Indian tabla, consisting of two drums, elipsis
Learn more about tabla with a free trial on Britannica.com.
The tabla (Hindi: तबला, Telugu: తబలా, Urdu: تبلہ tablā) 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, tabl, which simply means "drum".
Other tabla performers have identified further derivations of the above traditions, but these are subjective claims. Some traditions indeed have sub-lineages and sub-styles that meet the criteria to warrant a separate gharānā name, but such socio-musical 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 gharānā is traditionally set apart from the others by unique aspects of the compositional and playing styles of its exponents. For instance, some gharānās 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. Gharānā 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 gharānā distinctions have been blurred as information has been more freely shared and newer generations of players have learned and combined aspects from multiple gharānās to form their own styles. There is much debate as to whether the concept of gharānā even still applies to modern players. Some think the era of gharānā has effectively come to an end as the unique aspects of each gharānā 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 gharānā 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.
The smaller drum, played with the dominant hand, is sometimes called dayan (lit. "right"; a.k.a. dāhina, siddha, chattū) but is correctly called the "tabla." It is made from a conical piece of mostly shesham or teak and rose 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 dāyāñ-s are produced in different sizes, each with a different range. For a given dāyāñ, 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 bāyāñ (lit. "left"; aka. dagga, duggī, dhāmā). The bāyāñ has a much deeper bass tone, much like its distant cousin, the kettle drum. The bāyāñ may be made of any of a number of materials. Brass is the most common; copper is more 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 bāyāñs from the Punjab. Clay is also used, although not favored for durability; these are generally found in the North-East region of Bengal.
The playing technique for both drums involves extensive use of the fingers and palms in various configurations to create a wide variety of different sounds; these are reflected in the mnemonic syllables (bol). On the bāyāñ 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 (keenar) 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. shāī or gāb). This is constructed using multiple layers of a paste made from starch (rice or wheat) mixed with a black powder of various origins. The precise construction and shaping of this area 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.