Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


IN September 2012, I had begun a monthly series on Indian musical instruments. This 14-part series was called ‘Instruments from India’, and it dealt with melody instruments.

This month, I am starting another series which shall talk of Indian rhythmic instruments, Called ‘Percussion from India’, it will feature various drums used in the north Indian form of Hindustani music, the south Indian Carnatic music, ghazals, film music, fusion, folk and devotional music, besides certain instruments played solo irrespective of genre. Many instruments used to accompany dance recitals shall be discussed too.

Like in the previous series, the aim is two-fold: one, to make Indian readers aware of certain artistes they might not have heard before, and secondly, to expose relatively new audiences, mainly from the West, to the beauty that various Indian instruments offer.

In this series, I shall not go into too many technicalities and playing styles, unless really necessary, as it is in this particular part. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style.

As many are aware, the most popular Indian percussion instrument is the tabla, mainly popularised abroad by Ustad Allarakha and his son Ustad Zakir Hussain. Naturally, it would be appropriate to begin with this instrument.

ON an amateur level, the tabla is perhaps the most commonly played Indian instrument. It is in many cases the first instrument that a child or a teenager is introduced to, as it is taught in schools and at basic music initiation courses. However, playing the tabla is not as easy as it seems, and it requires hours and hours of practice and dedication, and a natural rhythmic skill, to master it.

On a professional level, the popularity of the tabla can be gauged from the fact that there are a larger number of well-known practitioners (or ‘tabalchis’) as compared to any other Indian instrument. One of the reasons is that is that it is used to accompany many other melodic instruments, specially in Hindustani music, ghazals, Sufi music, film, fusion folk and devotional music, and on rare occasions in Carnatic music too. At the same time, it has made its own mark as a solo instrument.

There’s so much information about the tabla, that it would be difficult to put together everything in one article. Hence, I am dividing this blog into two parts. The first will deal with the basic features of the tabla, a bit about its history, some basic terms and its role in a performance. The second will talk of the different schools (‘gharanas’) of playing, and the main players of each ‘gharana’. As such, this particular part will not discuss any maestro or other tabla player.

Features: The tabla consists of two hand drums of different sizes and timbres. The drums are placed on ringed cushions placed on the floor, and the player sits on the floor during a performance. Most of the playing is done by the fingers, though the palms and wrists are also used.

Normally, in the case of a right-handed player, the smaller drum is placed on his right and he plays it with the fingers of his right hand. This drum is called the ‘tabla’ or the ‘daayaan’. The larger drum, the ‘baayaan’ or the ‘dagga’ is placed at the player’s left. This has a bass sound.

Both the drums have different layers – a thick-skinned outside layer (‘chanti’), an intermediate portion (‘maidan’) and a black circular patch in the centre (‘syahi’). The pitch, tone and timbre vary across these layers, and at various points on each layer. The outer circumference, the ‘gajara’, supports the instruments, and some players even use that in fusion or film music to create unusual sounds.

A tabla can go out of tune when exposed to change of temperature or humidity. Tuning of the ‘daayaan’ is done with a small hammer. For the ‘baayaan’, the player needs to ensure that the pitch is even, and for this certain pegs are used. To ensure that the surface doesn’t get rough, powder is regularly sprayed on the drums, and rubbed smoothly across the surface with the palm.

History: There are different theories on the origin of the tabla. Some musicologists talk of Hindu temple carvings dating back to 500 BC showing pairs of hand drums resembling the tabla.

A more common belief is that the great Sufi poet and scholar Amir Khusro invented it in the 13th century. Legend has it that he created it by cutting the two-headed pakhawaj or mridangam drums into two halves.
Though there have been other theories, the name tabla is said to originate from the Arabic word ‘tabl’, which simply means ‘drum’.

Tabla terms: At most concerts, one finds a large section of the audience clapping at the faster portions played on tabla. Sadly, many of them are unaware of the various terms that are used. Though this series does not intend to get into too many technicalities, some terms are worth mentioning, even if at a very basic level.

