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Percussion from India ― 5/ The other drums

The ‘Percussion from India’ series was started in November 2013 as a follow-up to the ‘Instruments from India’ series, which talked of melody instruments. The first two parts of the new series, which aims to features drums commonly used in India, spoke of the tabla. The third part talked of double-headed drums like the mridangam, pakhawaj and dhol, and the fourth part talked of Carnatic instruments besides the mridangam – namely, ghatam, kanjira and morsing.

In this concluding part of the series, we shall look at some other drums commonly used in India. Of course, there are numerous other percussion instruments used in different types of folk and devotional music, but here, we shall stick to the most common ones.

In this series, I shall not go into too many technicalities and playing styles, unless really necessary. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres. The instruments mentioned below may not have any renowned maestros, like we have in tabla and mridangam. Yet, there are talented players across the country.

INDIAN music is so diverse that one finds different kinds of percussion instruments in different geographical regions and genres. While the tabla, pakhawaj and dhol are the most popular in the north, and the mridangam, ghatam and kanjira in the south, one finds many other instruments that are used in specific forms of music.

Let’s take a look at some of them:


Manjira: A traditional pair of cymbals, the manjira has found plenty of use in devotional bhajans. Besides being played in temples, they are also played during home recitals or in Mumbai’s local trains.

Manjiras are usually made of bronze, brass, copper, zinc or bell metal. They produce a tinkling sound when struck together. Based on their size, weight and the material used, their pitch can be varied.

In his bhajan recitals, vocalist Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was often accompanied by a manjira player.

Kartal: They are a pair of wooden blocks or frames with small metal jingles mounted in them. They are simply beaten together to provide a rhythmic support to bhajans, kirtan, folk and other light music. The term kartal is also applied to wooden claves.

One often finds kartal players in Rajasthani folk and Sufi music, with the player usually bouncing on stage in an effervescent manner.

Jal tarang: This is a set of China bowls that are filled with water. Each bowl is struck with a light wooden mallet to cause it to ring. Jal tarang is not very common and is normally found in the accompaniment of kathak dancers.

George Harrison played the jal tarang on the title track of his 1982 album ‘Gone Troppo’. In India, Seethalakshmi Doraiswamy is an accomplished player.

Chenda: It is a drum from Kerala and parts of coastal Karnataka. The chenda is mainly played in Hindu temple festivals and as an accompaniment in the religious art forms of Kerala. It is used as an accompaniment for Kathakali, Koodiyattam, Kannyar Kali, Theyyam and among many forms of dances and rituals in Kerala.

The Karnataka version, known as chende, is also used in the dance drama known as Yaksha Gana. It has heads on both ends but only one side is played.


Daf or dafli: The word ‘dafli’ became popular with the song ‘Dafli waale’ from the Rishi Kapoor-Jayaprada film ‘Sargam’. It is basically a tambourine, similar to the kanjira of south Indian music but much broader in that it can even have a two feet diameter.

It is commonly used in folk music but is rarely heard in other styles.

Tasha: The tasha is a popular folk instrument of the kettle drum variety. It is characterised by a very shallow metal shell, and is is played with drumsticks. It is extremely popular in marriage procession bands.

Nagada: Another form of kettle drum, they are 1 or 2 feet in diameter, and played with sticks. One often finds it as an accompaniment to shehnai.

Tumbak: The tumbak is basically an Indian version of the goblet drum. One finds it mainly in Kashmiri folk, and it is similar to foreign instruments like dumbek, darbouka and djembe.

Talking of the djembe, though it is actually an African instrument, Zakir Hussain’s brother Taufiq Qureshi has modified it in such a way that he plays Indian rhythms on it.


Ghunghroo: A very familiar instrument as it is used with dance in the form of anklets tied to the dancer’s feet. The ‘Chor Machaye Shor’ hit ‘Ghunghroo ki tarah’ and the Pankaj Udhas song ‘Ghunghroo toot gaye’ made them a household word.

The ‘ghunghroo’ evolved from the payal, which are basically anklets. However, to produce a rhythmic sound, special anklets were created and named ‘ghunghroo’.

In sum: As mentioned, India has a vast range of percussion instruments, used in different types of folk music, devotional music, classical music, film music and dance. It would be ideal to enjoy these instruments at live concerts.

This brings us to the end of the series on percussion instruments. If readers have any queries regarding any other rare percussion instrument I have missed out, do write. If I get the right information, will be happy to send it across.


