Definitions

Hindustani music

Tala (music)

In Indian classical music, Tala (Sanskrit tāla), literally a "clap," is a rhythmical pattern that determines the rhythmical structure of a composition. It plays a similar role to metre in Western music, but is structurally different from the concept of metre. Each composition is set to a tala, and as a composition is rendered by the main artist(s), the percussion artist(s) play the pattern repeatedly, marking time as well as enhancing the appeal of the performance.

The most common instrument for keeping rhythm in Hindustani music is the tabla. The pakhavaj is also used, especially for the Dhrupad genre of Hindustani music. In Carnatic music, the Mridangam is a stock feature in vocal, violin, Veena and flute concerts, with the Ghatam, the Kanjira and the Morsing also featuring at times. In Nadhaswaram concerts, the thavil takes the place of the Mridangam.

While Indian classical music has a complete and complex system for the execution and transcription of rhythms and beats, a few talas are very common while most others are rare. The most common Tala in Hindustani classical music is Tintal. This tala has a cycle of 16 beats divided in 4 bars. Bars 1, 2 and 4 are accented while bar 3 is light. Most talas can be played at different speeds, but no tala is generally slowed down as much as Ektal, with its 12 beats sometimes taking more than a minute.

Tala in Carnatic music

Traditionally, Carnatic music vocalists mark the tala by tapping their laps with their palm. Instrumentalists such as violinists and flutists that use both hands mark the tala by tapping their feet on the ground inconspicuously.

Tala varieties

In Carnatic music, each repeated cycle is called an Aavartanam, while each "tap" is called an aksharam or a kriyā. A tala thus describes the number and arrangement of aksharams inside an Aavartanam. Note that the intervals between the aksharams are all equally long. The aksharams are subdivided into maatraas or svaras.

There are three patterns of beats that recur in all talas - these are the laghu, the dhrutam and the anudhrutam.

  • A dhrutam is a pattern of 2 aksharams, with the first aksharam marked with the palm face down, and the second with the face up. This is notated 'O'. (ie., Tapping once with your palm facing down and once with it facing up.)
  • An anudhrutam is a single aksharam, marked with the palm face down and notated 'U'. (ie., Tapping once with your palm facing down)
  • A laghu is a pattern with the first aksharam marked with the palm face down, followed by a variable number of aksharams marked with successive fingers starting with the little finger. This is notated '1'

The number of aksharams in the laghu is one of 3, 4, 5, 7 or 9, and this characterises the variety (jaathi) of the tala. The five varieties are:

# aksharams in laghu Jāti
3 Tisra
4 Chatusra
5 Khanda
7 Misra
9 Sankeerna

Tala families

Modern day Carnatic music uses a comprehensive system for the specification of talas, called the sulaadi sapta taala system. According to this system, there are seven families of talas differing on the way an Aavartanam is constructed from the laghu, dhrutam and anudhrutam.

These are respectively:

Tala Description of Aavartanam Default length of laghu Total Akshara's according to the Saptha Alankaras
Dhruva 1O11 4 14
Matya 1O1 4 10
Rupaka O1 4 6
Jhampa 1UO 7 10
Triputa 1OO 3 7
Ata 11OO 5 14
Eka 1 4 4

For instance, one Aavartanam of Khanda-jaati Rupaka tala comprises a 2-long dhrutam followed by a 5-long laghu. An Aavartanam is thus 7 aksharams long.

Thus, with all possible combinations of tala types and laghu lengths, there are 5 x 7 = 35 talas, with lengths ranging from 3 (Tisra-jaati Eka) to 29 (sankeerna-jaati Dhruva) aksharams.

Some of the musicians practising carnatic music refer to the jaathi of a tala as chaapu. Thus, the Khanda-jaati Rupaka tala may also be referred to as Khanda-chaapu Rupaka tala

Nadai or gati

The duration of an aksharam, usually fixed (though there are exceptions) within a rendition of a composition in its tala, varies across talas. The fundamental unit of time used is called a maatraa or a svaram, and each tala is also characterised by the number of maatraas in an aksharam. This count, which corresponds to the length of an aksharam is called the nadai or gati of the tala. The default nadai is Chatusram. But the nadai can be one of 3, 4, 5, 7 or 9, and these are respectively called Tisra, Chatusra, Khanda, Misra and sankeerna, as above. This provides further variation from the 35 talas specified above.

