Tabla is an incredible and fascinating instrument that is today rapidly gaining popularity around the world. It can now be heard in an extensive range of musical styles in both Eastern and Western musical cultures. The instrument has its origins in a wonderful and deep tradition of music making in India. Below is a brief background, and foreground, of the music played on the tabla.
Tabla is part of a percussion and musical lineage dating back thousands of years in India. Precise dates regarding the instruments use are unclear but historians believe statues in Khajuraho depict people playing tabla that date back to 1000AD. The tabla is currently the most commonly played percussion instrument in North India and is performed in almost every style of music in North India, including classical music (instrumental, vocal and dance), light-classical, devotional, folk and Bollywood music. The tabla was introduced to Western audiences in the 1960’s and is today played throughout the world in a wide variety of musical styles including jazz, pop, rock, heavy metal, soul and R’n’B, drum n’ bass, EDM, electronica, Western classical music and world music.
Below is a brief description of traditional tabla repertoire and contemporary tabla repertoire. For more detailed information on traditional tabla repertoire see Sam Evans’ Masters thesis HERE. For information on contemporary tabla repertoire, see Sam Evans’ PhD thesis HERE.
Traditional Tabla Music
The traditional repertoire of the tabla, that is, the music that is performed on the tabla, is a vast and constantly changing body of music. The repertoire includes a extensive number of works divided into different compositional forms. These include fixed, non-improvising compositional forms such as tukra, theme and variation forms that are improvised within precisely defined rules such as kaida, forms with lesser defined rules such as rela, and open motives for improvisation such as peshkar. It also includes the short, time-cycle patterns for each tala known as theka that are the most important aspect of the accompaniment performance practice.
Below is a brief outline of some of the most important compositional forms from the traditional tabla repertoire. These compositional forms, that constitute a large portion of the tabla repertoire, are applied in a variety of different ways according to the particular musical setting.
Tala and Theka
In its most basic form, a tala is a rhythmic cycle defined by a series of musical elements. The entire duration of a tala or rhythmic cycle, is known as an avartan, similar to a bar within the metric frame work of Western music. The avartan is subdivided into specific groupings known as vibharg, or subdivisions of the bar. The pulse or crochet beat, called a matra, is subject to a structure of accents that is applied within each vibharg. These accents are referred to as tali, khali and sam.
Each tala has a corresponding theka played on the tabla. Theka is performed in all traditional forms of tabla music and may be thought of as the groove, or the feel played by the tabla player. Besides its aesthetic appeal, each theka is designed with a specific series of notes to outline structural elements discussed above in each tala. A tabla player will use the structure of the tala, and the notes provided in the theka, to outline and maintain the tala in a musical setting. In performance, it is uncommon to hear a tabla player performing only the notes of an original theka. Instead, tabla players use a variety of embellishments, both rhythmic and melodic, to create their own approach to the theka for a given situation. As one of the main tasks for the tabla player in accompaniment situations is to maintain the tala in a musical manner, the theka and tala are often thought of as one.
Tihai is perhaps the most iconic aspect of Indian rhythmic theory. Tihai is a rhythmic tool used by the majority of musicians in Indian music to conclude compositions, sections of music and solos by performers. It may also be used during performance for musical phrasing as well as a device for interplay between musicians.
Structurally, a tihai is a single phrase or palla, that is repeated three times and is concluded with the last note of the phrase as the first note of the following section. While the concluding point is usually the sam, it is also common for a tihai to conclude on khali or at the starting point of a melodic composition (often a few beats from the sam). Some basic parameters may be applied here in definition: a tihai has a phrase which is played, exactly the same, three times; the duration of the phrase and the rests between the repeats remains the same; and the last note of the tihai is the first note of the intended concluding point. A tihai may begin from any point in the cycle and the rest may be of any duration. However, the phrase and rest are the same length each time. If a tihai does not include a rest it is referred to as a bedum tihai (lit: without a breath).
Theme and Variation Forms
Peshkar, meaning ‘presentation’ is commonly the opening compositional form presented in a solo tabla lehara performance. There are a variety of peshkar compositions and performance approaches currently in use that have foundations in the different gharanas of tabla playing. There exists between them a wide variety of moods as well as structural and improvisational rules, even though all may be termed peshkar.
