Homepage > Instrumental Music > Tablasite > This Page


page [ (1) _2_ _3__4_ _5_ ]


by David Courtney working tools

Note - This piece was previously published in Percussive Notes, Vol. 32, No 4 August 1994, page 54-64.

Reprinted by permission of the Percussive Arts Society, Inc., 701 N.W., Ferris, Lawton, OK 73507

Contents of page > Introduction
folk/filmi pickup
Works Cited
List of illustrations > Figure 1. The north Indian tabla
Figure 2. Tintal theka
Figure 3. Mukhada in tintal
Figure 4. "Pickup" in 4 matra kaherava
Figure 5. Tihai in tintal
Figure 6. Structure of dumdar and bedumdar tihai
Figure 7. Bedum tihai
Figure 8. Dumdar tihai
Figure 9. Mohara and Tukada
Figure 10. Chakradar tihai
Figure 11. Paran
Figure 12. Tipali
Figure 13. Amad


tabla player

The tabla is a pair of drums which has become synonymous with north Indian percussion  (figure 1. below). Although the tabla is probably not more than two to three centuries old, it has assumed an important role in this ancient system of music. For many generations material has been transmitted orally from teacher to disciple. In this way numerous compositions and compositional forms have arisen.

This myriad of styles and compositional forms essentially break down into two philosophies; cyclic and cadential (Stewart 1974). The cyclic form rolls along and does not imply or require a resolution. This class includes such common examples as theka, rela, or kaida. In contrast, the cadential form requires a resolution. It is the cadential material which is the topic for this work.

There are numerous traditional types which may be considered a cadence. Unfortunately the nomenclature is often conflicting and overlapping. It will be seen in this paper that such confusion often arises because different criteria is used for the definition. When one understands the criteria upon which a compositional form is defined, the confusion is minimized.



It is necessary to have a firm background in the basics of Indian rhythm before we discuss the cadence. Although a complete discussion of Indian theory and notation is not possible here, we will cover the fundamentals. These are the system of mnemonics; abstract concepts of time and rhythm; and concepts of structure.

The system of mnemonics, known as bol, is perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of Indian percussion. Bols such as Dha, Dhin TiRiKiTa are used both as a basis for notation as well as a mnemonic (Courtney 1980). The word bol is so attached to the strokes that it has come to mean both the verbal recitation as well as the performance of the strokes.

An analysis of these bols show two overall styles. One of these styles shows the influence of an ancient barrel shaped drum known as pakhawaj. Another style has obscure origins, variously attributed to naggada (Stewart 1974), dholak, dholki or any of a variety of folk sources. Efforts to attribute this style to any particular drum are inconclusive. The usual approach used by Indian musicians is to simply refer to them as "tabla bols". Although this approach may be unsatisfactory from an academic standpoint we will use this convenient convention in this work.

The various bols are important for Indian percussion, however they must be placed within the context of rhythmic theory. India has a highly developed time theory based upon beats (matra), measures (vibhag) and cycles (avartan)(Courtney 1993).

The matra is the fundamental unit of rhythm. Matra is directly translatable to the word beat. It does not specify any absolute time value but instead may have a broad spectrum of values. This is because there are a wide range of tempi in Indian music and the time value for the matra changes accordingly. Although matra is the smallest theoretical unit it should be noted that it may be subdivided according to ones convenience.

The next higher structural unit is the vibhag. Vibhag is analogous to the Western concept of measure or bar. Unlike the Western measure, the Indian vibhag implies certain concepts of clapping. A vibhag may be described as tali which means "to be clapped", or khali which is denoted by a wave of the hand. It is this system of clapping and waving which lies at the core of Indian timekeeping. Indeed the Sanskrit word tal means both abstract rhythm as well as the clapping of hands (Apte 1933).

The avartan is the highest structural component and is the most important concept for our discussion of the cadenza. The avartan is the cycle of Indian music. Common cycles are composed of 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16 beats.