As in the example above, Chatusra-gati Khanda-jaati Rupaka tala has 7 aksharam, each of which is 4 maatraas long; each Aavartanam of the tala is 4 x 7 = 28 maatraas long. For Misra-gati Khanda-jaati Rupaka tala, it would be 7 x 7 = 49 maatraa

Eduppu or Start point

Compositions do not always start at the start of the tala. It is offset by a certain number of maatraas or aksharas or combination of both. This is to better suit the words of the composition in the construct of the tala. The following are some of the common Eduppu handled in talas:

  • 1 - Thalli - where 1 maatraas are ignored from the start of the tala before the composition starts.
  • 2 - Thalli - where 2 maatraas are ignored from the start of the tala before the composition starts.
  • 3 - Thalli - where 3 maatraas are ignored from the start of the tala before the composition starts.
  • 4 - Thalli (one akshara offset) - where 4 maatraas are ignored from the start of the tala before the composition starts.
  • 6 - Thalli (one akshara and 2 maatras) - where 6 maatraas are ignored from the start of the tala before the composition starts.

The word Thalli is from Tamil and literally means to shift. There is another variation where the composition starts in the last few maatraas of the previous Aavartanam. This is called Atheetha Eduppu. The following are the common Atheetha eduppus

  • 2 - Thalli - where 2 maatraas are carried over from the end of the previous Aavardhanam.
  • 3 - Thalli - where 3 maatraas are carried over from the end of the previous Aavardhanam.

Other Rare talas

Other than the 35 talas,the gathis mentined here, there are 108 anga talas. The following is the exhaustive pattern of beats used in constructing the anga thalams.

Anga Symbol Aksharakala Mode of Counting
Anudrutam U 1 1beat
Druta O 2 1 beat + Visarijitam (wave of hand)
Druta-virama (OU) 3
Laghu (Chatusra-jati) l 4 1 beat + 3 finger count
Laghu-virama U) 5
Laghu-druta O) 6
Laghu-druta-virama OU) 7
Guru 8 8 A beat followed by circular movement of the right hand in the clockwise direction with closed fingers.
Guru-virama (8U) 9
Guru-druta (8O) 10
Guru-druta-virama (8OU) 11
Plutam ) 12 1 beat + kryshya (waving the right hand from right to left) + 1 sarpini (waving the right hand from left to right) - each of 4 aksharakalas OR a Guru followed by the hand waving downwards
Pluta-virana U) 13
Pluta-druta O) 14
Pluta-druta-virama OU) 15
Kakapadam + 16 1 beat + patakam (lifting the right hand) + kryshya + sarpini - each of 4 aksharakalas)


These are very rare and lengthy talas. Compositions are rare in these talas. They are mostly used in RTPs. Some examples of anga talas are:

Sarabhandana tala

8 O l l O U U)
O O O U O) OU) U) O
U O U O U) O (OU) O)

Simhanandana tala : It is the longest tala.

8 8 l ) l 8 O O
8 8 l ) l ) 8 l
+

Another type of tala is the chhanda tala. These are talas set to the lyrics of the Thirupugazh by the Tamil composer Arunagirinathar. He is said to have written 16000 hyms each in a different chhanda tala. Of these, only 1500-2000 are available.

Practice

In practice, only a few talas have compositions set to them. As in the table above, each variety of tala has a default family associated with it; the variety mentioned without qualification refers to the default. For instance, Jhampa tala is Misra-jaati Jhampa tala In addition, the default nadai is Chatusra.

The most common tala is Chatusra-nadai Chatusra-jaati Triputa tala, also called Adi tala (Adi meaning primordial in Sanskrit). From the above tables, this tala has 8 aksharams, each being 4 svarams long. Most krtis and around half of the varnams are set to this tala.

