Geographic Region: South Asia
Country of origin: India
Subregion: Northern India
Climatic type: Monsoon system
Time period: 18th Century - Present
SvH No.: 211.23
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A set of tabla is comprised of two drums: a smaller drum called dayan (and also known as tabla), which is played with the dominant hand, and a larger drum, the bayan (also known as duggi) which is played with the off hand. Both drums are roughly 10 inches high. Both drums feature complex drum heads, known as puri, consisting of several parts. There is a main skin which is covered by a second layer of skin on top, cut away in the middle to leave a ring around the edge. These layers are woven together around the edge using a long leather strap, called the gajra. Finally, the distinctive black dot in the middle of the skin is called the siyahi (also known as the gob), which is a compound made from iron powder, flour, and other ingredients. The siyahi attenuates the harmonic overtones of the drums, giving them their pitched quality. The siyahi on the dayan is centered, while the siyahi on the bayan is off to one side. The dayan is a slightly conical drum made of wood, with a wider base and a skin covering the narrower open end. The head of the drum can vary from a little under 5 inches up to 6.5 inches, depending on the style of music being played. The head of the drum is fastened to the body by means of a very long leather strap which is woven around the drum in a V pattern, starting at a ring at the base of the drum and going up through a hole in the gajra, then back down and so on. There are always 16 holes around the edge. Wooden cylinders are wedged in between the straps (one cylinder for every 2 holes/4 strap lengths) to increase the tension and enable tuning. The bayan is a large, bowl-shaped drum made of metal (copper or brass are favored, although one can find aluminum and iron bayans as well). Clay is also used, but is more rarely seen. The diameter of the bayan is usually around 9 inches. The head is fastened to the body in the same way as the dayan, but without the need for wooden cylinders. In some cases, short wooden rods of a much narrower diameter will be used to keep up tension. Another method of fastening the head uses a light rope which is then tightened using sliding metal rings.
Popular history attributes the invention of the tabla to the 14th century Muslim polymath Amir Khusru, who is said to have cut a pakhawaj (a two-headed barel-shaped drum) into two halves. This is almost certainly a fiction, as references to tabla in texts and images do not appear until the mid 18th century. No decisive history of the tabla has been agreed upon, but they are closely related to many older styles of drums: the barrel-shaped pakhawaj and the South Indian mrdangam both feature a similar multilayered skin construction, while bowl-shaped bass drums similar to the bayan exist in the traditional musics of Rajasthan and other parts of North India. Tabla playing quickly evolved into various regional styles of playing, called gharanas, each with their own particular special playing techniques and compositional methods. The main gharanas come from Delhi, Benares (now known as Varanasi), Lucknow, the Punjab, and Farukhabad. Although the relationship between gharanas has traditionally been one of intense competition and secrecy, modern tabla playing tends towards the inclusion of techniques and compositions from across all the different styles.
The dayan is generally tuned to the tonic pitch of whatever instrument or ensemble they are accompanying. In practical terms, this is usually between B and E, with C# being a very common drone pitch for sitars. In some instances, the dayan will be tuned to the 3rd or 5th scale degree (ga and pa, respectively). The bayan is not tuned to a specific pitch.
The tabla are played almost entirely with the fingers. On both drums strokes are divided into "open" and "closed" sounds, each of which has at least one monosyllabic name for use in aural instruction and memorization. On the dayan, open sounds are produced with the index finger striking either the outer ring (the kinar) the inner ring (maidan) or the black dot in the middle (siyahi). These sounds are called ta, tin, and tun, respectively. Closed strokes involve alternating the index finger with the other three fingers on the siyahi (tete), making a cupped slapping motion on the siyahi (tak), and using alternating sides of the full palm of the hand over the whole head of the drum to produce a muffled "flapping wing" sort of sound (dhere dhere). On the bayan, the open sound is called ghe and is produced with either the index finger or the middle and ring fingers together. Articulation of this sound is achieved by varying pressure with the wrist to modulate the pitch, and also by sliding the wrist across the head in various ways to produce quick glissandi (this last technique being more common in folk and light classical music). The closed sound, kut, is played by slapping the hand down on the head of the drum, with the fingers extending out to the edge.
Indian music is primarily an oral tradition and, as such, has no need of elaborate notational devices. Tabla players learn and transmit compositions by means of reciting strings of syllables called bols which refer to the various sounds of the drum. A rough form of notation is commonly achieved by writing down the syllables into groups which correspond with their metrical placement, but there exists no canonical method for doing this, partly due to the variety in spelling and pronunciation of these syllables from teacher to teacher, and partly due to differing modes of interpreting what a string of syllables means depending on performance context, stylistic school, and so on.
The tabla is used throughout Northern India in all forms of music, but is most often associated with vocal and instrumental classical music, in which it is the predominant form of accompaniment. Devotional musics such as the Sufi qawali, the Hindu bhajan, and the Sikh shabad also make extensive use of the tabla. Lighter song forms, such as the muslim ghazal, as well as Bollywood film soundtracks and Hindi pop music of all sorts also feature the tabla. There is also a tradition of solo tabla performance which has been growing more as time goes on. In all contexts except solo performance the tabla is used as an accompanying instrument whose main function is to clearly articulate the time cycle being used. In this capacity, the tabla player will repeat a basic pattern, called theka, which marks out the strong and weak beats in the cycle, with enough variation and small-scale improvisation to keep the music interesting. In classical instrumental music the soloist will often return to a cyclic melody over which the tabla player solos, although these solos are generally shorter and less frequent than those of the instrumentalist. A usual feature of solos will include a form called q'aida (or kaida), which is a permutative theme-and-variations style form in which a subject is stated and then methodically varied and elaborated upon. Tabla solos end with a cadential pattern called tihai, which is rhythmic figure repeated three times such that the last stroke of the last repetition elides with the first beat of a new time cycle. Some more elaborate cadence patterns exist, such as the chakardar which is a triple tihai. Many other types of solo composition exist, each with their own function. A solo performance will progress through these various forms, going from introductory forms such as peshkar and uttan and mukra through various q'aida, with a rela section involving very fast torrential playing, and punctuating various transition points with tihai along the way. An instrument, usually a sarangi, will play a cyclic melody in the background as a metrical reference.
Dick, Alastair, and Devdan Sen. 1984. "Tabla" In The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, vol. 3, ed. Stanley Sadie. London: MacMillan Press
Gottlieb, Robert S. 1993. Solo Tabla Drumming of North India: Its Repertoire, Styles, and Performance Practices. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Last Modified: 03-Jun-2010TOP