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About the Tabla

The Tabla
The word tabla comes from the Arabic word for 'drum'. The North Indian tabla is a pair of drums, one tuned to a clear, bell like treble tone and the other to a flexible low bass tone. The dayan ('right' in Hindi) is the smaller, higher pitched of the two drums. It is tuned to the SA (tonic) of the main melodic instrument (on occasion it is tuned to PA/5th). It is most often carved out of a single piece of wood. The bayan ('left' in Hindi) is the larger bass drum and is usually tuned to low SA, GA or PA. However, its pitch is controlled by the pressure of the heel of the hand and only occasionally is fully released. It is most often made of a mixture of metals, namely nickel, copper, bronze. The shell is hammered into shape and then often coated with a silver alloy. In previous times the bayan was made of clay or even wood. Both wood and clay sound very nice, however with the traveling that modern day artists have to do, the metal holds up much better.

Tabla Repair
The process of learning tabla also includes learning to repair, maintain the instrument. 
Specialty items like this repair hook are very important tools which help make tabla repair easy. It is actually a very important skill to learn in these modern times, where tabla players are touring all over the world and traveling from humid to dry environments may happen almost every concert. Since it rare to find a repairman who deals at all with instruments of this kind, tabla players themselves need to know the art of maintaining and repairing tabla. 



Learning Tabla
The different rhythmic sounds in tabla are described with vocal syllables called bols. The language of tabla is learned very much like any language. You start with the ABCs and through repetition learn the alphabet, words, sentences, stories, poetry and so on. There are anywhere from 15 to 30 bols in tabla (depending on who you ask and what school or gharana you are referring to). However, the process of learning tabla takes significantly longer than conventional languages. This is because as one learns the bols vocally, one also must learn the proper physical stroke that will produce that bol on the tabla. It is truly a labor of love since the beauty of even the basic sounds requires many, many hours of focus and practice. The degree of clarity and fullness that can be imbued into the sound production is vast and ultimately defines a player's voice. A perfect example of this is the difference in tone created by Ustad Zakir Hussain as opposed to that of his illustrious father and teacher, Ustad Alla Rakha. Even when they play exactly the same bols and compositions, they have surprisingly different and equally brilliant tone. 

In terms of development, the language of the tabla was developed with two ideas in mind. The first being the basic representation of the sounds of the instrument, a literal imitation if you like. The other being the development of certain vocalizations, which sounded melodically pleasing or inspirational when spoken. Although the tabla does not actually produce those tones, they sound incredibly poetic when spoken. (For example, the inheriting of certain sounds from the Kathak and Odissi dance tradition.)

There are four main categories of composition in the traditional literature/practice of tabla solo performance. While some of these types of compositions will appear in the accompaniment tradition, many are so complex or extended that they are appropriate only in the tabla solo setting. 

Peshkar (To Show/To Present) is played at the beginning of a solo or in the slower sections of accompaniment. It generally displays a simple but rich combination of bols that are then developed and improvised upon while keeping the integrity of the outlined set of ideas. 
Ex. (In TIntal)
D - - Kr D t D trkt D t D D t D D Ti N
- - - Kr D t D trkt D t D D t D D Ti N
T - - Kr T t T trkt T t T T t T T Ti N
- - - Kr D t D trkt D t D D t D D Di N

Kaida (Rule or Limit) is the strictest form of tabla composition. It presents a clear thematic structure of bols usually ending with a recognized combination of bols such as "Di Na Ge Na". But more specifically, a kaida requires that every variation played after the theme may only make use of the bols given in the theme. Also, every variation should be related to (rhyme with) the previous stanza. The practice of kaida is often recommended as a focus for students of tabla because of its ability to strengthen a player's hand and inventiveness of mind. 
Ex. (In TIntal)
D t D g N D trkt D t D g Ti N k N
T t T k N D trkt D t D g Di N g N

Gat (Composition) is a very beautiful style of composition wherein fixed poetic pieces are passed down from teacher to student and often carry in them stylistic preferences that reflect the particular gharana and teacher. There are many types of gats that highlight the virtuosity, intricate time play and storytelling ability of the tabla (examples of the different categories of gat are: Tukra, Paran, Chakradar, Bedum, Formaishi, and so on). Another feature of gat is that in the solo tradition, they are often first recited vocally and then played on the tabla. 
Ex. (In Tintal)
4/4 D trkttktrktD - D trkttktrktD - D trkttktrktD - - - 
3/4 t k t D - - t k t D - - t - - t - - k - - T - - 
4/4 D trkttktrktD - D trkttktrktD - D trkttktrktD

Rela (Gush or Flood) is usually played as the finale of a tabla solo or in the ending portions of accompaniment. Many rela compositions begin with an outlined structure of accents, which then are filled in with very fast, fluid like bols creating a smooth, rushing rhythm. The variations evolve and build from there. A common characteristic of rela is its likeness to fluid sounds in nature such as rushing wind, falling rain or flooding water and other familiar sound such as a moving train or a running horse. 
Ex. (In Tintal)
D t
N Di n Di N t when played as a rela becomes: DtgnNgDingnDinNtgn

Tala or Tal actually refers to "marking time" or "to clap". Thus the word basically means rhythm and in the Indian music system refers to specific rhythm cycles. In theory there are 360 Tals and cycles as long as 108 beats long. However, in the actual practice of the music, there are only a small number of Tals used. 
Tintal 16 beats = D Di Di D D Di Di D D Ti Ti N N Di Di D
Jhaptal 10 beats = Di N Di Di N Ti N Di Di N
Rupaktal 7 beats = Ti Ti N Di N Di N
Ektal 12 beats = Di Di Dg trkt Tu N k T Dg trkt Di D

There are a number of other fairly common classical tals used today as well as a wide array of light classical and folk tals. 