Peshkar is often referred to as the aalap of tabla solo and it is within this form that the performer has the greatest amount of improvisational freedom and personal expression in the solo repertoire. Peshkar begins with a long and slow theme that, unlike many other solo tabla forms, does not repeat phrasing during the khali section. The performer develops the theme through improvisation that is based on the original theme while maintaining the slow, introspective mood of the peshkar style. Unlike most other theme and variation forms in the solo tabla repertoire, the performer is not required to repeat variations created in the first and second vibhargs while performing the khali section, and is not entirely restricted by the bols performed in the opening theme. It is common to hear performers of peshkar focusing on sophisticated tihai structures that distort the listeners’ perception of time, only to reveal the consistent underlying cycle at the sam, the first beat of the cycle, and the concluding point of the tihai.
Kaida is perhaps the most structurally sophisticated compositional form in the tabla repertoire. Kaida literally means ‘a system of rules’. The kaida form introduces tabla players to each bol required to master the instrument in a progressive system that focuses on skills development. The kaida form originated in the Delhi Gharana of tabla playing and serves three fundamental and very important roles for tabla players. The first of these is developmental: presenting one bol at a time, tabla students learn not only how to play the bols and fingerings, but also how to apply them and how to improvise within them. As the kaidas progress, students learn more bols and most importantly, how to combine bols and how each bol relates to the other.
The second function relates to improvisation. Through the theme and variations performed in the kaida form, tabla players learn how to develop their improvisations in a progressive, thematic, logical and stylistically appropriate manner. Initially students of the tabla are given an entire composition that includes a theme, a series of methodical variations and a tihai. With time, students learn to improvise the variations and concluding tihai in the style and within the rules of kaida. This enables students to develop the skills required to create their own improvisations in any musical situation in a thematic and musical manner.
The third function is that of performance. A kaida performance is commonly is filled with musical interest, artistic aesthetics and a variety of musical colours and flavours. The kaida system presents performers with a wide variety of moods to express on the tabla, it is in the hands of the player to produce a musical performance.
The overall structure of a kaida can be divided into three sections: an opening theme, a series of variations based on the opening theme and a concluding tihai. The main focus during a kaida is the thematic development that is achieved through a series of variations, or palta.
Rela is a fast and flowing compositional form characterised by simple repeating bols designed to be played at high speed. Rela literally means ‘torrent’ or ‘flowing’. Common bols performed in rela compositions are terekete, deredere and dhinegene. While rela has a similar form to kaida, the overall approach to thematic development is different. Beginning with a theme, the rela form is developed through a series of variations and ultimately culminates in a concluding tihai, much the same as the kaida form. While the variations performed to develop the music follow the same general rules of the kaida form, rela offers the performer a greater level of freedom and a less strict approach to the form. Performers may linger on the theme, return to the theme, create inversions of the theme, and choose to play many, few or no variations. Compared to the kaida form, the opening theme and variations performed in rela are less complex, include limited variety of bols, and may include more repetition.
Chalan, is a compositional form that is particular to the Farukhabad gharana of tabla playing. There is much debate regarding a complete definition of the compositional form as it may be performed with a wide scope of variation with regards to the structure and rules of the form.
In common performance, a chalan is similar in its structure to a kaida. One of the principle aspects defining chalan as separate from kaida is that chalan themes include a wider variety of bols than those found in the kaida form. Chalan also includes more rhythmic variation than either kaida or rela forms. The bols in chalan compositions are more similar to those used in the gat form than the bols of kaida or rela forms. It may be useful to think that chalan straddles the bol usage divide between the limited bols used in the forms of kaida and rela and the wide variety of bols used in the gat and tukra forms.
Fixed Compositional Forms
Gat is a distinct compositional structure that appears in a wide variety of forms. Gat originated in the Kathak dance repertoire and is most prevalent in the Farukhabad and Lucknow Gharanas. Gat compositions are considered the most valued and highly treasured pieces within a tabla players repertoire as they include a wide scope of technical and creative possibilities in the interpretation and improvisation within the pieces.
Most gat compositions were composed by performers from eastern India and the diversity of rules applied within the different types of gat is one of the characteristics of the form. One of the most outstanding features of the gat is the way in which it is performed. While kinar strokes such as na, ta and dha are used in the recitation and written form, these strokes are all performed on the sur section of the tabla drum in gat compositions. That is, all dha strokes are played as dhin, and all na/ta strokes are played as tin. The effect of this is a very sweet, resonant and rounded timbral sound to the composition, even though it may be played quite loud.
