Tala - A Primer

Corvin Russell

Inspite of all that I have written below, I must reiterate that I do not consider myself especially knowledgeable about tabla. I do study it with a great master and I practice about two hours a day under normal circumstances. But these are still the opinions of a novice, so beware! I also caution against trying to learn too much about any music by reading about it. There's no substitute for a good teacher, period. In the same vein I would hope that my comments do not sway a person's opinion of any musician. Trust your heart!

The most popular legend about the origin of tabla holds that it was the invention of Amir Khusrau, the 13th century poet and musician who lived at the Moghul court. According to the legend, Khusrau created the tabla by splitting in two the pakhawaj, a two-faced drum associated with an old style of music known as "dhrupad". However, most historical evidence suggests that the instrument is of more recent invention. The earliest tabla player we know of was Sudhar Khan, thefounder of the Delhi gharana, who lived in the early part of the eighteenth century. It is likely that the tabla arose contemporaneous with or slightly before Sudhar Khan's career. Since the emergence of the tabla, six principle schools or "gharanas" have emerged, each associated with adifferent place in North India: Delhi, Ajrara, Punjab, Lucknow, Farukkhabad and Banaras. Because of their stylistic similarites and genetic affiliations, the latter three styles are often referred to collectively as the "Purab", or "Eastern" styles.

There are two words for rhythm in India. One is "laya", which means basically "tempo". To say a performer has good lay, or is good with lay, is to say that they can keep an extremely steady beat and are good with polyrhythmic divisions of the beat. The other word is "tal", which requires more explanation. "Tal" or "tala", besides referring to the concept of rhythm in general, is also the name given to the rhythmic cycles which are the framewrok of all compositions in Indian music. A tal is a cycle of a fixed number of beats repeated over and over again. Theoretically, a tal of any number of beats is possible, including half-beat cycles like 6-1/2 and 8-1/2 beats. However, in North India only tals of between 3 and 108 beats are traditional. Only a very few of these tals are in common use. These are:

Tintal, 16 beats divided 4-4-4-4

Dhamar tal, 14 beats divided 5-2-3-4

Ektal and Chautal, 12 beats divided 2-2-2-2-2-2

Jhaptal, 10 beats divided 2-3-2-3

Kaharva tal, 8 beats divided 4-4

Rupak tal, 7 beats divided 3-2-2

Dadra tal, 6 beats divided 3-3

Here are the thekas. They are in two lists. The first is of thekas learned from Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri. The second list was culled from Nijenhuis's and Gottlieb's books. They are arranged by increasing number of beats.

(Due to the severe limitations of HTML formatting it is not possible to align the symbols with the proper matras of the theka.
X represents sam,
0 khali and
2,3,4,etc the talis - Ed)

Dadra - 6 matras
X 0
dhin dhin na | dha thun na

Many variations of this theka exist, some going by the name khem ta

Rupak (7 matras)
0 1 2
tin tin na | dhin na | dhin na

Tivraa - 7 matras
(khula bols)
X 2 3
Dha din ta | tite kata | gadi ghene


X 2 3
Dha dhere naga | kat ta | dhere naga

X 0
Dha ge na tin | na ka dhi na

kaharvaa has countless variations, including dhumaali, "bhajani", and

qawwali etc. It is often counted as 4 matras.

Jhaptaal - 10 matras
X 2 0 3
Dhin na | dhin dhin na | tin na | dhin dhin na

X 0 2 0 3 4
Dhin dhin | dha dha | tu na | kat ta | dhage terekite | dhin dhage

The slower ektal is played, the more alankar is added to the theka.At slow speeds the second vibhag is played like the fifth. Even though there are two khalis, for tabla only the second khali is significant in compositions.