Percussion from India ― 4/ The Carnatic route


Ghatam maestro TH ‘Vikku Vinayakram

The ‘Percussion from India’ series was started in November 2013 as a follow-up to the ‘Instruments from India’ series, which talked of melody instruments. The first two parts of the new series, which aims to features drums commonly used in India, spoke of the tabla. The third part, posted in January 2014, talked of double-headed drums like the mridangam, pakhawaj and dhol.

For health reasons, I did not carry this series from February to April. This month, I am continuing it by talking of other instruments prominent in Carnatic music ― instruments that were not featured in the earlier parts of the series.

Like in the previous case, the aim of this percussion series 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. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style. The list of musicians may, however, not be exhaustive.

THE unique thing about south Indian classical or Carnatic music is the emphasis it lays on percussion instruments. In north Indian or Hindustani music, a singer or instrumentalist is accompanied either by a tabla or pakhawaj player – only in very rare instances, both appear on stage together.

However, in Carnatic music, musicians are accompanied by a mridangam and ghatam, besides a kanjira, morsing or at times thavil. An interaction between the percussionists is a highlight during the concluding part of a recital, be it vocal or instrumental.

The mridangam, the main percussion instrument in Carnatic music, was discussed in the blog on double-headed drums, posted on January 30 this year. In that write-up, we also talked of the thavil, which is generally used as an accompaniment to the wind instrument nadaswaram.

This time, let’s talk of the other three instruments:

Ghatam: Quite simply, it is a clay pot with a narrow mouth. While it has been very prominent in Carnatic music, one has seen variants in Punjabi, Rajasthani and Gujarati folk music, under the name of gharha and matka. Similar instruments played abroad, with different postures, include the udu in Africa and botija in the Caribbean.

Those following Carnatic music for years would have regularly seen it at concerts. However, for audiences in the north and even abroad, the instrument became famous thanks to TH ‘Vikku’ Vinayakram, who played with the Indo-jazz fusion group Shakti in the 1970s, along with guitarist John McLaughlin, violinist L Shankar and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain.

In Carnatic music, the percussionist sits on the floor and places the instrument on his lap, with one side leaning on his belly and the neck facing him. He plays it with his fingers, nails, palms or wrists, and sometimes even hurls the pot in the air, before catching it again. Since different parts of the ghatam have different tones, a variety of sounds can be produced.

While Vinayakram is the best known practitioner of the ghatam, other well known players include his brother TH Subhash Chandran, Ghatam Udupa, TV Vasan and Vikku’s son V Umashankar.

Kanjira: If Vikku Vinayakram popularised the ghatam among non-Carnatic audiences, his son V Selvaganesh popularised the kanjira in the north and abroad, thanks to his association with Remember Shakti and other fusion groups. However, before him, it was G Harishankar who established himself as one of the greatest rhythm players in south India.

The kanjira is a frame drum resembling a tambourine. It is held with one hand and played with the other, making it one of the most difficult percussion instruments to play. Different parts of the head create different sounds, and it requires immense practice to master the kanjira. Moreover, its tuning can be affected by temperature and moisture, and hence many percussionists carry three or four kanjiras at every concert.

There have been numerous great kanjira players. Besides Harishankar and Selvaganesh, well-known players include HP Ramachar, Dakshinamurthy Pillai, Bangalore Amrit and N Ganesh Kumar, to take only some names.

Morsing: It is a percussion instrument played in the mouth, and is hence also called a jaw harp. Besides Carnatic music, it is used extensively in Rajasthani folk music under the name of morchang, and even in Assamese music. It comes under the family of lamellophones, which are prominently found in Africa, the Caribbean and Siberia.

The morsing is placed between the teeth, held firmly in the hand and struck using the other hand to produce sound. Movement of the player’s tongue, variations of the throat and blowing and sucking of air through the instrument produces different sounds or overtones.

Like other Carnatic instruments, there are many people known for the morsing. Srirangam Kannan is one of the most popular artistes.

The vocal way: Besides instruments, rhythm syllables are recited vocally in a typical manner known as ‘konnakol’. Whatever instruments they play, Carnatic percussionists are well-versed in this form. In some ways, konnakol is similar to the ‘bol’ of Hindustani music, but plays a more prominent and frequent role in actual performance.

Besides pure Carnatic music, konnakol is being increasingly used in fusion and jazz. Shakti was the first to incorporate it in the 1970s. Drummer Ranjit Barot and percussionist Pete Lockett have also used it in their jazz and world music concerts, the former making it part of the repertoire of John McLaughlin’s group the 4th Dimension.

