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by David Courtney working tools

Note - This article originally was published in Percussive Notes, Vol. 33, No. 6, December 1995, page 32-45.

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

      Fard and Sath
      Ladi and Rao
      Ekhatthu and Dohatthu
Works Cited



The tabla is a well known percussive instrument from the Indian subcontinent, yet the nature of compositional theory for this instrument is little known. This is unfortunate because the theory is remarkably advanced and the tabla has become a source of inspiration to modern percussionists throughout the Western world (Bergamo 1981). There are only two approaches to Indian rhythm; cyclic and cadential (Stewart 1974). The cadential form requires a resolution while the cyclic form rolls along and does not resolve. The cyclic form includes such common examples as theka, rela, or kaida. These will be covered in this paper.



It is necessary to go over a little background before we delve into our discussion of the cyclic form. First, there are different criteria used for the nomenclature. We also need to bear in mind the relationship between tabla and its progenitor, the pakhawaj. We need to be aware of the stylistic schools (gharanas). There are a few concepts of Indian rhythm which must be mastered. Finally, we should know what the cyclic-form is, and how it relates to the cadential form.

Tabla is derived from an ancient barrel-shaped drum known as pakhawaj. This drum supplies a large body of compositions for the tabla. Additionally, the pedagogy, the system of bols (mnemonic syllables)(Courtney 1993), and musical tradition has been taken almost without change from the pakhawaj.

The system of pedagogy has a special significance for tabla. Over the millennia, musical material has passed from the guru (teacher) to the shishya (disciple) in an unbroken tradition. This has created stylistic schools which are known as gharanas. These gharanas are marked by common compositional forms, repertoire, and styles (Courtney 1992).

The fundamentals of the Indian system of rhythm are important. This system, known as tal is based upon three units. These are the matra, vibhag, and avartan; which refer to the beat, measure and rhythmic cycle respectively. The vibhag (measure) is important because it is the basis of the timekeeping. In this method, each measure is specified by either a clap or wave of the hands. The Indian concept of a beat is not very different from the Western, except for the first beat. This first beat, known as sam, is pivotal for all of north Indian music. Aesthetically, it marks a place of repose. It also marks the spot where transitions from one form to another are likely to occur.

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 cadential class has a feeling of imbalance; it moves forward to an inevitable point of resolution, usually on the sam. It is a classic case of tension/resolve. Common cadenzas are the tihai, mukhada, paran. In contrast, the cyclic class comprises material which rolls along without any strong sense of direction. One may generally ascribe a feeling of balance and repose to this class. These include our basic accompanying patterns (theka and prakar); formalized theme and variation (kaida); and a host of others which we will discuss in greater detail later in this paper.

The alternation between the cyclic and the cadential material is the aesthetic dynamo which drives Indian music forward. The cyclic material is the groove or rhythmic foundation upon which the main musician builds the performance. The stability of the cyclic form makes it suitable for providing the musical framework for either tabla solos or accompaniment. Conversely the tension and instability of the cadenza provides the energy to keep the performance moving.

The conceptual basis of the terminology is important. The nomenclature can be confusing until we realize that terms may be based upon unrelated criteria. This is illustrated with a simple analogy. Imagine a Martian suddenly appearing in human society, whose job is to categorize the various types of people. On different occasions, he may see the same individual being referred to as a Republican, Catholic, male, middle executive, or a host of other labels that we apply to people everyday. The situation is very confusing until our Martian realizes that these labels are based upon unrelated criteria.

This is the same type of confusion which is present in the terminology of tabla. There are several criteria used to define compositions. These criteria are: bol (mnemonic syllables), structure, the function, and in rare cases the technique. The bols are the mnemonic syllables; cyclic material cuts across the spectrum, so any and every bol of tabla may be found. The structure is the internal arrangement of patterns. There are a number of possible structures used in cyclic material but a binary/ quadratic approach is especially common. In this method, the first half is commonly referred to as bhari while the second half is referred to as khali. It is interesting to note that while our cyclic material is commonly based upon a quadratic / binary structure our cadential material is usually triadic. The function of cyclic material is the actual usage within the performance. Material may function as an introduction, a simple groove, a fast improvisation, or any other function. The technique is the rarest criterion. Sometimes the technique is one-handed, two-handed, or verbal.

