A publication of the Batish Institute of Music and Fine Arts

Dholak, Dholki, Naal

by Ashwin Batish


Dholak - Chord tension

The dholak is one of the most widely utilized drums in the folk music of India. It has also found a permanent home in most of the recording and broadcast environments. Applications range from dance music such as bhangra and garba to devotional bhajans and keertans. It is not used for classical music where the tabla and pakhavaj reign supreme.

The dholak is basically a double headed drum with the bass head on one side and the treble head on the other. There is some form of putty applied on the inside of the bass head to give the head its lower tone. Invariably, when I've received a drum for sale at our music store, I have had to either replace this putty or replace the head. The one put on by the Indian makers falls off for some reason. It is possible to get a hold of this putty from a store and replace it. It's a paste made out of some tar etc. Some folk over the net have recommended butyl rubber caulk or some clear permanently flexible caulk as an alternative but we haven't given it a shot yet. Basically, Putting anything on a skin lowers its pitch and hence gives it a deep bass sound. Please try these suggestions at your own risk. One of these days I will try it and put the feedback here.

On the treble drum side, there is no putty added. It's just a thin goat skin head which when tuned up has a relatively dull but somewhat high pitched sound. To tune it, the rings on the chords have to be pulled and as the two chords are pulled closer together, the pitch of the drum will rise. Most good dholak players will try tuning this head to the tonic, 5th or 4th of the song. Many don't bother to do this their reasoning being that the dull tone hides the pitch and hence can be played without worrying about exact tunings.


The Nut and Bolt tension Dholak

The nut and bolt version of the dholak is a more modern and better engineered version of the Dholak. Some even call this version a dholki although in this article I am reserving this name for the Naal mentioned below.

The treble head rim is designed so that the hooks can fit better. The tone on this drum I have found to be easier to control then the chord tension one. This is because in the Chord tension dholak, the same chord does the job of tuning both the drum heads. Whereas in the Nut and Bolt variety, each head gets its own tuning mechanism. The result is that you can tune the heads a bit more precisely. The treble head can go higher and be brighter sounding and the best part, changing the heads are a snap.


I actually started playing the dholak before I learnt the tabla. It is quite easy to play. There are basically two approaches to the technique - the open handed playing and the controlled finger playing.

The open handed technique is much louder that the finger type, but the latter is more articulate. I first learned the open handed technique. I used to accompany my mother Smt. Shanta Devi Batish, to Keertans in Bombay and was always handed the dholak. Actually my mother is the one who started me off on the Dholak first then my father took over.

I have produced a dholak instructional video in case anyone wishes to see these techniques. I will try and talk about them here but it is hard to do it justice by just reading about.

I like to tell my students "read as much as you can but when in doubt try to catch a glimpse of the actual playing and learn with visuals. That means take lessons or get my tutors.

There are a few different positions to playing this drum. I will cover this latter. But for the time being let me talk about the most popular position - squatting with the dholak in front, the bass head is to your left (left hand) and the treble head is to the right.


As you can see, the player has his knee resting on the drum to stabilize it. Some players sling one of their legs over the center of the drum barrel to really stabilize it!

In a Keertan or bhajan situation, it is quite common to have a second person sitting opposite the player with a hard object such as a stick. they hit the stick on the wood barrel thus giving a rhythmic sound somewhat similar to a wood block. It sounds quite nice. One has to be a bit careful in this situation as it is easy to get carried away and hit the drum to hard making the sound unpleasing and at the same time quite possibly damaging the drum's wood finish. I am guilty of this myself. One only has to look at my father's precious recording dholak that he has been carefully guarding and dragging with him from one country to the other. Yep, I got my hands on this and let go with a spoon and goughed the wood in a number of places.


Dholki or Naal

This is the same as the Dholak shown above except The heads are a bit more developed. The Bass head is designed more like a tabla head with multi layered skins the paste is still on the inside of the bass head, But on the treble head side, there is visible paste applied on the outside of the head similar to the talbe giving this drum a really nice high pitched tone reminicent to a high pitched tabla drum although not as resonant. In any case, the combination of the bass and treble tones is very pleasing. Like the dholak this drum is also used more in the folk, filmi, bhajan, keertan setting.

In the drum shown above, the heads are kept in place by metal hooks that have nuts at the bottom that can be tightened or loosened to adjust the pitch of the head. This makes changing the heads very quick. Caution is advised when tuning as it is very easy to tighten the nuts too much resulting in head breakage.

If you need to order any of these instruments from the institute, please go to our instruments page and click on the order form.

Ashwin Batish

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