Chautaal - 12 matras (khula bols)
X etc. like Ektaal
Dha dha | din ta | kat tage | din ta | tete kata | gadi gene

Ara Chautaal - 14 matras
X 0 2 0 3 4 5
Dhin terekite | dhin na | tu na | kat ta | terekite dhin | na dhin |dhin na

Dhamaar - 14 matras (khula bols)
X 2 0 3
Ka dhe te dhe te | dha - | ga te te | te te ta -


Ka dhe te dhe te | dha - | ga di na | di na ta -

Tintal - 16 matras
X 2 0 3
Dha dhin dhin dha | dha dhin dhin dha | dha tin tin ta | tete dhin dhin dha

The theka becomes very ornamented in slow speeds. The "tete" of 13th matra can also be played "ta" or "tre kre". "ta" is often pronounced "na" for euphony. Strictly speaking, "terekite" should never be substituted for "dhin" of 2nd matra as this brings in the unwanted shadow of tilwara tal.

Sitaarkhaani - 16 matras
Vibhags as for tintal
Dha gedhin -ge dha | dha gedhin -ge dha | dha getin -ke ta | ta kedhin-ge dha

Matta taal - 18 matras
X 0 2 0
Dhin terekite | dhin na | ti--kre tina | terekite tina | kena dhidhi|
4 5 6 0
nadhi dhina | dhina gadha | terekite dhina | gadha terekite

In accompaniment Matta taal is often played as a nine-beat taal with the following theka:Dhin terekite dhin na tu na dhin dhin na

Tivra - 7 beats (khula bols)
X 2 3
Dha din ta | tete kata | gadi ghene


Dha gere naga | ga di | gere naga
X 2 0 3
Dhin na | dhi--kre dhidhi na | ti--kre titi na | dhina gadha terekite

Dipchandi - 14 matras
X 2 0 3
Dha dhin - | dha dha tin - | ta tin - | dha dha dhin -

The last four matras can be played "dha dha dhin dhin". Some tabla players put "na" in the gaps.

Sultal - 10 beats (khula bols)
X 0 2 3 0
Dha dha | din ta | tete dha | tete kata | gadi gene

Jhumra tal - 14 beats
X 2 0 3

Dhin -dha terekite | dhin dhin dhage terekite | tin -ta terekite | dhin dhin dhage terekite

Tilwara - 16 matras
X 2 0
Dha terekite dhin dhin | dha dhage tin tin | ta terekite dhin dhin | dha dhage dhin dhin
Used for vilambit vocal, a variant of tintal.

Upatal Jhampak (aka Roopam) - 8 1/2 matras
X 2 0 3
Dhin na | dhin dhin na | tin na | dhidhi na/2 |

Dhamari, 11 1/2
divisions like dhamar except end.
Ka dhe te dhe te dha - ga te te tete ka/2

Tals may be distinguished from each other not only by their number of beats, but also by the division of the beats. For instance, Dhamar tal isa cycle of 14 beats divided 5-2-3-4, while Ada Chautal, also 14 beats, isdivided 2-2-2-2-2-2-2. A tal is not equivalent to a time signature in thewestern sense. In western music, if a piece is in 4/4 time, most of thephrases will follow a distinct 1-2-3-4 motion. In Indian music, the phrases need not follow the movement of the rhythm cycle, and usually don't. Rather the musical interest often comes in the way the artist uses phrases which divide or go against the grain of the tal to develop long, complicated rhythmic ideas. Tabla players almost always end these expositions with a dramatic cadence arriving on the first beat, called the "sam". This makes the first beat the most important beat of the cycle, since it provides a reference point which makes clear the cyclic nature of the tal.

The Tabla
The classical percussion instruments in India use a vocabulary of semi-onomatopoeic syllables to represent stroking patterns on the instruments. In North India these are called bols. These syllables are of vital importance in learning compositions. But they are also the means by which one learns to express feeling in drumming.