These are the six points which should be remembered from this brief introduction. 1) The nomenclature is based upon different criteria, therefore it is usual to find a single composition bearing different names. 2) Much of the material and philosophy has been derived from an ancient two-headed drum called pakhawaj. 3) Indian rhythm uses the concepts of cycle, (avartan), measure (vibhag), and beat (matra). 4) The measures are represented by a style of timekeeping based upon the clapping and waving of hands. 5) The first beat of the cycle, called the sam, is a pivotal point for the music. 6) There are two overall philosophies for the material: cyclic and cadential. The cadenza is a tension / resolve mechanism while the cyclic form is the basic "groove" characterized by a feeling of balance. Some of our readers may have a difficult time absorbing all of these concepts at once. The unfamiliar terms are especially difficult for the newcomer. We are including a glossary at the end of this article to make the subject more accessible. We may now proceed to the discussion of cyclic compositions.



There are a number of compositional forms which may be considered cyclic. The ka, prakar, kaida, rela, gat, laggi and a few other forms will be discussed. Although these terms may be new to the average reader their importance will become clear.



Theka is the accompaniment pattern used for Indian music and is the most basic cyclic form. The word "theka" literally means "support" or "a place of rest" (Pathak1976). Whenever one is accompanying a vocalist, dancer, or instrumentalist, one will spend most of the time playing this. Theka is defined entirely by its function. It is the major accompaniment pattern for north Indian music. Any bol may be found but, Dha, Na, Ta, Tin and Dhin are common. Any structure imaginable may be found, but a binary structure (i.e., bhari khali) is quite common.

Theka has become inextricably linked to the fundamental concepts of tal. In northern India, when one speaks of tintal, rupak, or any other tal, one is generally speaking of the theka. It is common for several north Indian tals to have the same number of beats, same arrangement of the vibhags, and the same timekeeping (i.e., clap/wave patterns), yet be distinguished by their thekas. This is unthinkable in south Indian music. This link between the performance (e.g., theka) and the theoretical (e.g., tal) can make an in-depth discussion difficult. Many of the points which are often raised in discussions of theka should more correctly be discussed in general discussion of north Indian tal. It is for this reason that we will not go into greater detail about vibhag, avartan, etc.

Here are a few common thekas.

1. Tintal theka
masterThekaTintal.GIF (4896 bytes)

2. Rupak theka
masterThekaRupak.GIF (2277 bytes)

3. Kaherava theka
masterThekaKaherava.GIF (2266 bytes)

4. Dadra theka
masterThekaDadra.GIF (1931 bytes)


The prakar is the variation or improvisation upon the theka. When a musician refers to "playing the theka" he is actually referring to the prakars. This is because a basic theka is too simple and dull to be used in any degree on stage. There are a number of ways to create these these variations; yet the most widespread are the ornamentation and alteration of the bols.

Ornamentation is the most common process for generating prakars. This keeps the performance varied and maintains the interest of the audience. The basic theka is a mere skeleton, while the prakar puts the flesh onto it. We can illustrate this with these two examples of dadra:

Basic Dadra (theka)
masterPrakarDadraBasic.GIF (2252 bytes)

Prakar of Dadra
masterPrakarDadraPrakar.GIF (4619 bytes)

The difference in moods between these two examples is clear. The first example has a childlike simplicity and becomes monotonous after a while. Conversely, the second example is more lively. It is important to keep in mind that this is nothing more than the original theka with some ornamentation. On stage, this prakar would be mixed in with an indefinite number of similar improvisations to keep the performance moving at a lively pace.

Ornamentation is not the only process, for many times a prakar is formed by a complete change in the bols. This is usually done for stylistic reasons. Compare the basic kaherava with a prakar which is sometimes referred to as bhajan ka theka.

Basic Kaherava (theka)
masterPrakarKaheravaBasic.GIF (6594 bytes)

Prakar of Kaherava (Bhajan Ka Theka)
masterPrakarKaheravaPrakar.GIF (10489 bytes)

The relationship between this pair of kaheravas is very different from the relationship seen in our dadra examples. The basic bols of kaherava are not contained in bhajan ka theka. This prakar represents a totally different interpretation. When there is a restructuring of the bols it is sometimes called a kisma.