Tukra compositions are usually short in length and strong in character. Traditionally performed at full volume and with great speed tukra is a virtuosic form usually played in the final section of a solo tabla performance. Tukra compositions conclude with a tihai and make use of a wide range of bols to convey the complex themes of the compositions. It is common for a tukra to have a particular theme, story or mood associated with the composition. Sometimes these stories are told at the time of performance. They are usually short and simple illustrative themes that are conveyed by the composition, such as ‘a cat jumping a fence attempting to escape from a monkey’. There is no restriction on the bols to be used for a tukra, but it is common to hear terekete and deredere bols used during the composition and a rhythmically syncopated tihai.
Dupodi and Tripodi
Dupodi and tripodi are distinctive compositional forms particular to North Indian tabla drumming. In a dupodi composition, each bol is played twice. In tripodi compositions, each bol is played three times. The duration of each repeated bol varies according to the composition leading to an intricate array of rhythmic possibilities. It is common in these compositions for the repeating phrases to create cross rhythms against the pulse and vibharg of the tal. Due its structure, dupodi and tripodi compositions do not usually include a tihai.
Like dupodi and tripodi, triplai is a fascinating form particular to North Indian tabla drumming. Triplai compositions are designed so that the same composition may be played in three different subdivisions of the beat and still conclude at the sam of the tal. The order of the notes and rests remains exactly the same in each subdivision, as does the relative note values. The only aspect that changes is the relationship between the pulse of the music and the length of notes. For example, if a composition begins in a triplet sub-division (tisra), it will then be played in the timing of semiquavers (chautisra) and then in sextuplets (tisra).
Chakradah is a complex cyclical form performed in Indian music. It is a compositional form within the solo tabla repertoire that is played three times and calculated to conclude on the sam. Chakradah compositions are often composed in a similar style to the tukra form, but instead of being, for example, 16 beats in duration in a tintal composition, it may be 11 beats in duration, repeated three times and concluding on the first note of the tal. Each repeated section of the chakradah includes a tihai and the rest between each section will remain the same each time. If there is no rest between the repeated sections, the composition is known as a bedum chakradah.
Chakradah is commonly considered the most difficult compositional form to perform. For example, the composition may be very complex in its structure and have a duration of more than one cycle in each repeated section. The rest may be a fraction of a beat causing the musician to play the entire section a quarter of a beat ahead, or behind where it naturally occurs. Chakradah is often performed to conclude a solo tabla recital.
Contemporary Tabla Repertoire
Outside the traditional framework, it has become increasingly common to hear the tabla performed in intercultural musical settings, in-line with the growing international interest in the instrument. In these musical settings, performers apply the standardised performance techniques of the instrument to either play aspects of the traditional repertoire in the non-traditional music, or creatively devise new music for the tabla. For instance, performers may create new ways in which to relate to pitch and harmony in the music that is different from the traditional dronal approach to the pitch of the tabla. Some performers extend the melodic potential of the instrument by utilising multiple tabla drums to play entire melodies, melodic ostinatos, or melodic fragments. The pitch of either a single or multiple tabla drums may also be engaged to relate to chord-based harmony, including pedal points, root-based harmony, and triadic harmony. There are also numerous contemporary rhythmic roles for the tabla that provide alternative contemporary rhythmic organisation for the tabla to the traditional rhythmic organisational system of tala. These include new patterns that do not adhere to the rhythmic organisation of tala, polyrhythmic roles, internal rhythmic organisation over single or multiple bars and changing time signature approaches.
Today, there is a growing number of contemporary tabla players that may ultimately build an alternative repertoire for the instrument. The music performed on the tabla in this category of alternative approaches to the instrument is presently a varied collection of approaches in a wide variety of genres. The ongoing progress of these musical endeavours may eventually develop into a set of musical principles that function as an alternative repertoire for the instrument.
Sam Evans’ PhD research investigated the creation of new contemporary repertoire for the tabla. The aim of the research was to expand the musical roles, elements, and conventions that are performed on the tabla in the context of contemporary intercultural music. The music investigated in the research complements, adds to, differs from, and expands on the vast musical wealth of traditional tabla music. It further extends the existing repertoire of the tabla into a contemporary setting that employs musical elements from diverse origins and seeks to define aspects of this contemporary, intercultural performance practice in order to contribute to the establishment and recognition an alternative repertoire for the tabla. For more detail on this new and evolving repertoire see Sam Evans’ PhD here.