The following listing is sketchy and simplistic in the extreme. Briefly, the principal bols are:

ta or na (kinar) -- played on the "kinar" or rim of the tabla, with its crisp, semi-metallic tone, this stroke is perhaps the most most identifiable sound of the right-hand drum, or tabla.

a, tin, na (sur) -- played on the "sur", or ring between the kinar and the black centre (the "gab" or "siyahi") -- except in the Lucknow style, where the gab is simultaneously struck by the 2nd finger. This has a much more open and subtle sound than kinar ta, with harmonic overtones giving it a lot of its flavour.

tin/thun/din (gab) A very clean, 'beep-like' tone produced by striking the gab. In my style, the khali analogues of dhin with open bayan are played with closed bayan

tete (gab). A prominent damped sound made on the tabla gab using first the second, third and fourth fingers, followed by the first finger, or in Delhi style, just using the 2nd followed by the first.

ga/ghe/ge/gi/ghen/gad/ -- open bass sound of variable pitch and tone colour produced on the bayan by the fingers of the left hand. Usually one uses the second finger with the third or just the first.

ka/ke/ki/kat/ken - closed sound produced by the flattened left hand striking the edge of the bayan.

dheneghene - a ringing sequence of sounds consisting of two open tones on the gab, a "ge" and a closed tone on the gab. It is usually articulated quickly.

dhiredhire -- a fast, crisp, dry, closed sound produced by the edge of the right hand and the thumb as it rocks back and forth on the tabla head.

terekite -- a very common sequence consisting of "tete" plus "ka" plus the first "te" of "tete".

Many of the tabla sounds can be combined with Ghe to make compound sounds --dha, dhin, dhete etc.

One more thing remains to be said about tals. Among the groups or divisions of the cycle, there are two types: the "tali" and the "khali". The name "tali" literally denotes the groups which begin with a clap, since the traditional way of counting tal in India involves clapping at the beginning of each "tali" division. The word "khali" means "empty" and the khali sections are shown by a wave of the hand in counting.

But each tal also has associated with it a traditional patter of bols which are known to all musicians and which serve to indicate the structure of the tal. These patterns are called "theka" and are played on the tabla during accompaniment to keep the beat. Theka is also played in solo between compositions. The theka for the 16 beat cycle tintal, for example, is as follows (the khali division is shown by the "0", the "sam" or first beat by an "X"):

X 2 0 3
Dha dhin dhin dha| dha dhin dhin dha | dha tin tin ta | ta dhin dhin dha

Note that the khali division is shown in the theka by playing the equivalents of "dha" and "dhin" without the bayan. For reasons of euphony, the first matra (beat) of khali is actually played as "dha" and the 13th matra of the cycle is played as "ta".

The repertoire of compositions:
Inspite of all that has been said about "rhythm" above, the most appropriate concept one could use to describe tabla music would be "melody", since ultimately it is the ability to communicate feelings through the many textures and tones of the tabla that sets off good tabla players from mediocre. While intricate rhythms are used in tabla. People often overestimate the role of exotic polyrhythms in tabla performance. Some of the most difficult and complex tabla composititons are in "straight" time, using nothing more exotic than the equivalent of eighth notes.

There are two basic types of composition in tabla -- the theme-and -variation compositions and the so-called fixed compositions. Of the theme-and-variation compositions, the three most prominent examples are kayda, peshkar, and rela, though several other types exist.


Kayda and peshkar are the tabla composition types par excellence. Both originated in Delhi, and are considered specialties of the Delhi gharana, although they are played in all gharanas. The kayda is always played in vilambit tal. Basically, the theme of a kayda consists of a series of small phrases of irregular length, with the whole theme conceptualized as also being divided into lines (which are made up of the smaller phrases) In Delhi style, use of kinar ta predominates, but other gharanas use a wider variety of bol than Delhi in kayda. Examples of typical kayda phrases include dhatete, dha-terekite, dhatidhagena, dha-terekitedhe-te-te, dhatikegetike, dhatrekredhete, dhagenadha, dhin-tadhagena, etc.