While these are some of the percussion instruments used in Carnatic music, it is remarkable how closely aficionados follow the style at concerts, often gesturing their hands to the beat or rhythmic cycle. In Tamil Nadu, this habit is often inculcated at a young age, and it enhances the quality of appreciation. The interaction between the musician and the audience is something that makes the experience even more enjoyable.

Percussion from India ― 3/ The marvellous double-headed drums


Umayalpuram L Sivaraman (left) on mridangam and Bhawani Shankar on pakhawaj

The ‘Percussion from India’ series was started in November 2013 as a follow-up to the ‘Instruments from India’ series, which talked of melody instruments. The first two parts of the new series, which aims to features drums commonly used in India, spoke of the tabla.

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. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style. The list of musicians may, however, not be exhaustive.

This month, we shall talk of double-headed drums used in different types of Indian music.

DOUBLE-HEADED or two-faced drums are used in north Indian Hindustani music, south Indian Carnatic music and different types of folk and devotional music. In most cases, the player sits on the floor and keeps the instrument on his lap, though in some types of folk music, he attaches it with a strap around his shoulder.

The main instruments in this category are the mridangam, which forms a very important part of Carnatic music, and the pakhawaj, which was earlier used in the dhrupad form or Hindustani music but is seeing rarer exposure today. The dhol forms an important part of folk music. A brief note on the various double-headed drums.

Mridangam: Known primarily for its use in Carnatic music, the mridangam is also heard in the Nepalese form of Newa music. However, while the Carnatic musician sits on the floor, the Newa musician stands and plays.

In Carnatic music, the mridangam can be used as a solo instrument with a violin accompaniment, or to accompany vocalists, violinists and flute players, among others. It is played with the hands. Often, it is one among the many percussion instruments used in a Carnatic concert. The others, which include the ghatam, kanjira and morsing, will be discussed in a later part of this series.

Besides Carnatic music, the mridangam is also used to accompany southern dance forms, particularly Bharatanatyam, and in theatrical dance forms like Yakshagana. Derived from the words ‘mrida’ (clay or earth) and ‘anga’ (body), the mridangam is said to have been played since the time of Lord Shiva.

Over the years, some of the best known players have included T K Murthy, Palghat R Raghu, Umayalpuram L Sivaraman, Karaikudi Mani, Vellore G Ramabhadran, Palani Sunramaniam Pillai, Palghat Mani Iyer, C Murugabhupathy and Mahadevu Radha Krishna Raju.

The mridangam has also been used extensively in south Indian film music by L Vaidyanathan, Ilayaraja, A R Rahman and others. It has also found a role in north-south fusion encounters, and in Mumbai, Sridhar Parthasarathy has often accompanied tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain and other percussion ensembles.

Pakhawaj: A variant and descendant of the mridangam, the pakhawaj is used as an accompaniment for various music and dance performances. It is also played with the hands.

In Hindustani music, it was primarily used as an accompaniment to dhrupad and dhamaar styles. The famous Dagar brothers were accompanied by pakhawaj greats like Govindrao Burhanpurkar, S V Patwardhan and Ambadas Pant Angle. Other players from the older generation include Ramashish Pathak.

Rom the 1970s onwards, Bhawani Shankar has established himself as a leading pakhawaj player, accompanying instrumentalists like santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia.

Legend has it that the tabla was created after cutting the pakhawaj into two halves.

Dhol: The dhol is used in folk and devotional music from various states of India. Ranging from bhangra and Sufiana music of Punjab and the Sindhi dhamaal, to Ganesh songs in Maharashtra and the Navratri festival of Gujarat, to the music of Assam, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka and Kashmir, it reflects energy and rhythmic vibrancy.

Unlike the Carnatic mridangam and Hindustani pakhawaj, the dhol is played with a pair of sticks of different thickness, providing different tonal patterns.

Other double-headed drums: Among the popular types is the khol, used in Bengali and north-eastern devotional music and played with the hands. It is also used in Baul and Bhatiyali music.

In south India, the thavil is played mainly at temples, but is also heard at public concerts. It is also used as an accompaniment to the wind instrument nadaswaram. For a right-handed player, the right side is played with the hand and the left with a stick.

Other double-headed drums include the damroo, associated with the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva, the madal, used with dance and folk music, and the naal, which is tuned with bolts.

