and composers of our time, Divyang Vakil.