One of the first compositions usually taught beginners is the Delhi kayda

dhati tedha tite dhadha tite dhage tuna kena

It's often called a beginner's composition, but it's really very hard to play well. One can think of this composition as having 4 phrases, though this is by no means the only way to think of it -- most compositions, particularly longer ones, are rich in ambiguities, which can be exploited to good effect in developing the theme:





The last phrase functions as a sort of limiting phrase or closing line to signal the approach of khali or the sam and to mark the end of a variation. Almost all kaydas employ some variation of the phrase tunakena (whose open-bayan analogue is dhinagena), tinetinakena, or tinenanakena to perform this function. For the most part, this phrase is not elaborated in the variations on the theme, particularly in a chaste, simple composition like "dhati te..." (compositions are usually referred to by their opening lines). Furthermore, this kayda may be thought of as having two lines:  

dhati tedha tite dhadha tite  

dhage tuna kena  

In cases where the theme is more complex, the performer will usually elaborate earlier lines before proceeding to ideas in later lines, (though this is often not the case). This should be considered only a vague approximation of the structure of performance practice. Note that the lines do not necessarily divide evenly into halves, quarters, etc, though the length of the theme and variations always has a simple even mapping (2X, 1/2X etc.)to the tal.  

Now, the theme actually doesn't consist simply of the bol   dhati tedha tite dhadha tite dhage tuna kena   but contains a rearticulation of these lines. The first half is the bhari; the second half is the khali. This two-part structure holds for kaydas, relas, and peshkar in all talas, regardless of how the khali is positioned in the theka. Thus, though rupak tal theka begins with a khali vibhag, rupak kaydas have the same structure as tintal kaydas -- first half bhari, second half khali. Just as khali vibhags in the theka feature an absence of open bayan syllables, so khali in compositions repeat the bhari with closed bayan or no bayan at all. Our kayda "dhati te... " then becomes  

dhati tedha tite dhadha

tite dhage tuna kena

tati teta tite tata

tite dhage dhina gena  


dhati tedha tite dhadha

tite dhage tuna kena

tati teta tite dhadha

tite dhage dhina gena  

Note that the open bayan reenters around halfway through the khali. This is traditionally thought of as signalling the coming of the sam, but it also fills out the sound of the composition. Where the bayan reenters is often (though not always) a matter of taste for the performer. It need not necessarily be exactly halfway through the khali. However, usually one choice fits the movement of the composition much better than others. The question of khali's raison d'etre is an interesting and subtle one. This peculiarity of tabla playing, while in a strict sense arbitrary, certainly seems appropriate to the particular qualities of the instrument itself, and allows the performer to bring out the many flavours and nuances of a compositon. It also lends a feeling of beauty, balance and completeness to a composition. It is hard to imagine these compositons without khali, and in a sense, pointless , since they were composed with khali in mind.  

The performer improvises variations on the theme and concludes the improvisation with a musical phrase repeated three times which ends on sam at the end of the third repetition. This structure is called a "tihai" and is used to end virtually all types of tabla composition.

The actual process of improvisation and elaboration of the theme, however, is a complex one best left to be learned by osmosis in the study of tabla performance itself.

The Delhi kaydas:

  dha-te rekite dhagena dhagetu nakena  

dhati dhage nadha terekite dhati dhage tuna kena  

Kaydas often give rise to new kaydas by a simple process of substitution, adaptation or substition. So from the last kayda above, we get the new kayda:  

dhati dhage nadha kitetaka | dhati dhage dhina gena

kitetaka dhati dha-kite takadha- | tidha gena tuna kena  

Especially in Lucknow and the rest of the Purab styles, the kayda can get much longer and more complicated in bol and phrase structure.  