Figure 2. Tintal Theka
Figure 2. Tintal Theka

Figure 2 illustrates these various points. The more usual notation is shown in a Sanskrit (Devnagri) while Western elements have been added for the benefit of the non-Indian reader. The example shows a common tal known as tintal. We see that it is composed of four vibhag, of four matras each, for a total of 16 matras. The individual strokes are specified with the bol (i.e., Dha, Dhin, etc.). One should notice that the beginning of each measure is designated by a symbol (i.e., cross, number or zero). These indicate the clapping arrangement (tali). The waves of the hand (khali) are designated with a "0" while the claps are designated with a number. The number designates a first clap, second clap, third clap, etc. One cannot help but notice that the first clap was not designated with "1" but a cross. The use of a cross for the first vibhag is very significant. The first beat of the cycle is referred to as sam. In Sanskrit the word sam means "with", "together", or "common" (Apte 1933).

There is an interesting relationship between this basic timekeeping and the performance. One may find alternation between blinding bursts of speed and slow simple accompaniment. Yet through all of these alternations, the basic rhythm usually does not change. Therefore, this sets up a situation where we have two rhythms going on simultaneously. One rhythm is the abstract basic tal indicated by the claps and waves. The other one is the actual performed piece. The relationship between the performed and the abstract is referred to as layakari. Common layakari are single-time, double-time, triple-time, etc. One also finds interesting layakari such as three-beats-over-two, seven-beats-over-four, etc.

Indian percussion is more than notational and rhythmic theory; there is also an extensive theory of composition. Although tabla is famous for its improvisation one must not think of improvisation in Western terms. It is never totally free-form but rather an extemporaneous composition within well defined rules and compositional forms. These have names like kaida, rela, peshkar, tihai and a host of others which are unfamiliar to the average Western musician.

Although there are many compositional forms there are really only two overall classes; cyclic and cadential. These mutually exclusive classes are based upon simple philosophies. The cyclic class is that which rolls along without any strong sense of direction. These include our basic accompanying patterns (theka and prakar); formalized theme and variation (kaida); and a host of others which are not within the scope of this article. One may generally ascribe a feeling of balance to this class. In contrast, the cadential class has a feeling of imbalance. It moves forward to an inevitable point of resolution, usually on the sam. Common cadenzas are the tihai, mukhada, paran and a host of others which will be discussed in this paper.

The terms tihai, paran, mukhada, etc. create many difficulties for the student of Indian music. One inevitably encounters contradictions, overlapping definitions, and vagaries which are disturbing to a Westerner who desires the theoretical system to be neat and clean. It is the purpose of this article to show that the system of nomenclature is not quite as vague as it appears. The contradiction in terms occasionally result from differing musical subtraditions. In the old days there arose different dialects of tabla. Geographical isolation created differences in style and nomenclature. Today these differences are being slowly worked out, largely due to the efforts of educators to create an organized syllabus for the music colleges (Courtney 1992). Although it is largely resolved at the academic level, individual musicians often do not have an academic background. Therefore one tends to find more confusion at the level of the rank and file musician.

We may now summarize the important aspects of the Indian rhythmic system. Pivotal to this system is the use of mnemonics known as bol. The various bols are assembled into larger material which falls into certain forms. Philosophically, this material may be cyclic or cadential. All compositions must adhere to the basic rules of time theory. Such time theory is based upon cycles, measures and beats. Within this framework, the first beat of the cycle has a special significance for it is the point of resolution. This background is essential for the forthcoming discussion of the criteria used to define the compositional forms.


page [ (1) _2_ _3_ _4_ _5_ ]



Selected Video

David Courtney and Ernesto Leon (Introduction to the tabla compositional forms)



page [ (1) _2_ _3_ _4_ _5_ ]



This page last updated

© 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 David and Chandrakantha Courtney

For comments, corrections, and suggestions, kindly contact David Courtney at david@chandrakantha.com