Each of these drums has a charm of its own, and add to the variety and diversity of Indian music.

Percussion from India – 2/ The tabla (Contd.)


Allarakha and Zakir Hussain represent the Punjab gharana of tabla playing

After the 14-part monthly series ‘Instruments from India’, which talked of Indian melody instruments, I began the series ‘Percussion from India’ last month, to highlight various rhythm instruments played in India.

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. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style.

Naturally, the first part of the new series was dedicated to the tabla, as it is obviously the most popular percussion instrument in the region. However, since any discussion on the tabla would be really extensive, I had focused on only a few aspects last month. These were the instrument’s basic features, its history, some basic terms and its role in a performance.

This month, I shall talk of the different schools or gharanas of tabla-playing, and mention the main players in each. I shall also mention those players who follow a variety of styles and are not associated to any particular gharana.

Just a clarification: The world of tabla has seen so many great maestros and talented musicians, that it is very likely that some names have been missed out in this piece. Some musicians reading this blog may feel that their gurus or senior members of their gharana have been left out. While every effort has been made to include all the major names, any omission is regretted.

LIKE in Indian vocal and instrumental music, different styles of tabla-playing can also be identified according to the schools or gharanas they belong to. This is unlike other forms of Indian percussion music, which are played on a more limited scale as compared to the tabla, either in that they are restricted to fewer genres or geographical regions.

The main gharanas of tabla playing are: Delhi, Lucknow, Ajrara, Farrukhabad, Benaras and Punjab. Most of them have well-known players associated with them ― for instance, Ustad Allarakha and his son Zakir Hussain represent the Punjab gharana. However, there have been players like Ahmedjan Thirakwa who have played compositions from more than one gharana (Farrukhabad and Ajrara in his case) and others like Suresh Talwalkar who play compositions from various gharanas.

Though the gharanas have their own importance in tabla-playing, a large section of today’s audiences are relatively unaware of the differences between the various schools. Barring the musicians’ community and true connoisseurs, many listeners are not familiar with who represents which gharana, with the exception of maybe a few examples they can site. Thus, it becomes important for both musicians and musicologists to spread knowledge about the gharana system, in order to create more awareness among lay listeners.

Before we talk of the gharanas, it is important to mention two styles, called the ‘bandh baaz’ and ‘khulla baaz’. The former refers to the closed or bound style of playing, where the sounds are muffled. In contrast, ‘khulla baaz’ is an open style, where the beats of the tabla are allowed to sustain. The use of these styles is an important factor in each gharana, as it is on this basis that compositions like ‘peshkar’, ‘kaida’ and ‘rela’ (discussed last month) are prepared.

Having said that, let’s look at the main gharanas, and mention some of the important players of each.

Delhi gharana: This was the first style of tabla-playing, and is said to have originated in the early 18th century. Sidhar Khan Dhadi is said to have created this style, which is more in favour of using the right hand fingers, and avoiding overuse of the ‘baayaan’ (bass drum). As it uses two fingers prominently, it is also called the ‘do ungliyon ki baaj’ (in Hindi, “technique of playing with two fingers”).

Important players from this gharana are Siddhar Khan, Kallu Khan, Ghasit Khan, Nathu Khan, Gamay Khan, Latif Ahmed Khan, the great Chatur Lal and Shafaat Ahmed Khan. Before his untimely death in 2005, Shafaat used to regularly accompany top musicians like santoor maestro Shivkumar Sharma, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and sarod exponent Amjad Ali Khan, and was considered one of India’s leading tabla players.

Lucknow gharana: This gharana branched out of the Delhi gharana, and was said to have been started by brothers Modu and Bakshu Khan, who were two generations younger than Siddhar Khan of the Delhi gharana. A common characteristic is the use of palms as much as the fingers, making it a style commonly used as an accompaniment in dance forms like Kathak.

Well-known practitioners include Abid Hussain Khan, Biru Khan, Munne Khan, Wajid Hussain Khan, Santosh Krishna Biswas, Anil Bhattacharjee and Swapan Chaudhuri, who has regularly accompanied sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, sarod great Ali Akbar Khan and vocalist Pandit Jasraj.

Ajrara gharana: This gharana was started in the beginning of the early 19th century by Kallu and Miru, disciples of Sitab Khan of the Delhi gharana. Its playing is characterised by rhythmic patterns that have an unusual complexity, and the use of three fingers with specially emphasis on playing on the ‘syahi’ (black central part).