Other common talas include the following:

  • Chatusra-nadai Chatusra-jaati Rupaka tala, or simply Rupaka tala). A large body of krtis is set to this tala.
  • Khanda Chapu (a 10-count) and Misra Chapu (a 14-count), both of which do not fit very well into the sulaadi sapta taala scheme. Many padams are set to Misra Chapu, while there are also krtis set to both the above talas.
  • Chatusra-nadai Khanda-jaati Ata tala, or simply Ata tala). Around half of the varnams are set to this tala.
  • Tisra-nadai Chatusra-jaati Triputa tala - A few fast-paced krtis are set to this tala.

Sometimes, pallavis are sung as part of a Ragam Thanam Pallavi exposition in some of the rarer, more complicated talas; such pallavis, if sung in a non-Chatusra-nadai tala, are called nadai pallavis.

A close equivalent to tala in the theory of Ottoman/Turkish music is the notion of usul.

Taal in Hindustani Music

Hindustani classical renditions use various Taals at various tempos depending upon the compositional requirements. A typical recital of a Raga consists of 2-3 parts categorized usually by the tempo of the music - Vilambit laya (Slow tempo), Madhya laya (Medium tempo) and Drut laya (Fast tempo). Madhya laya is used optionally.

The Structure of Taal

A Taal is a rhythmic cycle of beats with an ebb and flow of various types of intonations resounded on a percussive instrument. The main percussive instruments used in North Indian classical music are the Tabla, Pakhawaj and Mridanga. Each single cycle of the Taal, from the first beat to the last is known as one Aavartan (literally "cycle"). For example, one Aavartan of Teentaal (Trital) is made of 16 beats (known as MATRAs), whereas Ektaal has 12 beats. Each matra is equidistant from the other and should be as regular as the ticking of a clock (or more practically, a metronome). Taals also have a vocalised and therfore written form wherein the individual beats are expressed as the phonetic representations of the various strokes played upon the Tabla.

It is to be noted that the first beat of any taal is referred to as SAM (meaning even or equal, archaically meaning nil; pronounced as "sum") and is denoted with an 'X' in the written form of the taal. Furthermore, the first beat of any vibhaga (see below) is accompanied by a clap of the hands when reciting the taal and therefore is known TAALI (or hand clap pronounced as "thaalee").

For the convenience of the performer (percussionist, vocalist or dancer) and audience as well, taals are composed with a "missing" beat which is also always the first beat of a vibhaga but denoted in written form with a '0'(as in zero). This specific beat is known as KHALI (which means empty). The khali beat acts as a mnemonic aid in recognising the approach of Sam and keeping track or where the artist is in the rendering of the taal cycle. In recitation it is indicated with a sideways wave of the dominant clapping hand (usually the right) or the placing of the back of the hand upon the base hand's palm in lieu of a clap making an "empty/nil" sound. When the place of the khali is played on the instrument it is voiced with a stressed syllable that is unique from the surrounding beats and can easily be picked out if listened for.

Taal in Written Form

A taal is divided into sub-groups known as Vibhagas or partitions, more on this below. One may note that the beats following the first beat of each vibhaga are indicated with digits that are greater than 0. These may be thought of as filler beats; they flesh out the taal but do not hold any specific significance other than as such. The following is what the written form of Teentaal looks like with the 'X' representing the first beat - Sam, the '0' Khali (empty clap) and each number an individual consecutive beat):

 Dha Dhin Dhin Dha
 X   2    3    4
 Dha Dhin Dhin Dha
 5   6    7    8
 Dha Tin Tin Ta
 O   10  11  12
 Ta  Dhin Dhin Dha
 13  14   15   16

A cycle of a taal does not necessarily have 4 evenly divided sections or even the same number of beats per section. For example, Rupaktaal has 3 sections (vibhaga-s), the first one having more beats than the other sections. Please note, that in this almost unique case, Rupak begins with the Khali on Sam:

 Tin Tin Na
 O  2  3
 Dhi Na
 4   5
 Dhi Na
 6   7

Some rare taals even contain a "half-beat". For example, Dharami is an 11 1/2 beat cycle where the final "Ka" only occupies half the time of the other beats. Also note, this taal's 6th beat does not have a played syllable - in western classical it would be known as a "rest":

 Ka Dhi Te Dhi Te
 X  1   2  3   4
 Dha --
 5   6
 Ga Ti Te
 7  8  9
 Ti Te Ka/2
 10 11 1/2