The most important is the ‘taal’, which means a rhythmic cycle. Each composition is set to a ‘taal’, consisting in a specific number of beats, or ‘matras’. The most common ‘taal’ is the 16-beat ‘teentaal’, often played with the faster compositions. Other ‘taals’ include ‘ektaal’ (12 beats), ‘jhaptaal’ (10), ‘deepchandi’ (14), ‘rupak’ (7), ‘dadra’ (6) and ‘keharwa’ (8). Some very talented musicians employ unusual rhythmic cycles like eight-and-a-half, 10-and-a-half and 11-and-a-half beats.

Equally important is the ‘bol’, which is akin to the notes used in a song. Each ‘taal’ has a fixed structure of ‘bols’, common ones being ‘ta’, ‘dha’, ‘tin’, ‘ghe’, ‘kit’ and ‘dhin’.

The distinguishing characteristic for each ‘taal’, which makes it easy for identification, is called the ‘theka’. The ‘sum’ is the point where both the tabla player and instrumentalist return to the rhythmic cycle on the first beat. This process of returning to the ‘sum’ and starting off again, and continisuously repeating the cycle, is an art in itself, and requires perfect coordination and mastery by both the instrumentalist/ singer and the tabla player.

The tempo of the music is called the ‘laya’. Common types are ‘vilambit laya’ (slow tempo), ‘madhya laya’ (medium tempo) or ‘drut laya’ (fast tempo).

Complex rhythmic tools like ‘tihai’ and ‘chakradhar’ are played in most instrumental performances. In solo performances, specific improvisational composition styles like ‘peshkar’, ‘kayda’ and ‘rela’ are played. In the light classical form of thumri, the tabla player plays a fast ‘laggi’ at the end. These can be understood with more regular listening.

Role in performance: The tabla is played differently in different styles of music. In Hindustani classical music, it is played as an accompaniment to a vocalist or to an instrumentist.

A vocal performance is normally divided into ‘vilambit’ (slow) and ‘drut’ (fast) portions. In the former, the tabla player often comes just after the singer’s opening ‘alaap’, somewhere during the first sentence of the verbal composition, called the ‘sthayi’. He may or may not change the ‘taal’ in the faster composition, but will definitely change the tempo.

In an instrumental performance, the tabla player comes on much later. Let’s take a sitar recital, for instance. The sitar player first plays a sequence called ‘alaap’, ‘jod’ and ‘jhala’ which increases tempo without tabla accompaniment. After that, he plays certain compositions or ‘gats’ set to specific ‘taals’. This is where the tabla player begins his performance. In the middle of these compositions, he also gets a chance to show his virtuosity in individual passages where the sitar player accompanies him with a repetitive phrase called a ‘lehra’.

In film music, folk music and ghazals, the tabla is played right from the beginning of the song. In dance music, it is played at regularly intervals, depending on the composition. A Sufi music composition often requires very fast-paced tabla playing. In fusion, some tabla players add an additional cymbal or other kind of drum at the side to create a tabla-based percussion kit.

In a solo performance, the player is often accompanied by a sarangi or harmonium player who plays a repetitive phrase. The tabla player plays different types of improvisational compositions, like ‘peshkar’, ‘kayda’ and ‘rela’.

Besides these, there are also tabla duets/trios or multi-rhythm ensembles, where the tabla is played along with other percussion instruments like the pakhawaj, ghatam, kanjira or drums. There is another instrument called tabla tarang where 10 to 16 ‘daayaans’ are played together to create a different effect.

To sum up, the tabla may look like a pair of innocuous drums. But playing and even understanding its nuances requires an ocean of knowledge. While we have covered the basics of tabla playing this month, we shall talk of the various ‘gharanas’ and the great masters who represent each of them in the next part of the series. There’s an entire universe out there capturing the pulse of the audiences.


Comments on: "Percussion from India – 1/ The tabla" (1)

  1. shankar shenai said:

    Dear Narendra, Excellent topic & write up. I like your writing style. All the best wishes for your future writing.

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