Important Ajrara players include Shamsuddin Khan and Habibuddin Khan, but its compositions were played extensively by versatile maestros like Ahmedjan Thirakwa, Amir Hussain Khan and Shaik Dawood (a top-notch accompanist to legendary vocalists Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Bhimsen Joshi). Manju Khan, Niazu Khan and Sudhirkumar Saxena were earlier representatives, and the later generations have comprised Hashmat Ali Khan, Ghulam Sarwar Sabri and Akram Khan.

Farrukhabad gharana: This was formed by Haji Vilayat Khan, son-in-law of Bakshu Khan of the Lucknow gharana. The speciality of the school is the variety in compositions and the use of open strokes on the ‘baayan’ or left drum.

Thirakwa, Amir Hussain Khan and Shaik Dawood were primary exponents of this gharana, though they also played compositions of the Ajrara and Delhi schools too. Other famous exponents are Gnan Prakash Ghosh, whose disciples Anindo Chatterjee and Abhijeet Banerjee have made a mark, and Shankar Ghosh, whose son Bickram Ghosh has excelled in both classical music and fusion projects. Tanmoy Bose, who has also learnt from Shankar Ghosh, has made a name in classical and fusion too.

Nikhil Ghosh studied from Gnan Prakash Ghosh, Thirakwa and Amir Hussain Khan, and has passed on his skills to son Nayan Ghosh. Aneesh Pradhan is another talented musician to be groomed by Nikhil Ghosh.
From the Farrukhabad style, another well-known name is Sabir Khan. Female player Rimpa Siva, who made a name as a tabla child prodigy, is among the young players in this style. Nayan Ghosh’s son Ishaan is also shaping up marvellously as a young talent to look out for.

Benaras gharana: Known for its powerful, resonant sound, the Benaras gharana has a large number of followers. It was formed in the early 19th century by Ram Sahai.

Besides instrumental and vocal music, and solo performances, the Benaras style is also used prominently in dance forms. Reputed musicians include Anokhelal Mishra, Kanthe Maharaj, Kishen Maharaj, Mahapurush Mishra, Samta Prasad, Ramji Mishra, Chandra Nath Shastri, Ashutosh Bhattacharya and Sharda Sahai. Later generations are represented by Kumar Bose, Ananda Gopal Bandopadhyay and Sanju Sahai.

Punjab gharana: Today, the Punjab gharana is probably the best-known among the schools, as it was popularised by Ustad Allarakha and is currently represented by Zakir Hussain, his brothers Fazal and Taufiq Qureshi and a whole line-up of illustrious disciples who are currently popular on the concert circuit.

Though there is a debate as to who started it, some of the other early masters were Qadir Baksh II, who taught Allarakha. Among the gharana’s special features, it uses a style based on the two-headed pakhawaj drum, and has an influence of the Punjabi language in the pronunciation of bols. The use of the ‘baayaan’ is given special focus.

Some of Allarakha’s and Zakir Hussain’s disciples have made it on their own right. These include Yogesh Samsi, Anuradha Pal and Aditya Kalyanpur. Other renowned Punjab gharana players included Abdus Sattar ‘Tari Khan’, Pakistani maestro who has played with ghazal greats Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali and Sufi legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. London-based percussionist and producer Talvin Singh has also learnt tabla in the Punjab style.

Other maestros: While we have mentioned representatives of the main gharanas, there are a few musicians whose technique imbibes styles deom different gharanas. Prominent among them would be Suresh Talwalkar, one of the most versatile tabla players in India, and disciple of such esteemed players as Pandarinath Nageshkar and Vinayakrao Gangrekar.

Talwalkar’s brilliant disciple Vijay Ghate and son Satyajeet are also among those who use a good blend of compositional styles. Well-known jazz drummer Trilok Gurtu, an accomplished tabla player too, has also taken regular guidance from Talwalkar.

The others not associated with any specific gharana include Taranath Rao, who blended various styles, and Badal Roy from Bangladesh, who has been involved with jazz and world music since the late 1960s. Aban Mistry, India’s first professional female tabla player, blended the Delhi, Ajrara, Farrukhabad and Benaras schools to create her own style. Nana Muley and Omkar Gulvady, who often accompanied the great vocalist Pt Bhimsen Joshi, also blended different schools.

As mentioned earlier, we’ve tried to name all the main artistes. The field of tabla, however, is so wide that there is always a chance that someone has been missed out. Yet, for those who are yet to hear many of those named above, it would be a great time to start, as this is one instrument that has seen a tremendous explosion of talent.