We have seen that prakar is the variation upon the theka. This may be a simple ornamentation or it may be a totally different interpretation of the tal. There are numerous processes behind the generation of these patterns but we are not able to go into them here. An in depth discussion may be found elsewhere (Courtney 1994b).



Kaida is very important for both the performance and pedagogy of tabla solos. The word Kaida means "rule" (Kapoor, no-date). It implies an organized system of rules or formulae used to generate theme and variations. It originated in the Delhi style (i.e., Dilli gharana) but has spread to all the other gharanas. In the Benares style it is referred to as Bant or Banti (Stewart 1974). Attempts are occasionally made to distinguish kaida from bant. Such attempts usually are motivated by a chauvinistic attitude toward particular gharanas and are not based upon any objective musical criteria. The results of these efforts have been musically insupportable.

Kaida is defined by its structure. It is a process of theme and variation. Any bol may be used, so the bol has no function in its definition. It is also hard to consider function as a defining criteria. Kaida may be thought of as a process by which new patterns may be derived from old. We will illustrate this with a well known beginner's kaida. (Most kaidas are excruciatingly long so this short one will suffice.)

masterKaidaTheme.GIF (6194 bytes)

Theme (full tempo)
masterKaidaThemeFullTempo.GIF (10976 bytes)

Variation #1
masterKaidaVariation1.GIF (12092 bytes)

Variation #2
masterKaidaVariation2.GIF (24608 bytes)

Variation #3
masterKaidaVariation3.GIF (24457 bytes)

masterKaidaTihai.GIF (22880 bytes)

It has already been stated that the word "kaida" means rule, so it is convenient for us to go over the rules. This last example will serve to illustrate it.

The first rule of kaida is that the bols of the theme must be maintained. In other words, whatever bols are contained in the main theme are the only ones that can be used in the variations. A brief glance at our example easily bears this out. However let us go beyond a mere glance. Close examination reveals that the syllable Ti suddenly appeared in the third variation. It is clearly a variation of Ti , which was present from the beginning. If one thinks in English then this subtlety will be missed, but if one thinks from the standpoint of North Indian languages this becomes a major alteration. Tabla bols show a tremendous tolerance in their vowels (i.e., swar) but show very little tolerance in their consonants (i.e., vyanjan). Although this is an interesting topic it is not possible to go into it in any depth in this paper.

Another rule of kaida concerns its overall structure. It must have an introduction, a body and a resolving tihai. The introduction is usually the theme played at half tempo, yet one may hear introductions which involve complex counter-rhythms (i.e., layakari) and even basic variations upon the theme. The body consists of our main theme played at full tempo and the various variations. It must finally be resolved with a tihai. The tihai is essentially a repetition of a phrase three times so that the last beat of the last iteration falls on the first beat of the cycle (i.e., sam). The tihai is discussed in much greater detail elsewhere (Courtney 1994a).

It is also a rule that everything must exhibit a bhari / khali arrangement. This means that everything must be played twice. The first time should emphasize the open, resonant strokes of the left hand while the second iteration should emphasize its absence. Only the tihai is exempt from this restriction because the tihai is not really a part of the kaida but rather a device used to resolve and allow a transition.

It is also a rule that the variations must follow a logical process. Kaidas have a number of variations, which may be called bal, palta or prastar. (There are many languages in use in northern India so terminology may vary.) The particulars of a logical process often vary with the gharana (stylistic school) and individual artistic concepts. Therefore the process illustrated in the previous example is typical but not the only possible approach. In our main theme, both slow and full tempo, we find a rhyming scheme being built up. Dha Dha Ti Ta and Ta Ta Ti Ta will be assigned a code which we can arbitrarily call "A" , while Dha Dha Tun Na and Dha Dha Dhin Na we can call "B". Therefore, the main theme has the rhyming scheme of AB-AB. If we move to the first variation we see that it takes the form of AAAB-AAAB. In a similar manner the second variation has the form of ABBB-ABBB. One could continue to build up other reasonable structure such as AABB-AABB or any other reasonable permutation. Notice that each iteration (i.e., bhari / khali) usually ends with the B structure, therefore the B begins to function as a mini-theme. This too is subject to some variation because in some gharanas, particularly the Punjabi gharana it is not the entire B but a fraction thereof which functions as the mini-theme.

