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Tabla Video Course


In most music, time measurement is based on the principle of repetition of beats following a particular pattern. Indian classical music is based largely on this same principle, except that there are underlying complexities to the patterns, with rules governing tal (rhythm), laya (tempo) and matras (meter). Tal (literally "palm of the hand") establishes the basic time-measurement scheme which is repeated over and over. Laya (literally "motion") denotes the speed or tempo at which a particular tal is played. Matras (literally "a unit") refer to the beats in a tal. In Western music, each segment or measure usually has the same number of beats within it (i.e. 4+4+4+4 or 3+3+3+3). In Indian music, however, each subdivision (called a vibhag - literally "division") can have different numbers of beats usually varying from 2 to 5. For example, in Dadra tal of 6 matras, the subdivisions are evenly divided 3+3. If we look at Jhaptal, a more complex 10 beat cycle, the subdivisions are not so even - 2+3+2+3. An even more complex tal is the 14 beat Dhamar tal which has a 5+2+3+4 vibhag pattern.

Indian music recognizes 3 key elements of rhythm, from which most vocalists/instrumentalists judge where they are within a rhythmic cycle. The most emphatic beat is known as sum (literally "equal" or "together"), which usually occupies the first beat of a tal. It is the most important beat of the tal because it commences the cycle and provides the center for exposition. Many compositions are set so that their emphasis is also on this particular matra. In a performance, great care has to be taken so that the soloist and the tabla player come together on the sum. Even during flights of improvisation, a soloist must skillfully render the melody such that the end of the cascade of notes falls on sum properly. Often times, the soloist renders a raga such that the the most important note (known as vadhi) or the second most important note (samvadhi) fall on this beat. Thus, sum is both a melodically and rhythmically significant beat.
Empty beats (where there is a marked absence of the bayan, or bass drum) are known as khali (literally "empty"). Other matras that are emphasized by the presence of the bayan are known as thali. These three points within a rhythmic cycle are of the utmost importance to the main soloist because they allow him/her to judge where they are within the context of the tal. From these three points, the main artist determines where to begin or end their improvised variations. Therefore, from the tabla players point of view these key points of the tal must be kept proper during the rendering of the theka. For further information on theka, including bols for various tals complete with soundclips, please refer to this website.

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The main function of the tabla in accompaniment is to keep time for the main soloist and to be supportive in the establishment of rasa or mood, as prescribed by a raga. Whether the main artist is a vocalist or instrumentalist, the traditional exposition of a raga most likely begins with an unaccompanied alap (literally "converse") in which the main characteristic phrases of the raga are explored. Instrumentalists may further explore the raga with a second unaccompanied movement known as jor where a pulse is added. In the case of the instrumentalist, this may further be elaborated by the unaccompanied jhalla (literally "sparkling") where the pulse is escalated to a frenetic pace. Following this, the instrumentalist will begin a composition, known as a gat or bandish set to a given tal at a suitable tempo. In vocal music, the main performer usually follows a short alap with a composition called bara khyal which commences in very slow tempo and allows a great deal of freedom for melodic improvisation. The bara khyal in vocal music is set to a very slow tempo ektal (12 beats), teental (16 beats), jhaptal (10 beats) or the less common jhumra tal (14 beats). The instrumentalist also usually begins with a composition in a slow tempo teental, jhaptal, rupak tal (7 beats), ektal or another of his/her preference. Although it is not a hard rule that one must start in slow tempo, the main soloist usually begins with a slow composition because the characteristic melodic phrases of a raga (known as mukhyang) may be developed liesurely, with greater room to improvise using broader musical strokes. The tempo may be gradually sped up (by the soloist's lead whereby the tabla player follows) as a performance progresses. (For more information on tempo please refer to the THEKA section of the tablo solo performance page.)