The Tals are learned by both the instrumentalist / vocalist and of course by the tabla player. These specific series of bols become the stable reference for the exploration and evolution of the
Raga / Rag (melody). The precomposed compositions as well as all improvisation, reference the Theka (skeleton bols of the Tal) to know when and how to resolve. There is an extreme importance put onto beat number one of all Talas which is known as Sum. The word Sum actually comes from an ancient Sanskrit word "Sumagraha", which references both a musical concept and an esoteric concept. More on that topic over on our "MUSICAL UNIVERSE" pages. But suffice it to say, the link between the practice of music and the exploring of the spiritual nature of our universe are available within this ancient system for those who crave that topic.


Anatomy of Tabla
The basic parts of the tabla are similar for each of the two drums. The heads (puri/pudi) of the drum are made of a thin goatskin. The black dot (shyahi/gob) on the tabla head, (in the center of the dayan and just off center on the bayan), is actually a paste made from rice flower, iron fillings and resin, blended in certain proportions which is applied in layers to the skin and hardens to create a resonant weight which allows for the fine tuning of the drum. There are very few craftsmen in India who have mastered this aspect of tabla making, but when this paste is properly made and applied, it becomes the key to the unusually clear sound and tonal quality of the tabla. The sur is the area of the head that actually vibrates, generating the tones of the tabla and is made up of not only the shyahi, but of the inner ring of exposed leather. This area is known as the maidan and is beautifully translated as 'open meadow', referring to the soft, open tone drawn from techniques using that area. An outer ring of goatskin (kinar) is woven onto the main skin, which forms a protective layer where the skin meets the rim of the drum. (The kinar is also used as a playing surface, creating tones, which correlate to specific bols). A woven ring (pagri), made of thick water buffalo raw hide, holds the layers together an also serves as the tension ring for the head. The straps (chot) which hold the head onto the shell of the drum are also made from this thick buffalo hide and are held in place at the bottom of the drum shell by another tension ring made from several hoops of the buffalo hide straps.

There are 8 wooden pegs (gattha) inserted under the straps to add variable tension and create the gross tuning mechanism for the drum. The rings (adharas) on which the tabla sits create a stable base and allow the tabla to be tilted at the angles that best suit the techniques of the players. A hammer (hathauri) is used to move the pegs up and down for the gross tuning but is also used to tap the pagri ring for fine-tuning which is truly an art form in and of itself. When the tabla is made by a master craftsman and the puri/shyahi is just right, the instrument literally sings with sweetness and deep warmth. It is this haunting and expressive voice that has attracted generation after generation of talented and often deeply spiritual musicians.


History of Tabla
The grandfather of the tabla is a drum called pakhawaj. This is a two-sided barrel drum with both a treble end and larger bass end. A handmade dough mixture gob is applied each time it is played and then removed when finished. The two sided barrel drum, known as mridang, can be traced back more than 2000 years with the pakhawaj appearing perhaps 1000 years ago. Its quality of sound and its playing style evolved in tandem with the vocal music of the time and is famed for its rich, full tones and over the centuries become recognized not only as an accompanying instrument, but as a solo instrument. The evolution from pakhawaj to tabla was not the mythic story of someone breaking a pakhawaj in two. The historical understanding is that there was an instrument called nagara/naqara, which comes from the family of war drums, like kettledrums, which were hung on either side of an elephant, thus constituting a pair of drums. There was a smaller instrument known as dukkar (about two times the size of the tabla) that may have been the next step down from the much larger nagara. In the fifteen and sixteen hundreds, the dukkar needed to downsize even further because in the presence of the king, one could not sit, thus the musicians were required to stand and play a smaller, lighter instrument. There are paintings over 300 years old depicting tabla players with a platform tied to their waist, upon which the tabla sits. Also, the invention of the perminent Gob or Shyhi also is only 300 years old, thus all drums prior to this time used a dough which was applied and removed every time the drum was used. Tabla rose to greater popularity in the royal courts of Delhi during the late 17th and 18th centuries and today is considered the premier percussion instrument of India.

The individual usually credited with the most significant developments of tabla technique and repertoire at this time was Sidhar Khan Daadhi Pakhwaji. His grandsons and their various disciples carried the art of tabla playing to other major centers of North Indian cultural life, a dispersion which naturally led to the evolution of a number of distinct regional performance styles. At the present time these schools of tabla playing or gharanas (derived from the Hindi word ghar or 'house') commonly include those of Delhi, Lucknow, Benares, Farukhabad and Ajrara. A sixth style, the 'Punjab gharana', developed independently in what is present-day Pakistan as a pakawaj gharana until the late 19th century when those compositions were applied to the tabla. (Ustad Alla Rakha & Ustad Zakir Hussain). Each gharana has imbibed the essence, culture and character of its founding city/area into its tradition. However in modern times, the event of travel and technology have allowed the students of all gharanas to share techniques and compositions to the point of blending styles. There of course are up sides and downsides to this modern day evolution, but regardless of all else one thing remains true, the tabla is a dynamic and rapidly evolving instrument.