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Chapter 01: Introduction to the Tabla


Dear student: In this online guide, there will be three characters whom should be great friends by the end of this chapter. They are instructor, student, and the tabla. You, the student, and I, your guide, can know more of each other later. I’ll introduce you to the tabla, whom you’ll do most your practice, work, and creations on. The tabla is our focal point in this course. Material shown here will be helpful, but not necessarily a replacement course in pakhawaj, khol, or any other percussion instrument.


The origin of the tabla is the most debated topic. It is argued to have appeared at least five hundred years ago. Some musicians will argue that tabla was derived from dividing the ancient barrel drum, pakhawaj, into two segments which became the two drums of the tabla. This is shown in Figure 1.1. Another famous theory suggests that the two drums evolved separately. Some other speculations show that the tabla was of Persian origin from either the nebla drums or the Arabian tabla drums.

Figure 1.1

Although the origin is unknown, the tabla has found its way into accompanying classical music of North India. It has been simply a classical rhythmic instrument until late Ustad Allarakha used the tabla as a solo instrument capable of moods and improvisations. Also to his credit, he is known for introducing the tabla to the West with world renowned sitar player, Pandit Ravi Shankar in 1964 in New York. Ustad Allarakha’s son, the famous Ustad Zakir Hussein, has developed new pitch changes in the tabla as well as new bols, which you will learn in Chapter 2. Now, the tabla has become more than accompaniment to Indian classical music, but an instrument used in many genres of music.


          The tabla is simply a pair of two kettledrums from India. Let us examine further what is on the tabla.


The smaller treble drum is known as the daya. This comes from the Hindi word for “right.” Naturally, if you are a right handed person, you will play the daya with your right hand. Other courses might refer this drum as the danya, and “tabla”. I avoid using this word, as the word alone is prone confusion. In this book, daya or dayan means “smaller drum” and “tabla” means the pair of both drums. The body of the dayan is made of wood. The shell is known as the lakadi.


The bigger bass drum is known as the baya which means “left” in Hindi. If you are a right-handed person, you will play the baya with your left. Other books and teachers will refer to this drum as the banya, dagga, or the duggi. I will use baya or bayan as the “bigger bass drum.” The body of the baya is made of copper, nickel, aluminum or rarely clay, fiberglass, or wood. The shell is known as the pital.


The drum head is known as the “puri.” On each puri, there are three layers. The outer rim is known as the kinnar. The middle layer of goat-skin is known as the maidan, and the black iron layer is known as the syahi. It is also known as the shahi, or gob. You will notice on the baya that the syahi is off-center, unlike the dayan, whose syahi is in the center. The explanation will be more evident in the future chapters.


The outer rim of braid, right outside the playable portion, is known as the gajara. This is used for tuning with your tuning hammer. You will not nor should not attempt tuning tabla. Incorrect hammering of the gajara can warp the sound of your tabla and destroy your puri. Tuning will be taught in Chapter 34.


The lacing “straps” are known as “tasma.” More expensive tabla use leather rawhide for tasma, while older and cheaper tabla uses rope. Currently, in order to avoid tuning and re-heading problems, bolt-tuned tabla is used. I personally think this is a better option to get, but it is a good idea to consult your teacher first.


To tighten your tabla, there are wooden blocks called gatta. There are always found on the dayan drums. Occasionally, gatta are inserted in the bayan to tighten it.

Lastly, cushions known as chutti, help elevate the drums to allow the maximum amount of sound to resonate.


Here is a picture of the tabla with labels in Figure 1.2.

Figure 1.2



When learning tabla, it is very beneficial to practice and perform sitting on the ground in the Indian “yoga” position. This will allow maximum energy on the tabla. Very rarely is tabla ever played on tables, while sitting on a chair. It is usually the least recommended posture. Some ashrams and some players will play the baya on the ground, while they keep the dayan on the lap, considering the lap as the cushion. This might be pleasing, but it might become very tiring after hours of playing. In addition, it adds greater strain to the hand with the dayan hand.


As you have seen these pictures of the tabla pair, they are always on an angle. For now, you do not have to play on an angle. In fact, it is very recommended that you have them leveled to the ground. This way, you can see exactly where you are hitting. It is analogous to a piano player looking at the keys, initially. Through years of practice, speed and striking judgments will come very naturally that one does not need to look at the keys. Similarly, later on, for speed and comfort, you can tilt your daya and baya away from you. It is a common practice to have the daya and baya facing away from the player, while the baya and the daya are slightly looking at each other.


Get some time with your tabla. Look and feel it to get an idea what it sounds like. Without learning any tabla information, your first assignment is to strike the daya using your index finger. What sound is produced? Do you have a long resonant sound? Do you have a stiff nonresonant sound? Is it partially resonant? Work for the resonant sound. This is very difficult for beginners who have not dealt with Indian instruments. On the other hand, for mridanga players, this concept should be of no difficulty. Keep trying to strike the daya using your index finger and aim to get that open resonant sound. Until you can do this without difficulty, do not move onto Chapter 2. Every chapter onwards relies on your ability to strike the daya, as well as baya, to produce an open resonant sound.

UPDATED: June 20, 2009