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Tabla couple
Tabla Solo, Mayank Bedekar

The tabla ( Hindi : तबला tablā from Arabic طبلة, DMG ṭabla " drum ") is a percussion instrument used in North Indian music . It consists of two small kettle drums , the heads of which have a characteristic circular eye and are played with the fingers of both hands. It has a wide range of sounds. The tabla is played in classical Hindustani music as well as in popular and religious music, mainly in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In the Afghan music , the tabla is a common rhythm instrument. Since the 1960s, it has also been used in western pop and jazz because of its sound.


The word goes back to the Arabic aṭ-ṭabl , with which drums and timpani are generally used in Arabic music . In Persian , the drum is called tinbal (from which the drum names timba and timbales are derived), the regional name for various drums in the Maghreb is t'bol .

The drum type came to northern India with the palace drum naqqara, which was introduced by the Muslims and played in pairs . In the 18th century, the tabla probably developed from the smaller kettle drum pairs of the duggi type, derived from the naqqara . The structure of the multi-ply skins with voice paste is of Indian origin and corresponds to the older Indian drums pakhawaj and mridangam . A legend traces their invention back to the Persian- speaking Amir Chosrau (1253-1325), who is said to have cut a pakhawaj in half . The tabla, sarinda and other Indian instruments were also played in Persian music until the 18th century .


Left Dayan, right Bayan, on rings with a tuning hammer
Voice paste on a bayan

The tabla set consists of two drums.

The smaller drum is the actual tabla and is also called Dayan (literally "right", or Dāhina , Siddha , Chattū ). It is played with the dominant hand and is usually made of a cylindrical piece of teak or rosewood that is hollowed out about halfway. The cylindrical wooden blocks between the body and the strap allow the skin tension to be adjusted. The sound of the Dayan is high and bell-like. Your vocal range is limited. To cover the entire range, they are available in sizes from 12 to 15 cm cup diameter.

The larger drum is called the bayan ("left", or dagga , duggi , dhama ) and is played with the non-dominant hand . She has a deep, bassy sound, similar to their related timpani . Brass and copper are the preferred materials for making the bayan. Sometimes aluminum or steel is used for cost reasons. In parts of Punjab and Bengal you can also find bayans made of clay or wood. The fur diameter of the Bayan is between 22.5 and 24 cm.

Both drums are strung with intricate skins ( puri ). They consist of three layers of sun-dried goat skin, which are firmly connected to one another at the edge by an interwoven bead of animal skin strips. This bead is used to tension the eardrums through the straps on the body. The lower and upper goat skin are cut out except for a ring and therefore do not cover the entire puri. Only the middle goat skin is actually the swaying fur. The top of these rings is called the keenar . Many blows are carried out on it.

The most conspicuous of the drums are the black dots ( Syahi , literally "ink"; otherwise called Shāī or Gāb ) in the middle (Dayan) or slightly out of the middle (Bayan) on the skins. The Syahi is a dried out and hardened voice paste. The voice paste contains starch (glue), iron dust and other ingredients. The exact composition varies from instrument maker to instrument maker ( Tabla Wala ) and is usually part of a trade secret. The production of the Syhai is a lengthy process: First a thin layer of voice paste is applied. When it has dried out, it is polished and broken in a controlled manner, and then another layer is applied, dried, polished and broken in a controlled manner. Usually this process is repeated three to eleven times. Breaking creates the characteristic small cracks in the Syahi. The Syahi does not consist of a massive block, but of many small parts that are only connected to the goat skin at the bottom but not to one another. So the Syahi has a certain flexibility. The purpose of the syahi is to increase the mass of the fur. The Bayan's syahi is located slightly off the center of the fur so that the player can apply pressure to the fur with the wrist. The Syahi has the greatest influence on the sound - the smallest differences in texture change the clarity, pitch and tonal possibilities of the drums.

The Puri is a physical spring pendulum . The Syahi represents the mass, the goat skin the feather. The Keenar suppresses natural overtones. This means that the tabla, unlike most other drums, has a defined pitch with integer overtones .

The drums are tuned with a small tuning hammer. In the Dayan, the tabla player carefully hits the cylindrical wooden tuning blocks with a hammer. Their position determines the tension of the skin via the leather straps. Lower position of the tuning posts usually means higher tension and thus higher tone. The tuning of the Bayan, on the other hand, is done by carefully hitting the bead surrounding the skin with the tuning hammer in a circle. Occasionally, flat wooden chopsticks are clamped between the drum shell and the tension belt. Then their number and position determine the mood.

Playing technique

Tabla player in Kathmandu

To play, the drums are placed in rings so that they have the necessary support and the body can swing unimpaired. The player usually sits cross-legged in front of the drums. Each drum is played with one hand. The higher drum is tuned to the keynote of the accompanying instrument, so that the tabla playing supports the melody of the soloist. The bayan can be tuned a fourth lower.

The right, higher drum allows you to create up to three other harmonious overtones in addition to the fundamental tone of the openly vibrating head. The drummer strikes the drum at a certain point (on the edge or between the voice paste and the edge) with his index finger and at the same time touches the skin with his ring finger, so that a sounding harmonica is created. Other striking techniques are the closed attack with one finger and the muffled attack with the ball of the thumb.