Peshkar -------  

My guru does not teach peshkar until one has learned for about 8 years or more (he himself was not taught it until he had learned for 10 years), so I really have no knowledge whatsoever of this very subtle genre. But here goes (briefly):  

Peshkar, usually the first type of theme-and-variation composition to be played in a solo concert, is, with its grand bols and its leaisurely, considered development, one of the most beautiful and refined parts of the tabla repertoire. The development of peshkar tends to emphasize straightforward permutations of the theme in the beginning, gradually leading into more dense and complex, often baroque phrasings that may involve changes in lay (rhythmic subdivision of the beat). The range of styles in playing peshkar is dramatic: from the austere, methodical approach of the Delhi gharana, to the revolutionary, almost cubist style of the legendary Ahmedjan Thirakwa's peshkar. I myself love my guru's uniquely slow, profound peshkar best of all. But his peshkar is perhaps even more meditative than most. Some people actually play peshkars in very fast speeds, though why, I don't know.

  In Banaras they play something like peshkar in the other gharanas, but it is more overtly a permutation of the theka bols. It is variously called aamad, banarsi theka, or, in what I think is probably a mistake on Robert Gottlieb's part, "barhant". My teacher believes that these Banaras compositions are descended from Lucknow kaida-peshkars that are very similar.  

Rela ----  

Like the kayda, the rela theme consists of several different phrases arranged in lines, and articulated in bhari and khali. Rela, however, can be distinguished from kayda by the following characteristics:  

1) Structurally, compared to most kaydas, it is simple. Often the same bol will be repeated several times within the theme, and the prevailing chhand (rhythmic movement) of the rela will be some simple pattern like 3-3-2, 3-3-2-4-4, or 2-2-4.  

2) The bols used in rela are somewhat different from those used in kayda, and are easily identified. Typical bols include dha-tite gherenaga, dhenegene, terekite and terekitetaka, dherenaga, dheredherekitetaka, and takataka. All these bols are relatively easy to play in high speeds. Rela is almost always played in very fast speeds.  

3) In performance practice, the variations of a rela tend to be somewhat less complex than kayda variations, and in general the rules for variation perhaps a little less strict. Whereas new bols (i.e. bols not in the original theme) are almost never intro- duced in kayda variations , in rela performance the introduction of new bols is sanctioned and occurs quite frequently.  

Some examples of relas.   The very simple rela  

dhenegene nagadhene ghenenaga dheneghene

dhenegene naganaga dhenegene naganaga


this has a 3-3-2-4-4 feel to it:





BTW, though some musicians feel "ghe" corresponds to the 2-finger stroke on the bayan and "ge" to the one finger stroke, I tend to use the two interchangeably, as is evident above.  

Other simple examples:  

Dha-tete gerenaga gerenaga terekite

dheneghene dhatigege takatine nanakene...


Dha-tere kitegere dheredhere kitetaka

Dha-tete gerenaga tina kerenaka...


Relas can of course be much more involved, and many are very long and technically very difficult to play, especially at high speeds.  

A related genre, very important in light classical music, is the laggi, which consists usu. of a very short theme of a few simple bols. These are played very fast and have a lilting movement. Variations usually involve fairly simple permutations of the theme. The following short laggi can be played in kaharva or dadra (in threes in kaharva, twos in dadra):  

dhatidha dhathuna tatidha dhadhina  

I also learned this one as a rela in tintal, with the basic line articulated four times in the theme:  

dhatidha dhathuna tatidha dhadhina

dhatidha dhathuna tatidha dhadhina etc.  

Laggi, while structurally simple, requires a lot of practice to play well. Also, since the bols are usually very limited, it can actually be difficult to improvise well in laggi (much as it can be hard to perform a rag with very few chalans).  

There are many other types of theme-and-variation compositions, e.g. kayda-peshkar, kayda-rela, chalan etc.  


So-called "fixed compositions" can be distinguished from theme and variations by several criteria:  

1) They are usually played in at least the medium speed of the tal, and usually in the fast, whereas kayda and peshkar are played in the slower tempi.  

