Indian Tabla Drums - A pair of percussive instruments from India whose unique ecstatic sound has fascinated listeners around the globe. Consisting of a bass drum played with the left hand and a treble tuned drum played with the right hand.

The tabla is a popular Indian percussion instrument used in the classical, popular and religious music of the Indian subcontinent and in Hindustani classical music. The instrument consists of a pair of hand drums of contrasting sizes and timbres. The term tabla is derived from an Arabic word which means "drum".


The history of this instrument is at times the subject of heated debate. The most common historical account credits the 13th century Indian poet Amir Khusrau as having invented the instrument, by splitting a Pakhawaja into two parts. However, none of his own writings on music mention the drum (nor the string instrument sitar). Another common historical narrative portrays the tabla as being thousands of years old, yet this is mere conjecture, based on slipshod interpretations of iconography. Reliable historical evidence places the invention of this instrument in the 18th century, and the first verifiable player of this drum was Ustad Siddar Khan of Delhi. The transformation of the tabla from a religious-folk instrument to an instrument of art-music occurred in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, when significant changes took place in the feudal court music of North India. The majority of the performers were Muslim and resided in or near the centers of Mughal power and culture such as Delhi, Lucknow, Allahabad, Hyderabad, and Lahore. However, one notable group of Hindu hereditary musicians was located in the holy city of Varanasi. In public performances, tabla players were primarily accompanists to vocalists and instrumentalists; however, they developed a sophisticated solo repertoire that they performed in their own musical gatherings. It is this solo repertoire along with student-teacher lineages that are the defining socio-cultural elements of tabla tradition known by the Hindi term gharana (ghar = "house" Hindi, ana = "of the" Persian).

Most performers and scholars recognize two styles of gharana: Dilli Baj and Purbi Baj. Dilli (or Delhi) baj comes from the style that developed in Delhi, and Purbi (meaning eastern) baj developed in the area east of Delhi. They then recognize six gharanas of tabla. They appeared or evolved in the following order, presumably:

1) Delhi gharana

2) Lucknow gharana

3) Ajrara gharana later followed by

4) Farukhabad gharana

5) Benares gharana

6) Punjab gharana

Other tabla performers have identified further derivations of the above traditions, but these are subjective claims. Some traditions indeed have sub-lineages and sub-styles that meet the criteria to warrant a separate gharana name, but such socio-musical identities have not taken hold in the public discourse of Hindustani art music, such as the Qasur lineage of tabla players of the Punjab region.

Each gharana is traditionally set apart from the others by unique aspects of the compositional and playing styles of its exponents. For instance, some gharanas have different tabla positioning and bol techniques. In the days of court patronage the preservation of these distinctions was important in order to maintain the prestige of the sponsoring court. Gharana secrets were closely guarded and often only passed along family lines. Being born into or marrying into a lineage holding family was often the only way to gain access to this knowledge.

Today many of these gharana distinctions have been blurred as information has been more freely shared and newer generations of players have learned and combined aspects from multiple gharanas to form their own styles. There is much debate as to whether the concept of gharana even still applies to modern players. Some think the era of gharana has effectively come to an end as the unique aspects of each gharana have been mostly lost through the mixing of styles and the socio-economic difficulties of maintaining lineage purity through rigorous training.

Nonetheless the greatness of each gharana can still be observed through study of its traditional material and, when accessible, recordings of its great players. The current generation of traditionally trained masters still hold vast amounts of traditional compositional knowledge and expertise.

This body of compositional knowledge and the intricate theoretical basis which informs it is still actively being transmitted from teacher to student all over the world. In addition to the instrument itself, the term "tabla" is often used in reference to this knowledge and the process of its transmission.

Nomenclature and construction

The smaller drum, played with the dominant hand, is called dayan (lit. "right"; a.k.a. dahina, siddha, chattu) and can also be referred to individually as "tabla." It is made from a conical piece of wood hollowed out to approximately half of its total depth. One of the primary tones on the drum is tuned to a specific note, and thus contributes to and complements the melody. The tuning range is limited although different dayans are produced in different sizes, each with a different range. For a given dayan, to achieve harmony with the soloist, it will usually be necessary to tune to either the tonic, dominant or subdominant of the soloist's key.

The larger drum, played with the other hand, is called bayan (lit. "left"; aka. dagga, duggi, dhama). The bayan may be made of any of a number of materials. Brass is the most common; copper is expensive, but generally held to be the best, while aluminum and steel are often found in inexpensive models. One sometimes finds wood used, especially in old bayans from the Punjab. Clay is also used, although not favored for durability; these are generally found in the North-East region of Bengal. The bayan has a much deeper bass tone, much like its distant cousin, the kettle drum.

The playing technique for both drums involves extensive use of the fingers and palms in various configurations to create a wide variety of different types of sounds; these are reflected in the mnemonic syllables (bol). On the bayan the heel of the hand is also used to apply pressure, or in a sliding motion, so that the pitch is changed during the sound's decay. This "modulating" effect on the bass drum and the wide range of sounds possible on the instrument as a whole are the main characteristics that make tabla unique among percussion instruments.

Both drum shells are covered with a head (or puri) constructed from goat or cow skin. An outer ring of skin (keenar) is overlaid on the main skin and serves to suppress some of the natural overtones. These two skins are bound together with a complex woven braid that also gives the entire assembly enough strength to be tensioned onto the shell. The completed head construction is affixed to the drum shell with a single continuous piece of cow or camel hide strap laced between the braid of the head assembly and another ring (made from the same strap material) placed on the bottom of the drum. The strap is tensioned to achieve the desired pitch of the drum. Additionally, cylindrical wood blocks, known as ghatta, are inserted between the strap and the shell allowing the tension to be adjusted by their vertical positioning. Fine tuning is achieved by striking vertically on the braided portion of the head using a small hammer.

The skins of both drums also have an inner circle on the head referred to as the syahi (lit. "ink"; a.k.a. shai or gab). This is constructed using multiple layers of a paste made from starch (rice or wheat) mixed with a black powder of various origins. The precise construction and shaping of this area (especially on the smaller drum) is responsible for modification of the drum's natural overtones, resulting in the clarity of pitch and variety of tonal possibilities unique to this instrument. The skill required for the proper construction of this area is highly refined and is the main differentiating factor in the quality of a particular instrument.

For stability while playing, each drum is positioned on a toroidal bundle called chutta, consisting of plant fiber or another malleable material wrapped in cloth.

There are basically two styles of tablas in general use: Bombay and Calcutta. The Bombay, also made in and around Pune, depending on quality, uses thicker skins and straps and has a thicker but smaller gab. The Bombay style tabla is a bit more rugged and can be played louder and with more mid-tone resonance without the worry of damaging the head. The Calcutta-style tabla uses thinner skins, thinner straps and has a larger, thinner gab and is sharper in timbre with generally a little more sustain in the upper register. The drawback of the Calcutta-style tabla is that it will need to be reheaded a bit more often. There are hybrid tablas with the better characteristics of both locales. Zakir Hussain and Anindo Chatterjee regularly use both styles of tablas as well as hybrids made by the best makers.

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