The bass drum is struck with the fingertips while the wrist rests on the fur. By changing the pressure on the skin, the characteristic glissandi and bass melodies are created.

Tabla players use a system of spoken syllables ( Bols ) to designate the individual beats and beat combinations so that each pattern can not only be played but also spoken, for example:

Dha titi kite dha ge na do na dha ti dha ge dhin na ge na

The relationship between syllable and touch technique is not clear. They vary according to the schools (gharana), style and speed of a piece. Nonetheless, syllables that represent a beat on the high Dayan have a dental starting vowel. Speech syllables that represent a sound of the Bayan, on the other hand, begin with a velar sound. In principle, the following stop techniques can be distinguished.

  • Takes place on the bass drum
    • a closed, non-sounding attack ( ke or kat ).
    • an open stop (ge) ; the pitch of this stroke can be varied by simultaneously pressing the ball of the foot on the drum field.
  • Be done on the high drum
    • do open stops , tin and na . These have a definite pitch, where do the deepest na is the highest note.
    • closed stops ti , te or tit .
    • Attacks with the bale
  • On both drums: If the beats of the high drum are played together with ge on the bass drum, the bols are created:
    • dodhun ,
    • tindhin ,
    • nadha ,
    • titdhet .

The alternation of beats with and without bass is an essential means of representing the structure of the valley. The bass melody and glissandi are difficult to fix in writing, but are imitated when a composition is recited. It is the drum language of the tabla, less a written than an oral notation system. The recitation of the stop syllables also serves to memorize compositions. Even in a tabla solo, pieces can be performed vocally before they are played.


The basis of the game are rhythmic cycles ( tala ), which provide the framework for diverse rhythmic variations and virtuoso improvisation.

The tabla is the standard percussion instrument in classical North Indian music (in contrast to South Indian music, where the double-sided drum mridangam is mainly used). The tabla can be played as an accompanying instrument for a melody instrument such as a sitar . Then it is her task to clarify the tala by playing its fixed pattern (theka) and to add rhythmic decorations, especially to emphasize the main emphasis of the tala.

If the tabla is played solo, it is accompanied by a melody instrument, traditionally the string instrument sarangi , often the Indian harmonium , both of which repeat a short, ascending and descending melody phrase ( lahara , "wave"). The tabla player improvises according to the rules of tala or uses composed pieces. He can shift the accentuation against the underlying tala and use counter and cross rhythms that are only resolved after a long time. The lahara melody serves as orientation for the audience within the tala. A tabla solo can be a short intermezzo in a concert or last over an hour, the only limitation being the creativity and knowledge of the repertoire of the player.

The tabla is also an accompanying instrument of the classical dance Kathak and the religious chants of the Hindus ( Kirtan and Bhajan ), Muslims ( Qawwali ) and Sikhs . She also likes to use the Bollywood film music .

Because of the broad tone repertoire, it has been used in western fusion music projects, in jazz and in world music since the 1960s . Ahmed Jan Thirakwa was the most important tabla player until his death in 1976 . Alla Rakha , who died in 2000 , made a significant contribution to establishing the tabla as a solo instrument. Since then, Zakir Hussain has been named primarily , who is known outside of India primarily for his collaboration with the guitarist John McLaughlin . Other (in the West) well-known players are Trilok Gurtu , Anindo Chatterjee , Swapan Chauduri , Talvin Singh , Tari Khan and Ustad Shaukat Hussain Khan .

Several Dayans set up in a semicircle and tuned in different ways result in a Tabla Tarang . This rarely heard drum set with a range of two octaves is used as a melody instrument.


Since tabla was traditionally only taught orally in a close teacher-student relationship, different regional schools ( Gharana ) emerged, which differ in the subtleties of the touch technique and the repertoire. The senior of a Gharana is called Khalifa. Particularly effective compositions were often only passed on to the sons or sons-in-law of Khalifa within his families. To a certain extent, they represented the working capital of the court musicians at the royal courts of northern India. Since the decline of the courts, the importance of the closed gharana has decreased, as many important musicians had teachers in different schools. However, emphasis is still placed on the style-appropriate execution of compositions in the individual schools.

Usually the following Gharana are mentioned: Delhi, Ajrada, Lucknow, Farrukhabad, Benares, Punjab. Among them, the Gharana of Delhi is considered to be the oldest. The tradition of the names of famous players and the compositions ascribed to them goes back around 200–250 years. The dating, development and influence of the individual schools among each other is not completely clear and is part of the oral tradition. Tabla playing was influenced by the playing of the pakhawaj and drums from folk music tradition such as the tubular drums dholak or dholki and the kettle drum nakkara .


The tabla has its own repertoire of compositions that are almost exclusively played on this instrument. There are two types of pieces: on the one hand compositions that have a fixed form and are played unchanged, on the other hand forms that consist of a theme and variations. Here the variations are often improvised. A composition is always tied to a tala. The number of compositions for the tintal (16 beats) is by far the largest, they can be adapted to a different tala if necessary.