Some taals lend themselves better to slow and medium tempos, for example, Dhamaar, Ek, Jhumra, Chau taal etc. Others flourish at faster speeds, like Jhap or Rupak taal. Tritaal or Teentaal is one of the most popular, since it is as aesthetic when played at slower tempos as it is at faster speeds. Various Gharanas (literally "Houses" which can be inferred to be "styles" - basically styles of the same art with cultivated traditional variances) also have their own preferences. For example, the Kirana Gharana uses Ektaal more frequently for Vilambit Khayal while the Jaipur Gharana uses Trital. Jaipur Gharana is also known to use Ada Trital, a variation of Trital for transitioning from Vilambit to Drut laya.

The Importance of Vibhaga (Partitions) in the Taal

As mentioned above, an Aavartan of a taal is not just a collection of beats. The beats are grouped into divisions known as Vibhagas. These groupings deliver musical significance to the rendering of the taal as the first beat of each vibhaga is usually played with a notably accented syllable on the percussive instrument (be it tabla, pakhawaj or mridangam etc.). It is this that gives texture to the taals and makes one unique from the other. For example, the taal Rupak consists of 7 beats and has a brother taal that consists of 14 beats - Dhamaar. It is the spacing of the accents with the use of Vibhaga that make each distinct - otherwise, one Aavartan of Dhamaar might be mistaken for two of Rupak or two of Rupak taal for one of Dhamaar.


Sam, notated with an 'X' has a special role in Indian classical music (natively known as "bharatiya paramparic sangeet"). In the many applications of a taal - namely vocal music, instrumental music and dance - the first beat of the taal is always the most important and thereby the most heavily emphasised. In vocal and instrumental music, the soloist has to perform on it either the vadi, occasionally the samavadi, or Sa, or in some instances the vishrantishan; i.e. an important note of the raga is to be used. Also the percussionist and the soloist's renditions' end or completions always coincide on Sam. In North Indian classical dance (chiefly Kathak) though any length or type of choreographical composition may begin anywhere within the taal cycle (though most start from Sam), the composition must ALWAYS end on Sam.

Tabla Bols

Hindustani Taals are typically played on a pair of small hand drums known as tabla. The smaller drum is known as the Dayan (or right hand) and the larger, lower-pitched drum is called the Bayan (or left hand). The specific strokes and the sound they produce are known as bols. Each bol has its own name that can be vocalized as well as written. The common ones are:
Bol Sound
Ti or Te A dry, slapping sound played in the center of the dayan.
Na or Ta A resonant tone played near the edge of the dayan.
Tin A resonant tone played near the center of the dayan.
Ga A resonant tone played on the bayan.
Ka A dry slap played on the bayan.
Dhin Ga and Tin played at the same time.
Dha Ga and Na/Ta played at the same time.
You can hear examples of these Bols on some of the pages cited in the External Links section below.

Common Hindustani Taals

There are many taals in Hindustani music, however, only a few are in common use
Name Beats Division vibhaga
Tintal (or Trital or Teental) 16 4+4+4+4 X 2 0 3
Jhoomra 14 3+4+3+4 X 2 0 3
Tilwada 16 4+4+4+4 X 2 0 3
Dhamar 14 5+2+3+4 X 2 0 3
Ektal and Chautal 12 2+2+2+2+2+2 X 0 2 0 3 4
Jhaptal and Jhampa 10 2+3+2+3 X 2 0 3
Kaharva 8 4+4
Rupak 7 3+2+2 X 2 3
Dadra 6 3+3 X 2

Additional Taals

Name Beats Division vibhaga
Adachoutal 14 2+2+2+2+2+2+2 X 2 0 3 0 4 0
Brahmtal 28 2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2 X 0 2 3 0 4 5 6 0 7 8 9 10 0
Dipchandi 14 3+4+3+4 X 2 0 3
Shikar 17 6+6+2+3 X 0 3 4
Sultal 10 2+2+2+2+2 x 0 2 3 0

References

(International) Literature

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Online Tutorials

Audio files

External (Web) Links

Other Indian Rhythmic techniques

Tihai

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