When the instrumentalist/vocalist begins the composition, he/she will render the main reference line which is a repeated throughout the performance between improvisations. In instrumental music, this is known as the shthai and in vocal music (khyal and thumri) it is termed the mukhra. It is this phrase that provides the basis from which the main soloist forms melodic elaborations called taans. The soloist returns to this main theme between improvised segments (much like a tabla player returns to the theka between kaidas or tukdas.) The interplay between tabla and soloist unfolds much like a rondeau in Western classical music. While the soloist renders the sthai or mukhra and thus adheres to the abstract tal, the tabla player is free to display his virtuosity. Likewise, when the soloist is improvising or executing taans, the tabla player must adhere to the theka of the tal, keeping sum, khali and thali properly. The abstract rhythm thus goes on being maintained by one or the other, either soloist or accompanist. This is typically how the process occurs in principle of course, but whether it is actually followed depends largely on the understanding between the tabla player and the soloist. It is important that both soloist and accompanist reach the same point (sum) with a common understanding of when it is appropriate to display their respective bursts of virtuosity.

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Once a tabla player becomes familiar with theka such that it is engrained within memory and automatic, he/she may add slight ornamentation to the standard theka to give a more pleasing sangat, or accompaniment aesthetic. In slow tempo, this is accomplished by filling in the spaces inbetween matras of the standard theka with small phrases such as "TRKT", "TeTe" or "DheDAAN" among others. This is known as kanapuri (literally "filling in the gaps"). In vocal accompaniment (particularly during the bara khyal) this is usually all that a tabla player will do, as there are fewer opportunities to play kaidas or tukdas in vocal music vs. instrumental music. The focus of vocal music is usually slanted more towards slow development of raga as opposed to rhythm, altho.ugh some vocalists may encourage a tabla player to demonstrate their solo abilities with short tukdas during faster tempo compositions. During the bara khyal, however, the tabla player is limited to little more than slight embellishments of theka. It may sound easy, but at such slow tempi just keeping time is quite challenging, requiring a great deal of concentration and focus to keep from speeding up or slowing down. Moreover, theka embellishments must be kept properly restrained, avoiding over-repetition and adequately supporting the rasa. Ornamentation must never be over-bearing, obtrusive or detract from the melody in any way.

Instrumental compositions usually allow greater freedom for the tabla player to display his talents as a soloist. In a typical vilambit teental composition, the instrumentalist may begin the sthai from the 12th matra with the vadhi or samvadhi note falling on sum. Such a composition is called a masitkhani gat, named in honor of its creator Ustad Masit Khan. Most instrumental compositions follow this blueprint, and it is to the tabla player's advantage to memorize it as it can give him/her a better idea of how the rhythm cycle is progressing. For example, if the sthai begins from the 12th matra a tabla player automatically knows that when it begins there are 5 remaining matras left before sum arrives. He/she may thus dig into a repertoire of compositions that fill this gap, or improvise accordingly to achieve sum. As stated above, it is inappropriate for a tabla player to deviate too much from the theka when the main soloist is executing taans (except in rare instances when both play improvisations together and conclude on sum, a practice known as larant). When the solist plays the sthai, however, a verbal cue or a gesture is enough to signal the accompanist to begin improvising. Since the tabla player is the accompanist, he/she must judge how to respond appropriately and how much is required - "when to say when", so to speak. It is important to keep improvisations limited to short tukdas and mukdas during the early parts of the performance, keeping the same (or relatively same) number of avartas as the instrumentalist's previous elaboration. It is appropriate for an accompanist to respond with longer kaidas and kaida-relas towards the end of a vilambit piece as appropriate, particularly when responding to faster taans from the soloist. Great care must be taken in this regard. It is easy to destroy the mood of a raga by playing blisteringly fast relas too soon or playing a kaida that goes on for too many avartas. It is up to the tabla player to determine what will provide the most suitable sangat (accompaniment aesthetic). For example, if an instrumentalist executes a series of taans in threes (i.e. laying 3 notes on top of each matra), a tabla player may respond with a tisra jati kaida (a kaida played in threes, see the tabla solo performance page for more information).