A tabla solo consists of a multitude of individual compositions and improvised parts.

Fixed forms of composition


A tihai is a phrase that is repeated three times and is used to mark an end or an incision. The last note (a stressed Dha ) always falls on the stressed first beat of a tala cycle (Sam) . There can be a break between the individual repetitions. A tihai also serves as the closing phrase of many compositions.

Its tension arises from the shift in emphasis with respect to the underlying cycle with each repetition. Only the last blow falls back to one and releases the tension.

Example of a Tihai in Tintal that starts on the first beat and includes a tala cycle.

1 2 3 4th 5 6th 7th 8th 9 10 11 12 13 14th 15th 16 1
dha tere kete take dha dha tere kete take dha dha tere kete take dha


Tukra ("piece") is a relatively short composition that always ends with a Tihai. Tukras are usually played at a faster pace.

Example of a tukra in Tintal in triplets , d. H. Three beats are performed on each count. The tihai is very short here and consists only of the phrase kata, dha .

1 2 3 4th 5 6th 7th 8th
dha te do te ge - na ra - na tak - ka dhe te te ge - ta ra - na
9 10 11 12 13 14th 15th 16 1
dha ge te te te te ta ke te te te te dha - - - ka ta dha ka ta dha ka ta dha

Paran is a form similar to a tukra, but it comes from the tradition of dance accompaniment. It uses the heavier strokes of the pakhawaj drum, which was originally used for dance accompaniment.

Chak radar

Chakradar is a shape that is repeated three times like a Tihai. She ends with a Tihai herself. There can be a break between repetitions. The last stop must always fall on the first stroke of the tala. Chak radars are played at a higher speed and form a tabla solos at the end.

Example of a chak radar This chak radar has a length of 11 counts. Repeated three times, it thus comprises 33 beats, that is two cycles of the Tintal and one beat.

1 2 3 4th 5 6th 7th 8th
kat - te te te kra dha te te ka ta ga di ge ne dha - kra dha te te ka ta ga di ge ne dha - kra dha
9 10 11 12 13 14th 15th 16 1
te te ka ta ga di ge ne dha - - - kat - te ...

Cyclical forms of composition


Qaeda is the main form of cyclical composition. It consists of a theme of one or more bar cycles, that is, a Kaida in Tintal is usually 16 or 32 beats long, rarely longer. A Kaida topic is almost always twofold. Both parts are the same, but no bass is played in the first half of the second part ( part and counterpart ). Many tals, for example Tintal, have the same structure.

Example of a Kaida theme in Tintal

1 2 3 4th 5 6th 7th 8th
dha ti dha ge na dha tere kete dha ti dha ge do well ka ta
9 10 11 12 13 14th 15th 16
ta ti ta ke na ta tere kete dha ti dha ge do well ka ta

Beats 9 through 12 correspond to beats 1 through 4 without bass. The sequence of attacks tuna kata can be found in many Kaidas as an endless phrase of the topic.

The variations ( Palta or Vistar ) are formed from the beat sequences of the theme. The topic is broken down into several sequences and rebuilt. Breaks and repetitions are allowed. In the example topic, this would be the hit sequences Dha ti Dha ge na and Dha tere kete .

The variation can be the length of the theme or twice as long.

Example first part a variation on the above topic. Here the beat sequence Dha tere kete of the topic is varied and emphasized. The first and fourth sections (beats 1–4 and 13–16) correspond to the theme. This is followed by the repetition of this part, but without striking the bass, on beats 1–9.

1 2 3 4th 5 6th 7th 8th
dha ti dha ge na dha tere kete dha tere kete take tere kete dha -
9 10 11 12 13 14th 15th 16
dha tere kete take tere kete dha - dha ti dha ge do well ka ta

The sequence of the variations must have a certain systematics, but can be just as different as the number of variations played. Variations are also improvised in concert.

The Qaeda ends with a Tihai, which is also formed from the topic.

The composition form Kaida occupies a large part of the training. The pupil practices the various attacks on different Kaida themes and variations and gets to know the structure of the composition. He usually has to memorize many variations and invent new ones.


Peshkar is a cyclical form of composition like Qaeda. It is played as the opening piece of a tabla solo at slow tempo and has more rhythmic subtleties and decorations than a Qaeda. Like a Qaeda, it follows the structure of the Tala. The character of the composition demands sonorous strokes and the representation of cross and counter rhythms.


Rela is also a cyclical form of composition with a theme and variations. It is played at a fast pace with a very high density of keystrokes. That is why only certain stop shapes are used that can be executed quickly. Its variations are usually more simply structured than those of a Kaida and show a high degree of repetition. Breaks are rarely used. From the steady flow of the attacks, individual sounding, closed attacks stand out and form their own rhythmic level. The Rela gives the player the opportunity to show his virtuosity.


  • James Tilt: The tabla of Lucknow. A cultural analysis of a musical tradition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1988, ISBN 0-521-33528-0
  • Gert-Matthias Wegner: Vintage tablā repertory. Drum compositions of north indian classical music. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishing, New Delhi 2004, ISBN 81-2151042-2

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