The Tabla (or tubblaa) is a popular Indian percussion instrument used in the classical, popular and religious music of the Indian subcontinent and in Hindustani classical music. The instrument consists of a pair of hand drums of contrasting sizes and timbres. The term tabla is derived from an Arabic word which means “drum”.
The history of this instrument is at times the subject of heated debate. The most common historical account credits the 13th century muslim Persian poet Amir Khusrau as having invented the instrument, by splitting a Mridangam into two parts. However, none of his own writings on music mention the drum (nor the string instrument sitar). Another common historical narrative portrays the tabla as being thousands of years old, yet this is mere conjecture, based on slipshod interpretations of iconography. Reliable historical evidence places the invention of this instrument in the 18th century, and the first verifiable player of this drum was Ustad Siddar Khan of Delhi .
a) Gharana — Tabla Tradition
The transformation of the tabla from a religious-folk instrument to a more sophisticated instrument of art-music occurred in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, when significant changes took place in the feudal court music of North India. Although largely denied by most popular histories of this instrument, the tabla was played by hereditary groups (i.e. castes) of musicians who were ascribed low social status by the greater society. The majority of the performers were Muslim and resided in or near the centers of Mughal power and culture such as Delhi , Lucknow , Allahabad , Hyderabad , and Lahore . However, one notable group of Hindu hereditary musicians was located in the holy city of Varanasi . In public performances, tabla players were primarily accompanists to vocalists and instrumentalists; however, they developed a sophisticated solo repertoire that they performed in their own musical gatherings. It is this solo repertoire along with student-teacher lineages that are the defining socio-cultural elements of tabla tradition known by the Urdu-Hindi term gharana (ghar = “house” Hindi, -ana = “of the” Persian).
Most performers and scholars recognize two styles of gharana: Dilli Baj and Purbi Baj. Dilli (or Delhi ) baj comes from the style that developed in Delhi , and Purbi (meaning eastern) baj developed in the area east of Delhi . They then recognize six gharanas of tabla. They appeared or evolved in the following order, presumably:
Ajrara Gharana later followed by
Other tabla performers have identified further derivations of the above traditions, but these are subjective claims, largely motivated by self-promotion. Some traditions indeed have sub-lineages and sub-styles that meet the criteria to warrant a separate gharana name, but such sociomusical identities have not taken hold in the public discourse of Hindustani art music, such as the Qasur lineage of tabla players of the Punjab region.
Each gharana is traditionally set apart from the others by unique aspects of the compositional and playing styles of its exponents. For instance, some gharanas have different tabla positioning and bol techniques. In the days of court patronage the preservation of these distinctions was important in order to maintain the prestige of the sponsoring court. Gharana secrets were closely guarded and often only passed along family lines. Being born into or marrying into a lineage holding family was often the only way to gain access to this knowledge.
Today many of these gharana distinctions have been blurred as information has been more freely shared and newer generations of players have learned and combined aspects from multiple gharanas to form their own styles. There is much debate as to whether the concept of gharana even still applies to modern players. Some think the era of gharana has effectively come to an end as the unique aspects of each gharana have been mostly lost through the mixing of styles and the socio-economic difficulties of maintaining lineage purity through rigorous training.
Nonetheless the greatness of each gharana can still be observed through study of its traditional material and, when accessible, recordings of its great players. The current generation of traditionally trained masters still hold vast amounts of traditional compositional knowledge and expertise.
This body of compositional knowledge and the intricate theoretical basis which informs it is still actively being transmitted from teacher to student all over the world. In addition to the instrument itself, the term “tabla” is often used in reference to this knowledge and the process of its transmission.
b) Nomenclature and Construction
The smaller drum, played with the dominant hand, is called dayañ (lit. “right”; a.k.a. dahina, siddha, chattu) and can also be referred to individually as “tabla.” It is made from a conical piece of wood hollowed out to approximately half of its total depth. One of the primary tones on the drum is tuned to a specific note, and thus contributes to and complements the melody. The tuning range is limited although different dayañ-s are produced in different sizes, each with a different range. For a given dayañ, to achieve harmony with the soloist, it will usually be necessary to tune to either the tonic, dominant or subdominant of the soloist’s key.
The larger drum, played with the other hand, is called bayañ (lit. “left”; aka. dagga, duggi, dhama). The bayañ may be made of any of a number of materials. Brass is the most common; copper is expensive, but generally held to be the best, while aluminum and steel are often found in inexpensive models. One sometimes finds wood used, especially in old bayañs from the Punjab . Clay is also used, although not favored for durability; these are generally found in the North-East region of Bengal . The bayañ has a much deeper bass tone, much like its distant cousin, the kettle drum.
The playing technique for both drums involves extensive use of the fingers and palms in various configurations to create a wide variety of different types of sounds; these are reflected in the mnemonic syllables (bol). On the bayañ the heel of the hand is also used to apply pressure, or in a sliding motion, so that the pitch is changed during the sound’s decay. This “modulating” effect on the bass drum and the wide range of sounds possible on the instrument as a whole are the main characteristics that make tabla unique among percussion instruments.