As the performance of the vilambit composition comes to a close (as per the main soloist's decision), he/she may begin a faster tempo composition in madhya lay (medium tempo) or drut lay (fast tempo). Once again, the tal which is employed by the soloist is an artistic choice. We will concern ourselves with teental as it is the most common rhythmic cycle employed in these faster compositions (although other tals such as ektal are also used). In vocal music, such compositions are called chota khyal, which employs lyrics that arrive on sum at a particular syllable or tarana, which uses rhythmic syllables (i.e. "Dhir Dhir") instead of words in the mukhda. Instrumental compositions may be based on vocal compositions (- sitarist Ustad Vilayat Khan often does this -) or on what is called the razakhani gat, in honor of its creator Ustad Raza Khan. Razakhani gats often begin from key points in the rhythmic cycle much like the masitkhani gat in slow tempo. They may begin from the 9th matra, the 13th matra, the 5th matra, the 7th matra or even from sum. The composition may stretch over one avarta or more (as do some compositions by sarodiya Buddhadev Dasgupta of the Senia-Shahjahanpur gharana). The key from the tabla player's perspective is to recognize where the all-important sum falls. As in the masitkhani gat, the vadhi or samvadhi note will usually fall on sum so this is an important detail to remember. Moreover, it is once again to the tabla player's advantage to make a mental note of where the sthai begins and ends, because these will also be key points for him/her to judge where to begin/end improvisations. For example, if the sthai begins from the 9th matra then the tabla player automatically knows that there are 9 matras left before sum arrives. He/she may thus end their improvisation with a tihai that fills this gap. In these drut compositions, tabla accompaniment is usually characterized by mukdas, tukdas, gats, kaida-relas and chakradhars as appropriate. Exactly what to play and where to play it are judgements made by the tabla player, and the main responsibility lies in maintenance of rasa. Relatively speaking, solo opportunities are more rare in vocal music with the exception of short intervals at the beckoning of the main vocalist. Once again, vocal music usually does not emphasize rhythmic virtuosity as much as it does development of melody, so tabla accompaniment is characteristically restrained.

The instrumentalist may speed up the tempo in the drut gat at his/her leisure. An important point to consider is that tabla accompaniment MUST NOT speed up or slow down UNLESS the main soloist mandates it in the performance; the abstract lay must always be kept properly during the main soloist's improvisations. This is not to say that the tabla player cannot alter tempo during his/her solo improvisations; in fact, many tabla players take this opportunity to demonstrate their mastery over laya by fractionally altering the tempo of the theka, or by superimposing different tals within the context of the sthai. This process, known as chhand, is explained in greater detail on the tabla solo performance page. Maintenance of proper tempo during the solist's improvisations, however, is essential for the performance to be successful. The main soloist will usually only speed the abstract tempo up during the playing of the sthai as opposed to during the course of taans - this is a practice that is paralleled in the tabla solo where the abstract tempo is only sped up during the rendering of theka inbetween solo variations. More often than not, the main soloist will speed up and NOT slow down (although there are many soloists that prove exceptions to this rule, such as Ud. Vilayat Khansahib). Those soloists that play string instruments may pluck chikari strings to add a rhythmic pulse inbetween notes as the pace quickens. This often signals the beginning of jhalla, where the tempo gradually ascends to a frenetic pace. At this point the tempo may hover near 480 beats/minute or more; just keeping the timing clear and the theka accents properly requires a great deal of virtuosity and presence of mind. Following the jhalla the instrumentalist may conclude the piece with a chakradhar tihai, repeating a cadential phrase thrice before arriving at the sum to end the composition. Different soloists employ different means to achieve the end, and the only way of knowing how or when is to listen to recordings and recognize patterns particular to a given artist. This is how most tabla players achieve the most successful musical rapport with main performers. Recognition of styles, moods and even taans of a main performer are skills which make for successful, sonorous accompaniment. Ustad Alla Rakha Khan of the Punjab gharana once commented in an interview that great tabla players must also be great singers so that they understand the mood of accompaniment. One of the most beautiful things to witness is the perfect musical synchrony of a soloist and accompanist - it is spontaneous, virtuosic and exciting. The greatest tabla accompanists are restrained, yet have the ability to demonstrate their solo abilities when needed. Great tabla accompanists thus never sacrifice rasa for displays of technical splendor, but rather dedicate their accompaniment to the service of the raga and the main soloist's method of rendering it. Upon careful scrutiny of any tabla player's accompaniment of different artists, one may even recognize distinct changes in accompaniment style with each artist, as well as each raga. Such is the hallmark of a sensitive and artistically empathetic accompanist.

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