2) Though some of them, especially tukras and chakkardars, may be improvised, most are not. Most are played from memory.  

3) One does not play variations on fixed compositions. One may play several similar versions of a tukra, or one may play a gat with several parts, but these are not variations on a theme.

The basic types of fixed composition are:  

The Tukra ---------  

The tukra, lit. a "piece", is a short composition played in drut lay. There is no standard vocabulary of bols that identifies a tukra. In fact tukras usually feature a wide variety of syllables, and usually have very irregular phrasing. There is no particular structural requirement for a tukra, though it always ends in a tihai and does not show khali. Tukras may be improvised, but the more complex tukras are usually precomposed. Tukras are probably the most popular single item in the performance repertoire of most tabla players today. However, many younger musicians seem to employ a very poor vocabulary of bols in their tukras, and often the bols seem almost randomly strung together.

Tukras *should* have coherence and should sound good, but beyond an acquaintance with many good tukras, it's hard to specify how one recognizes a good tukra vs. a bad one.  

The Gat -------  

The gat is, with kayda and peshkar, perhaps among the most "chaste" of tabla compositions.Usually played in madhyalay, the gat, like the tukra, does not have a specific family of bols associated with it. However, within each gat there tends to be a much grater feeling of unity, coherence and elegance than in the tukra, for example. Often the bol is difficult to play, especially since the gats are usually played quickly. Complex uses of rhythm are common in gats. Most gats show khali, and few have tihais. Most gats seem to have some unique feature that gives them their flavour, though this feature may be very different from gat to gat. When played in performance the gat should be repeated several times, each time with some dimension of the composition brought to the fore. A common type of gat is the tipalli, where some phrase (often a variant of dha-na dhitite dha-terekite dhetete kataga digene nagena nagena...) is repeated in three different speeds. Gats are always pre-composed. Few people nowadays play gats, and fewer yet can compose them. Morevoer, gats are usually kept quite secret by tabla players, for fear that the compositions may be stolen and adulterated. As a result, while tabla conoisseurs consider these compositions to be the pinnacle of the repertiore, they seem to be dying out. Gats are found in all gharanas, but Lucknow is most famous for the special quality of its gats.  

Paran -----  

The paran is a genre of tabla composition which uses almost entirely khula (open) bols taken from the older drum, pakhavaj. Parans are played in Purab baj and by the Punjab style of playing tabla. Parans can be quite long for fixed compositions. A novice can recogize them by their somewhat "heavier" sound and by the extremely sparse use of bayan modulation. Also, limited use is made of the kinar. Parans are very dramatic compositions, and are quite difficult to play as well. Parans do not show khali and usually end in a tihai. Parans are used quite heavily in dance, and many tabla parans are dance compositions also.  

Chakradar (chakkardar) ----------------------  

Chakkardar is a complex rhythmic composition involving a threefold repetition of an embedded composition which itself contains a tihai. Chakkardar can be improvised or precomposed, and is found in instrumental music as well. The bols can come from basically any of the above categories, and one specifies in some cases that something is e.g. a chakkardar paran.  

Uthan -----  

Uthan is a long introductory passage of sweeping proportions which can be improvised or precomposed. It seems to feature usually heavier, gambhIr bols, and concludes with a long, complex tihai. Often several structural subdivisions are evident within the uthan. These are a specialty of Purab baj. Uthan is played in solo and in accompaniment.  

Mukhra ------  

A short cadential flourish, less than one avartan in length, usu. improvised, with a small tihai-like cadence approaching the sam.  


The peformance of a tabla solo begins with a melodic flourish by the sarangi, followed by the statement of the lehara. The tabla player joins in with an introductory passage, and usually plays the theka before starting the peshakar. After the peshkar, kaydas, relas, and other compositions are played. As the solo continues, the tempo of the tal is gradually increased. In medium speed the gat is played, and in fast tempo, tukras, parans and chakkardars. Usually the performance ends with a chakkardar.    


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