Both drum shells are covered with a head (or puri) constructed from goat or cow skin. An outer ring of skin is overlaid on the main skin and serves to suppress some of the natural overtones. These two skins are bound together with a complex woven braid that also gives the entire assembly enough strength to be tensioned onto the shell. The completed head construction is affixed to the drum shell with a single continuous piece of cow or camel hide strap laced between the braid of the head assembly and another ring (made from the same strap material) placed on the bottom of the drum. The strap is tensioned to achieve the desired pitch of the drum. Additionally, cylindrical wood blocks, known as ghatta, are inserted between the strap and the shell allowing the tension to be adjusted by their vertical positioning. Fine tuning is achieved by striking vertically on the braided portion of the head using a small hammer.
The skins of both drums also have an inner circle on the head referred to as the syahi (lit. “ink”; a.k.a. shai or gab). This is constructed using multiple layers of a paste made from cooked rice mixed with a black powder of various origins. The precise construction and shaping of this area (especially on the smaller drum) is responsible for modification of the drum’s natural overtones, resulting in the clarity of pitch and variety of tonal possibilities unique to this instrument. The skill required for the proper construction of this area is highly refined and is the main differentiating factor in the quality of a particular instrument.
For stability while playing, each drum is positioned on a toroidal bundle called chutta, consisting of plant fiber or another malleable material wrapped in cloth.
c) The Tabla in Popular Culture
Arguably, the tabla is the most popular Indian percussion instrument at present, used in a variety of musical genres of multiple cultures and sub-cultures. It has acquired tremendous international popularity as a result of its large-scale, transnational diffusion first started by notable “musical ambassadors” such as the late Ustad Alla Rakha and his son Ustad Zakir Hussain and later through recorded media. The infectious timbres of this instrument are used extensively by studio engineers who frequently include digital samples of the tabla that they purchased from a CD or downloaded from the internet or come installed in the sound libraries of electronic keyboards. One can hear the tabla in numerous Hollywood and television soundtracks. The tabla has also become a popular fusion instrument and is found in performance and recordings of an array of musical styles from traditional forms such as flamenco to hard rock and electronic. Danny Carey, drummer of progressive metal band Tool, uses a tabla often. He was taught by Aloke Dutta who also added a tabla to the live version of Pushit found on Salival. The tabla appears on several Beatles songs, mostly ones written by George Harrison, although it was usual played by a session musician. Tablas appear on the Led Zeppelin track Black Mountain Side.
d) Benares Gharana
Benares Gharana is one of the six most common styles of playing of the Indian tabla.
The Benares tabla gharana was developed a little over 200 years ago by the legendary Pandit Ram Sahai (1780-1826). Ram Sahai began studying the tabla with his father from the age of five. At the age of nine, he moved to Lucknow to become the disciple of Modhu Khan of the Lucknow gharana. When Ram Sahai was seventeen years old, Wazir Ali Khan, the new Nawab, asked Modhu Khan if Ram Sahai could perform a recital for him. Modhu Khan agreed, on the condition that Ram Sahai would not be interrupted until he finished playing. It is said that Ram Sahai played for seven consecutive nights. After this incredible performance, Ram Sahai was praised by all the members of the community and was showered with gifts. Shortly after this performance, Ram Sahai returned to Benares .
After some time performing in Benares , Ram Sahai felt the need to make a significant change in his tabla playing. For six months, he withdrew into seclusion, and worked to develop what is now known as the Benares baj or style of tabla playing. The philosophy behind this new style of tabla playing is that it would be versatile enough to perform solo, and to accompany any form of music or dance. The tabla would be able to play delicately, as required for khyal, or more aggressively, like pakhawaj, for the accompaniment of dhrupad or kathak dance. Ram Sahai developed a new way of fingering the tabla strokes; especially important is the sound Na, being played with a curved ring finger to allow for maximum resonance of the dahina. He also composed numerous compositions within existing compositional forms (gats, tukras, parans etc.) and created new forms, such as uthan, Benarsi theka, and fard.
Today, the Benares tabla gharana is well known for its powerful sound, though it is important to note that Benares players are also very capable of playing delicately and sensitively. The gharana is categorized into the Purbi (eastern) baj, which includes the Farukhabad, Lucknow , and Benares gharanas. The Benares style makes use of the more resonant strokes of tabla, such as Na (played on the lao), and Din. Benares players preferentially use the full-hand TeTe strokes, rather than the single finger alternation preferred by the Delhi style, though both stroke types are integrated into the Benares baj repertoire. Benares tabla players are successful in all forms of tabla playing, including tabla solo, instrumental, vocal, and dance accompaniment. The tabla solo is highly developed in the Benares gharana, and some artists, such as Pandit Sharda Sahai, Pandit Kishan Maharaj, and Pandit Shamta Prasad, have become famous as tabla soloists.
The Benares baj makes use of over twenty different compositional types, and has an enormously varied repertoire of each type.