Percussion from India – 1/ The tabla


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.

Instruments from India ― 14/ The jugalbandis


IN September 2012, I had begun a monthly series on Indian musical instruments. The aim was 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 melodic or rhythmic beauty that various Indian instruments offer.

In this series, I have not gone into too many technicalities and playing styles. I have focused on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mentioned the leading performers in each style. So far, I have focused on melody instruments, and shall begin another series on Indian percussion instruments next month, with the tabla.

The earlier parts of the series talked about the violin, sitar, bansuri, sarangi, different types of veena, sarod, santoor, shehnai/ nadaswaram, harmonium, Indian adaptations of the guitar, Indian adaptations of other western instruments, other instruments used in Indian classical music, and instruments used in folk and devotional music.

In the concluding part of this series, I shall talk of combinations of melody instruments in classical and fusion music.

BY and large, Indian classical music is a solo art, where one vocalist or instrumentalist unfolds a raga or a light composition. However, there have been several times when two, and sometimes three, instruments have been played together in a concert or recording.

The simultaneous use of two instruments is known as a ‘jugalbandi’. Such a combination also exists in vocal music, popular artistes being Ustads Nazakat Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan, and Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra in the khayal form of music, and the Dagar brothers and Gundecha brothers in the older dhrupad.

In instrumental music, sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar and sarod genius Ustad Ali Akbar Khan came together in the 1960s and did a few such concerts. One of the most successful early collaborations was between santoor master Shivkumar Sharma, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and Indian-style guitarist Brij Bhushan Kabra, who recorded the album ‘Call of the Valley’ in 1967.

While jugalbandis were initially done between Hindustani classical musicians, they were later used in Carnatic music too. Over the years, there were also instances when Hindustani and Carnatic musicians played together.

There have also been instances when two or more musicians, mostly from the same family, played the same instrument in a concert ― like Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka on sitar, Amjad Ali Khan and his sons Amaan and Ayaan on sarod, and Shivkumar Sharma and his son Rahul on santoor. In Carnatic music, brothers Ganesh and Kumaresh have excelled as a violin duo, and these days violinist L Subramaniam is often accompanied by his son Ambi.

Though such jugalbandis have been popular among the masses, they have been criticised by purists, who believe Indian classical music is a solo art. Thus, people conducting such a practice have been accused of selling out or gimmickry.

However, what needs to be noted is that all musicians who have done jugalbandis have essentially concentrated on solo performances, and (barring probably Ganesh and Kumaresh) worked as a duo only occasionally, often on public demand. Some of these recordings have been pathbreaking. But in comparison to the overall number of solo recordings and concerts, the number of jugalbandis has been only a small fraction.

Here, we shall look at some of the combinations of instruments that have been successful.

Sitar and sarod: The best-known examples are Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, on their recording of ragas Sindhu Bhairavi, Manj Khamaj and Hem Bihag in the double live album ‘In Concert 1972’. With accompaniment from tabla legend Allarakha, the concert was recorded at the Philharmonic Hall, New York, as a dedication to Baba Allauddin Khan, Ali Akbar Khan’s father and guru, and Ravi Shankar’s guru.

The duo has also recorded ragas Khamaj, Durga and Bilaskhani Todi.


Sitar and shehnai: Sitar maestro Vilayat Khan and shehnai legend Bismillah Khan got together in many recordings and concerts. Their famous album ‘A Rare Jugalbandi’ features ragas Yaman and Nand Kalyan, and a mishra dhun (light piece in a mixed raga). Their recordings of ragini Yamani and a light-classical thumri in Bhairavi are also outstanding.


Santoor and bansuri: As mentioned earlier, Shivkumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia got together with guitarist Brij Bhushan Kabra in 1967 on the album ‘Call of the Valley’, where they recorded Ahir Bhairav, Nat Bhairav, Piloo, Des and Pahadi, besides some light compositions. Later, Sharma and Chaurasia also recorded two volumes of ‘The Valley Recalls’, including an elaborate rendition of Bhoopali. They have done numerous concerts as a duo.

In the late 1990s, flautist Ronu Majumdar and santoor player Satish Vyas also did a few concerts together.

Shehnai and violin: Bismillah Khan and violinist VG Jog used this combination successfully, recording ragas Todi and Durga. Bismilllah Khan also combined with Carnatic violinist L Subramaniam on the album ‘Live in Geneva’, featuring raga Yaman.

