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by David Courtney working tools

The mnemonic syllables are an important part of Indian rhythm.  They are variously referred to as bol, solkatu, or konnakkol.  These are syllables which correlate to the various strokes of the tabla, mridangam, and pakhawaj as well as other classical percussive instruments.  Since they have such a wide usage across the classical drums, we can assume that this custom is many centuries old.  Otherwise it would not have such a wide distribution.

There is a difference in the way that north Indians and south Indians view these syllables.  In the north (Hindustani sangeet) the tal is actually defined by the bol, while in the south (Carnatic Sangeet) the syllables do not define the tal, but are generally used as a mnemonic aid to the musician.  Furthermore, the lexicon of syllables is very different between North Indian musicians and South Indian musicians.  Even within the Carnatic / Hindustani systems, there are smaller differences between the various percussion instruments.


North Indian Perspective

The mnemonic syllable of the north is known as bol.  This is derived from the word "bolna" which means "to speak". The concept of bol has a number of different characteristics.  These relate to the manner in which the bol relates to the technique of the tabla.  They also relate to the way that the bol is used to define the tal.

The manner in which the bol relates to the technique of the tabla is perhaps the most important consideration of all.  This is described in greater detail under the topic "Basic Strokes and Bols".

One other topic is the way that North Indian musicians use the bol to define the tal.  The case of Tintal is a good example.  It goes like this:



(see also Tintal)

XDhaa Dhin Dhin Dhaa  |  2Dhaa Dhin Dhin Dhaa  |  0Dhaa Tin Tin Naa  |  3Naa Dhin Dhin Dhaa  |

There are other tals which have the same patterns of claps and waves as tintal, but they are considered separate tals because the bol is different.

Here are two examples:



(see also "Tilwada Tal")

XDhaa TiRaKiTa Dhin Dhin  |  2Dhaa Dhaa Tin Tin  |  0Taa TiRaKiTa Dhin Dhin  |  3Dhaa Dhaa Dhin Dhin |



XDhaa  -  Dhin -  |  2Dhaa Dhaa Tin  -  |  0Taa  -  Tin  -  |  3Dhaa Dhaa Dhin  -  |

So here we have something that is quite curious.  We have three distinct tals which share the same abstract structure (i.e., claps, waves, numbers of beats, and measures) but they are considered separate ONLY because their bols are different.  Historically, this has not been the case.

There are a few twists when the bol is used in the accompaniment of the kathak dance; This is known as padant.  These syllables may be a mixture of tabla bols, pakhawaj bols, bols that are peculiar to the kathak dance and at times even poetry and words.


South Indian Perspective

The use of rhythmic mnemonics in South India India is part of a very rich tradition.  It has a very important place in pedagogy and in the accompaniment of south Indian classical dances.

In the south, the recitation of the rhythmic syllables may be called several things.  One of the most common is solkatu.  It is also known as konnakkol, which is derived from the Telugu phrase "Konu Kolu" which means a "measuring rod".

Unlike the recitation of the tabla bols in the North, the konnakkol is a highly respected art in its own right.  It is said that in the old days, the recitation of the konnakkol was even more important than the mridangam performance for musical programs.  Some of the great masters of the past were Muthaiah Pillai, Ekambara Iyer, and Pakkiria Pillai.

There are a few fundamental phrases upon which the south Indian system is based.  These are:

                Thom - 1 Beat
                Ta Ka - 2 Beats
                Ta Ki Ta - 3 Beats
                Ta Ka Di Mi - 4 beats
                Ta Di Gi Na Thom - 5 beats

From these, larger and more complex structures can be constructed.  For instance, TakKiTaTaKiTaTaKa (i.e., 3+3+2), or TaKaTaKaTaKaDiMi (i.e., 2+2+4) are all patterns which work well when set against adi tal of eight beats.  As another example TaKiTaTaKaDiMi (i.e., 3+4) or TaKaTaKiTaTaKaTaKiTaTaKaDiMi (i.e., 2+3+2+3+4) work well for mishra chapu of seven beats.

There is another version of konnakkol which is known as nathuvangam.  This is the konnakkol which is used to support the dance performances.  It is not significantly different from the regular konnakkol.


Philosophic Implications

The syllables are usually considered to be mere mnemonics which represent the various strokes of the tabla, mridangam or other percussive instruments; but perhaps this is not really correct.  Perhaps it is really the strokes on the drum that represent the syllables.  This is because the syllables have been elevated to an abstract level that is at times divorced from the technique used to suggest them.

This may be a hard concept to follow, so let us explain this a little more clearly.  Let us take a more familiar example such as the word "door".  The word door at first appears to be solidly connected to that familiar household fixture.  It would seem that the utterance of this single syllable is there to remind us of this.  But when we look further, the word "door" starts to disconnect from the familiar household fixture.  It begins to assume a broader significance.  Take for example the expressions "doorway to the mind", or "door to the future".  One would have no problem thinking of countless other examples where "door" is used in a more abstract sense.  So now the relationship is no longer clear.  Is the word "door" a description of the household fixture, or is the household door a physical metaphor for a larger philosophic concept?

This same ambiguous relationship is seen in the syllables for the Indian drums.  Originally, they may have been mere onomatopoeic representations of the strokes.  However, multiple ways to execute the syllables have weakened this relationship.  Furthermore, the syllables acquired their own syntax and grammar.  They are easily manipulated, without recourse to their technique.  In short, they have assumed an identity all their own.


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