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Chapter 19: Introduction to Classical Accompaniment


You have finally learned the slow, the medium, and the fast tempo, namely vilambit, madhya, and drut lay, respectively. You know how to take a regular tala and convert it to a vilambit lay, madhya lay, or a drut lay. You are probably wondering why this is important. Before reading on, I am sure some people will say that “some people sing in various tempos.” That is part of the answer, but not the whole picture.


Usually tabla teachers will teach cadence and cyclic forms to correspond with the tala. However, when some tabla students study tabla, they want to simply learn how to “keep the beat.” “Keeping the beat” is only less than a half of the story of the tabla. When using the “keeping the beat” mentality in mind, they forget to realize that there is more to it. It is often forgotten that tabla and its talas originated from the classical music of India. The classical music of India today depends on these three forms.




India is blessed with many musical instruments. In the Natya Sastra, by Bharata Muni, there are four classes of instruments. The string instruments, or tantri vadya, consist of instruments like the sitar, sarod, sarangi, surbahar, vina, and the modern santur. The second class is blown instruments, or susir vadya, consisting of bansuri and shehnai. The other two classes of percussion with membrane heads and headless percussion are not really in a category of instrumental music.


Usually the sitar for example, a concert could be as long as two hours long for the same raga. The sitar player would first go and play the alap. The alap is a free-style rhythm-less elaboration of the raga. It explores every note in the raga, its weight and relationship to other notes, and its overall flow. The purpose of the alap is for the audience to develop into the mood of the raga. For sitar players, it helps them keep the fingering correct. Alaps are almost always the longest part. Then a jod comes. The jod has a raga going in some apparent rhythm but not a true tala that a tabla could join in. The jod goes from each octave and elaborates on the flow of the raga as well as its mood. The jhala follows in which special drone strings, or chikaris, are used to mark rhythm. Even though it is more rhythmic than the jod, the tabla does not come in yet. The tabla remains silent throughout the alap, jod, and jhala.


The tabla then begins to join the sitar player when it is time to do a “gat” or composition. Every sitar player has different expectations on how to go about doing gat. Some will be very traditional, while some will be very up to trend. The traditional approach is to use all three lays. A vilambit lay is used for one composition. A separate madhya lay composition will there, and a drut lay composition will be there. A key feature in each of the three is that there will be a main thematic line that will be played with the sitar and elaboration of the raga follows. One can think of the gat as a song just played with the sitar. The main thematic line represents the refrain while the elaborations are equivalent to the verse. After the drut lay gat is completed, the tabla player might have one more line of accompanying a tabla player in madhya lay and then the show is over.




This is true not only for sitar, but for all instruments. Of course, wind and bowed instruments won’t necessarily have a jhala. Vocal music would only have an alap, and rarely a vocal jod known as nomtom. The North Indian system of vocal alap and gat is known as khayal. The same tabla procedures, nevertheless, stay the same. Always keep in mind to accent the talis, especially the sam. Remember, the musicians are there to concentrate on getting the notes correct, not trying to find what part of the tala they are in.


In Bengal, classical kirtans are in this format. The mridanga is played at a very slow speed, just as a vilambit lay. Later into the kirtan, it would develop speed. In this manner, mridanga is very similar to the tabla conceptually. In fact, mridanga is perhaps the only folk instrument closest to the tabla. Of course, in the West, this style is not too commonly used.


You may also use any of these three lays in light-classical music. Thumri, or romantic musical style, as well as dadra, another version of thumri, could start off with a vilambit lay. Then progress straight to a drut lay ending. Almost all of the thumris that I know of have always started off with vilambit always end with a phenomenal ending with a drut lay. Some thumris and dadras will start off in madhya lay and end in madhya lay without any change in tempo.


Similar to kheyal is called the tarana. The tarana is a recitation of syllables, either bols or fictitious words, sung in a particular raga. Most taranas could be heard in madhya lay or drut lay. It would be virtually impossible to hear of a tarana in vilambit lay.


Of course, there are many more styles of classical singing. Tabla is virtually used in every facet of music in North India. You have developed enough knowledge of talas from unit two and how to use them in musical applications. Please review all that you have learned up to this point. The next entire unit will deal with talas in a much different perspective.

UPDATED: June 20, 2009