Carnatic saxophone and bansuri: Veteran saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath has done jugalbandis with flautists Ronu Majumdar and Pravin Godkhindi. Their combination has had an overwhelming response.


Fusion collaborations: Though they aren’t jugalbandis in the real sense, Indian melody instruments have often been combined with western ones in experimental music and Indo-jazz fusion.

In the 1960s, Ravi Shankar’s sitar joined Yehudi Menuhin’s violin. In the following decade, violinist L Shamkar and guitarist John McLaughlin were together in the band Shakti, and these days, McLaughlin is accompanied by mandolin wiz U Shrinivas in Remember Shakti. The ace guitarist has played only one piece with santoor maestro Shivkumar Sharma ― ‘Shringar’, based on raga Kirwani, which was like an actual jugalbandi.

Saxophonist Jan Garbarek has played with violinist L Shankar and flautist Chaurasia, and saxophonist George Brooks has teamed up with Chaurasia and harp player Gwyneth Wentink. Jazz guitarist Larry Coryell was joined by flautist Ronu Majumdar on the album ‘Moonlight Whispers’.

Among same or similar instruments, violinist L Subramaniam released the classic album ‘Conversations’ with violinist Stephane Grappelli, and has also played with Menuhin. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who plays the modified guitar Mohan veena, released the Grammy-winning album ‘A Meeting By The River’ with American guitarist Ry Cooder.

The examples in fusion abound, and are much larger in number as compared to classical jugalbandis. In both cases, they have been successful, despite opposition from the purists. In many ways, they have helped in attracting newer and younger audiences. For that singular reason, they have played a role in spreading the reach of Indian classical music.

Instruments from India — 13/ From the folk & devotional world

parvathy baulsakar khan

Parvathy Baul with the ektara string instrument and duggi percussion instrument, and the late Sakar Khan on the bowed instrument kamaicha

IN September 2012, I had begun a monthly series on Indian musical instruments. The aim was 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 melodic or rhythmic beauty that various Indian instruments offer.

In this series, I shall not go into too many technicalities and playing styles. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style. However, while I have tried to name all the main musicians, the lists mentioned are by no means exhaustive or complete. In all parts of the series, I shall use a similar format to maintain uniformity, and some portions on the concert structure may be repeated verbatim if needed.

The earlier parts of the series talked about the violin, sitar, bansuri, sarangi, different types of veena, sarod, santoor, shehnai/ nadaswaram, harmonium, Indian adaptations of the guitar, Indian adaptations of other western instruments, and other instruments used in Indian classical music. This month, we feature some instruments that are played in Indian folk and devotional music.

With this, I complete the portion on different types of melody instruments. Next month,I shall conclude this series by talking of combinations of melody instruments that have worked. Then, I shall begin the series ‘Percussion from India’, which shall talk about various drums. This series will start with the extra-popular tabla.

IN this series, I have covered various instruments used in Indian music. These have been used in either Hindustani music of north India, or in the south Indian Carnatic music. Besides the classical styles, these instruments are played in film music, ghazals and fusion.

There are certain instruments, however, that find specific place in Indian folk and devotional music. Many of these are played in select geographical regions, to go along with the local forms of music, and even as an accompaniment to folk dance.

Let’s look at some of these instruments. We shall only talk of melody instruments, and the rare percussion instruments will be featured in the next series. While I have tried to cover various folk instruments from across India, there may be few which I might not have been exposed to. Readers are requested to send details of any such melody instruments,



Ektara: It is a one-stringed instrument most often used in traditional music from Bangladesh, India, Egypt, and Pakistan. It was initially played by wandering bards and minstrels from India and is plucked with one finger. A similar two-stringed and bass instrument is known as dotara.

The ektara is used in traditional Baul music of Bengal, and in Sufi and Punjabi folk music too. At the Ruhaniyat Sufi and mystic music festival organised across India, one has often seen Baul singer Parvathy Baul play the ektara while singing, and using the percussion instrument duggi at the same time.

In Punjabi music, a single-string instrument called the tumbi is used, mainly in bhangra music. It was popularised in the 20th century by folk singer Lal Chand Yamla Jatt.

Other types of ektaras used in east and north east India are the kenda, pena and bana. Among certain tribes of western India, the single-stringed tuntuna or chohokode is used.


Esraj, dilruba and sarinda: The esraj is a string instrument which is only about 200 years old. The dilruba has a similar structure, and both are played with a bow.

