A publication of the Batish Institute of Indian Music and Fine Arts

Tabla Lesson 1
Origins of the Tabla

Tabla learning series of articles by Ashwin Batish
and Pandit Shiv Dayal Batish

Tabla learning series of articles

(Click the tabla image above to hear Ashwin Batish playing a sample of a Peshkar (intro) in the Tintal rhythm cycle of 16 beats Windows WMA format.)

Ever since the vedic period, drums have been very much in vogue in India. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata both make mention of a variety of such instruments.

According to an ancient saying, Brahma, the lord of the Universe, invented the drums for the purpose of playing on the occasion when Shiva, the lord of destruction, in a mood of happiness, danced his eternal Tandava Nritya dance.

The Mridanga, Pakhavaj, Dhol, Duff, Dholak, are also some of the ancient names of drums.

It is also said that the present day Tabla is an improved form of a very old drum called Durdur.

According to another saying, the Tabla was born when the Pakhavaj drum was cut into two equal pieces thus isolating the bass and the treble.

Today, there are various "Gharanas" (meaning households) of Tabla. Each has a distinctive style developed by different families at different times. One of the first known performers who succeeded in popularising this drum was Kallu Khan of Delhi.

From the study of the history of music and social developments in Arabia, we find that the tabla style of instrument were widely used in the Middle East. With the coming of Muslims to India, the instrument called the "Tabl" was introduced. By deriving technical skills from the highly evolved Indian drums such as the Mridangam and Pakhavaj, a new stylistically evolved instrument called the Tabla has become the precussion instrument of choice in North India.

Perhaps the Tabla gets its name from that Arabic drum called Tabl. The story of whether the ancient Tabl and the modern day Tabla are of the same design is a topic for research to be dealt with latter. But the addition of the Dagga (bass drum) sets this drum apart from the ancient Tabl and to a certain degree from the Mridangam and the Pakhawaj.

The Tabla drum set has become the staple percussion diet of the Indian music scene. Although today it has found a permanent home in the classical music tradition of North India, it has also been the rhythm instrument of choice in folk and film music. But as trends change, today's film music is lessening its use of traditional Indian instruments giving rise to a more "Western" sound. Indian timbres are being relegated to movies stereocasting olden times. This is breeding a new generation of young Indians who are shying away from their heritage. Interestingly enough, there is a revival of sorts. The classical community is keeping the torch alive as every now and then I will come across a recording of a young 17 year old that is totally awesome and then I relax ....

The tabla drum set consists of the treble drum called Dayan and a bass drum called Bayan. Translated, "Dayan" means right hand and "Bayan" means left hand. This name classification falls apart if you are left handed. This is why I personally prefer to call these drums by the names "Dagga" (bass) and "Tabla" (treble). In Bombay, my father recalls musicians calling the hand that is playing the Tabla drum as "Siddha" - meaning correct, and "Davan" (nasal n) - meaning incorrect. This scheme would apply equally to left and right handed Tabla players.

Tabla Bol (pl: bols)

To learn tabla well, you have to learn to say it well. Simply stated, learn to vocalize the language of this drum and you'll be playing it in no time.

By language I mean.... learn all its possible sound combinations called tabla bols. This is very similar to learning the alphabets. Some example of the basic tabla bol set are Ta, Tin, Ti, Ta, Dha, Ra, etc.... and then learn the various combinations (like making various words with these alphabets) for example KaTa, TiTa, DhaGe, NaTi, TiTaKiTa, and so on ...... then combine these into sentences as Dha Dha Ti Ta | Dha Dha Tu Na ..... then join these sentences to make paragraphs as

Dha Ti Ta Dha | Ti Ta Dha Ti | Dha Dha Ti Ta | Dha Dha Tu Na
Ta  Ti Ta Ta  | Ti Ta Ta  Ti | Dha Dha Ti Ta | Dha Dha Tu Na

These paragraphs are then combined into stories ...... and that's the Tabla in a nutshell.

Your Tabla Set

In order to get going on this journey, You need to have a good tabla drum set. This is very important. A bad or even a mediocre set will set your tabla study back a few years! So get a good drum set before you even think of commencing.

The question then is... what makes a tabla set good?

Tablas come from various parts of India and although they sound the same there is a definite "action" related criterea to consider. By "action" I'm refering to the act of tabla bol (sound) production.

If you have to struggle excessively to produce the sounds (bols) on your drum set, there is something wrong. Usually the construction on cheap tablas will mar your learning more than help you. So be careful.

In buying your tabla set, get a demonstration from an accomplished tabla player, if you can. If you have a tabla teacher handy, treat him/her to a dinner and drag them along to the store to test the drums for you before purchasing. Sometimes, the store that is selling the instrument has someone accomplished that can also give you a demo. But be warned, do not buy a set blindly. Nine times out of ten you will end up with a bad set and the worst part is that you won't even know this is so. By the time you find out, the negative experience of learning will frustrate you to the point of abandoning the whole idea of Tabla study.

Having said all that, do yourself a favor, and pick an instrument that is the best! Forget the cost. The time saved will more than compensate in the accelerated learning curve gained.


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