Glossary of tabla and Indian musical terms
alap – beginning section of an instrumental recital
anagat – composition that concludes before the sam
avartan – complete cycle of a tal
Banaras – Indian city now known as Varanasi. Banaras gharana refers to the stylistic school originating in Banaras
band – tabla bols played with muted notes on the bayan, or where the bayan is absent in the passage of music, also known as mudi, lit: closed
bol – mnemonic syllables representing the notes performed on the tabla
chakradar – composition of the solo tabla repertoire that is played three times to conclude on the sum
chalan – theme and variation compositional form of the solo tabla repertoire, particular to the farukhabad gharana
dupodi – composition of the solo tabla repertoire in which each phrase is played twice
Farrukhabad – Indian city in which the stylistic school known as Farrukhabad gharana originated (later moved to Kolkata) gab – the black portion in the centre of the tabla
gat – short, virtuosic composition from traditional tabla repertoire
gharana – stylistic school or tradition, originating in a family lineage
guru-shishya – the traditional master and disciple relationship between teacher and student
kaida – systematic theme and variation compositional form of the solo tabla repertoire
khali – un-accented beat of a tal, indicates beginning of new vibharg and is marked by a wave of the hand
khalifa – hereditary head of a gharana (stylistic school)
khuli – bols that are played with open resonant strokes on the bayan
kinar – outside skin of the tabla drum, on the edge of the drum
lehara – accompanying melody of tabla solo performance
laggi – short, syncopated bol patterns performed at high speed most commonly in light classical music
maidan – main resonating skin of the tabla drum, also known as sur
matra – the pulse beat in Indian music, a unit of time
mudi bols – played with muted notes on the bayan, or where the bayan is absent in the passage of music, also known as band, lit: closed
mohra – short compositional form of tabla repertoire that does not end with a tihai
mukhra – short composition of the solo tabla repertoire ending with a tihai
pakhavaj – double ended barrel drum of north India that pre-dates the tabla
palla – sections of a tihai, the phrase that is used to form the tihai
paran – compositions originally from the repertoire of the pakawaj, later subsumed as part of tabla repertoire
palta – variations in a kaida or rela form
peshkar – opening composition of a solo tabla repertoire recital, lit: to present
rela – theme and variation compositional form of traditional tabla repertoire. lit: rushing, flowing, a torrent
sam – the beginning of a tal, and the most accented tali, marked by a clap
sawal jawab – system of question and answer in Indian music
sur – main resonating skin of the tabla drum, also known as maidan
syhai – black portion on the centre of the tabla drum that generates the sustaining pitch tala – unit of time, metric cycle or metre. Also referred to as tal
tali – accented beat of a tal, indicates beginning of new vibharg and marked by a clap theka – rum pattern played on the tabla to indicate a particular tala
theka – drum pattern played on the tabla to indicate a particular tala
tihai – cyclical candential figure played three times
tripali – composition within the traditional tabla repertoire that is played in three different metric divisions
tripodi – composition of the traditional tabla repertoire in which each phrase is played three times
tukra – short composition of the traditional tabla repertoire played at high speed and volume and concluding with a tihai
vibharg – subdivisions, or sections of a tal
 Mistry, A, E. (1999). ‘Pakhawaj and Tabla: History, Schools and Traditions’. Mumbai: Munshriram Manoharlal Publishers.
 Jazz: (Miles Davis: 1972, 1974, Pharoh Sanders: 1999, Oregon: 1987, Charles Lloyd: 2006), pop: (The Beatles: 1966, 1967, Sting: 2003, Shiela Chandra: 1982), rock: (Tool: 2000, 2001, 2006), heavy metal: (BAK: 2012, 2011, Twelve Foot Ninja: 2016), soul and R’n’B: (Shawn Lee’s Incredible Tabla Band: 2011), drum n’ bass: (Nitin Sawhney: 1999, 2005, Lamb: 1996), EDM and electronica: (U-Zhaan: 2011a, 2011b, 2014, Suphela: 2007, 2011, Talvin Singh: 2008, 2011) and Western classical music: (Shawn Mativetsky: 2011, 2014, Bela Fleck: 2009, Zakir Hussain: 2016), world music: (Oregon, Tabla Beat Science, Autorickshaw, Fine Blue Thread, U-Zhaan, Prabhu Edouard with Nguyên Lê, Ty Burhoe with Bill Douglas, Zakir Hussain with Bela Fleck, Shawn Mativetsky, Sam Evans)