The esraj is found in central and east India, particularly in Bengal, where it is used as an accompanying instrument in Rabindra Sangeet. The dilruba is found in the north, mainly in religious and light classical music. It is a derivative of the taus, another folk instrument.

Pandit Ranadhir Ray was known to be a well-known exponent of esraj. The instrument was also played by music director Roshan, and by spiritual guru Sri Chinmoy.

Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar once played the dilruba in the 1930s, and in south India, Dilruba Shanmugham played it in old film music. A R Rahman also used the instrument in ‘Dil Se’ and ‘Vande Mataram’.

A similar instrument is the sarinda, which is like the sarangi but uses a different kind of bow. It is played in folk music from Rajasthan, Assam and Tripura, besides Baul music. It is primarily used as an accompaniment for folk singers. In Rajasthani folk music, the Sindhi sarangi and ravanhatta are also used.

Sadly, the esraj and dilruba have declined in popularity, almost becoming extinct, and the sarinda is used in limited forms of music.


Kamaicha: It is one of the oldest bowed instruments in the world and is a key presence in Rajasthani folk music. Made from a single piece of wood, the kamaicha consists of a spherical bowl extended into the neck, a fingerboard, and a resonator covered with leather. It usually has four main strings passing over a thin bridge and is played with a bow, producing a haunting melody.

Among kamaicha players, the late Sakar Khan is very well-known. He belonged to the traditional Manganiyar folk musician community of Rajasthan, and had performed with renowned American violinist Yehudi Menuhin and George Harrison of The Beatles, besides appearing in numerous international festivals.

bulbul tarang

Bulbul tarang: It is an Indian string instrument which evolved from the Japanese taishōgoto, and has been played since the 1930s. It has two sets of strings, one set for drone, and one for melody.

A well-known player is Kapil Sharma, Jazz saxophonist and flautist Henry Threadgill was also fascinated by the instrument, and used it in some recordings.


Rabab: This lute-like instrument originated from Afghanistan, and is similar to the sursingar and sarod. In India, it has been played in Sikh religious music right from Guru Nanak’s time, when Bhai Mardana played it. Among today’s musicians, Chintoo Singh Wasir plays the rabab, besides being known for his guitar.



Pungi or been: It is a wind instrument played by snake charmers. The ‘been’ is also used in religious and folk music, and by street performers.

The sound of the ‘been’ was reproduced on a keyboard instrument clavioline by Kalyanji in the ‘Nagin’ song ‘Man dole mera tan dole’, composed by Hemant Kumar. The ‘been’ is also used in religious and folk music, and by street performers.


Shankh: The shankh is a conch shell which is blown to create music in devotional music, often to the accompaniment of percussion. The sound created by the shankh is called the shankhnaad, and the instrument is used across India, both in temples and during home poojas.


Algoze: It is a pair of woodwind instruments adopted by Punjabi, Sindhi, Rajasthani and Baloch folk musicians. It resembles a pair of wooden flutes. The musician plays it by using three fingers on each side, and breathing into the flutes.


Kombu: Also known as kombu pattu, it is a wind instrument played in Kerala temple music, accompanied by different percussion instruments. It can only produce three notes — sa, pa and higher sa — but musicians show their dexterity through improvisation. One of the most famous players is Kumath Raman Nair.


Karnal: This is a large, straight brass trumpet, over a metre long, played in parts of north India and Nepal. It is used on ceremonial occasions, such as the processions of village deities.

Another trumpet used in north and east India is the ransingha, which is made of two metal curves, joined together to form an ‘S’ shape.


Besides these instruments, certain other types are found in different parts of India.

The riwana is a type of fretless lute played in Himachal Pradesh, generally with four strings, and an additional string starting from mid-way down the neck, like the American five-string banjo.

The banam is a class of folk fiddles found among the Santal people of North East India and Bangladesh. The bommbanshi or bombashi is a fipple flute found in Bangladesh, and is also played in Bengal. The kasht tarang is a type of xylophone or marimba used in north India, but is not very common.

India has a rich variety of folk instruments. Unfortunately, many of them are known only in certain states, and that too in specific districts. People from the north are normally unaware of the instruments played in the east and south, unless they happen to travel to these regions and attend folk recitals.

The beauty, however, is that there is so much richness in sounds from across India. While the classical instruments have made inroads across the country, and even abroad, the folk instruments have their own charm that needs to be devoured.

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