The Tabla

The Subcontinent’s

Rhythmic Backbone

The fingers dance in a blur of motion, whistling through the air. The audience leans in, intent not to lose a moment. A swift succession of sounds fills the air as the intoxicating rhythm pulls you in. The audience rise to their feet, swaying in time with the beat. In and out of this beautiful music the melodious harmonium weaves, complementing and decorating. This is the tabla, one of the most magical instruments of all.

The origins of this enchanting instrument itself are debated upon. Some say that it is descended from ancient Indian drums while others claim that it was carried into the Subcontinent by the Muslim invaders, who often carried sets of drums on camels and horses to scare away their enemies by the loud noise they produced. Still others insist that the tabla was created by a musician named Amir Khusrow in the eighteenth century by cutting a pakawaj drum in two. (No, we are not talking about the Amir Khusrow, one of the subcontinent’s most famous musicians). The word tabla itself comes from the Arabic word tabl, which means drum.

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

While its origins are rather unclear, one thing is absolutely obvious: the tabla is the king of dynamics. Is there any drum that can be both as loud and imposing as well as soft and subtle as the tabla? The secret: it’s a hand drum. By playing with the hands, you get a very flexible instrument which can adapt itself to play many types of sounds, with this flexibility being otherwise lost in drums banged upon with sticks. (No insult intended for non-tabla drummers, but still…. You will understand the difference after watching this video).

As for the anatomy of the tabla, one should know that it consists of two drums: the dayan and the bayan. The dayan is normally situated next to the dominant hand of the musician, with the bayan being played by the other ones. Bayan means left in Urdu while dayan means right (a reference to the usual dominance of the right hand, for the dayan is more often at the right of a musician than at the left). But don’t worry, the tabla does not have a bias against left-handed people like some other tools and instruments. In fact the famed Khalifa, or leader, of the Punjab Gharana, Mian Qadir Bakhsh was left-handed. But we digress. The bayan is normally made of metal and the dayan with wood, but there are exceptions, like clay or wooden bayans. The traditional position at the tabla is to sit cross-legged in front of it, but there are many exceptions (we, for instance, often prefer wrapping our legs around the tabla for better support while playing at home).

The tabla has many different styles of playing. There are various schools of tabla playing, which are called gharanas. There are six main ones: the Punjab, Farukhabad, Benares, Delhi, Ajrara and Lucknow gharanas. The word ‘gharana’ comes from the word for household in Urdu, as the players playing in the style of a gharana normally were linked either through apprenticeship or actual familial ties to that gharana. Each has its own repertoire as well as their own playing style. These were guarded jealously and considered precious secrets. Due to this secrecy and the fact that the gharanas had very little interaction with each other, their styles were much more distinct. But now with better communication and the weakening of the tabla culture, styles are mingling much more than before.

Tabla notation is a modern invention. Traditionally, music was passed on orally using a unique system of bols, or words, which indicate which strokes to play. These bols are mainly shared only with the pakhawaj, another type of drum. Each bol stands for a different tabla stroke e.g. ta, tin, ghe, etc. These bols remain roughly the same throughout the gharanas, even though there are slight differences in the ways they are played. It is important to note that this oral tradition has in part been responsible for the demise of the tabla, since an experienced teacher is needed for proper learning and there are almost no tabla books to help a student. Furthermore, these oral lessons are much more easily distorted or lost in comparison to written lessons, which also contributes to the dwindling amount of tabla players. Yet luckily, not all is gloomy in the future of the tabla. Ustad Zakir Hussain, a tabla virtuoso, is at the moment creating interest in the tabla around the world. We hope that this will help save the tabla from the fate of the asor – complete extinction. And, of course, Save the Sitar is also trying to do its part!

Do you want to play the tabla? If so or if not, (you ought to) check out our series In the Footsteps of the Masters, where you will find comprehensive tabla tutorials for absolute beginners. The lessons are based on Ustad Keramatullah Khan’s tabla booklet The 42 Lessons for the Tabla.

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