Mathematical permutations based upon only two elements are limited so other processes need to be included. One approach is to double the size of our structure. Instead of working with structures like AAAB-AAAB we could work with AAAAAAAB-AAAAAAAB. Doubling the size certainly increases the possible permutations, but can quickly become unmanageable; therefore many gharanas do not do this. A more universal approach is to take the A and B patterns and fragment them to create smaller structures.

Fragmentation may be seen in the third variation of our example. We have derived the expressions Dha Ti Ta and Dha Ti from Dha Dha Ti Ta . For convenience we will call them "C" and "D" respectively. Therefore, variation number three may be expressed as CCDAB-CCDAB. Now that it has been fragmented, we can generate patterns like CDCAB-CDCAB, DCCAB-DCCAB, ACDCB-ACDCB, etc. The use of fragmentation to derive new structures, and their subsequent recombination is a far more flexible process. It is not surprising that this process is used throughout northern India.

The fact that kaida is defined by structure has interesting ramifications. It gives rise to a whole family of subdivisions. If the bols of rela are used, a form known as kaida-rela is created. In the same manner kaida-laggis, kaida-peshkars, and kaida-gats are also produced by the use of the appropriate bols.

We may summarize our discussion of kaida by saying that it is a structural process of theme and variation. This process is governed by rules which may be briefly summarized as follows: 1) an overall structure of introduction, body, tihai, 2) a binary (i.e., bhari / khali) and quadratic (i.e., AB-AB) structure, 3) maintenance of the bols of the theme. 4) an organized process of permutation. This process may be applied to any bol. With these processes understood we may move on to other material.


The word rela means a "torrent" , "an attack" (Pathak1976) or " a rush" (Kapoor no-date). It is has been suggested that the word is derived from the sound that a railroad train makes, however this is generally not accepted in academic circles. Rela is defined by the bol. One normally finds pure tabla bols used, as opposed to bols from the pakhawaj. Here is a representative, but certainly not exhaustive, list of the bols used in rela.

masterRela.GIF (19518 bytes)

These bols function as basic building blocks from which larger patterns are assembled. Structure is not a criterion for rela's definition, therefore the bols may be assembled in a many ways. If we develop it according to the rules of kaida it is usually referred to as kaida-rela. If we assemble them in a freeform manner it is sometimes referred to as swatantra rela. The concepts of swatantra and kaida may be viewed as two extremes of a continuum. The performance of rela is usually somewhere in between these two extremes. In other words some of the rules of kaida may be followed but not all. This is up to the individual artist and is not specified by the concept of rela.



The gat originated in the purbi styles (e.g., Lucknow, Farukhabad and Benares gharanas), but today it is played throughout India. It is defined both by function and bol. Functionally, it is a fixed composition rather than any improvisation (Shepherd 1976). Viewed from the standpoint of the bol, it shows a moderate influence of pakhawaj, as do most purbi compositions.

Gat is a very difficult topic to discuss because it is so poorly defined. The word gat literally means motion, however the musical meaning implies a fixed composition of either cadential or cyclic form. A survey of the Hindi literature shows that virtually any tabla composition of the purbi class can be called a gat. It is perhaps easier to say what a gat is not. It is not a pakhawaj composition (i.e., paran, fard, sath etc.), nor is it a light style (e.g., laggi) nor is it an accompanying style (e.g., theka or prakar) nor can it be improvised. This does not narrow the definition very much. Gat is a broad class of compositions rather than a single compositional form. We will now look at at some of these forms.

The kaida-gat is a common form. As the name implies it is the use of purbi bols in a theme and variation process which follows the rules of kaida. Therefore, the AB-AB structure is central to the process. The kaida has already been discussed, so the aforesaid rules need not be restated.

An extremely common form of gat uses a quadratic structure but cannot be considered a kaida. This follows an ABCB structure. This is occasionally referred to as domukhi, or "two faced", in reference to the two B patterns. Some gharanas will also call it a dupalli, yet many dupallis are cadential rather than cyclic. Unlike the kaida-gat, there need be no introduction nor do there have to be any variations. One may play the same gat any number of times. A tihai is usually used, but this is merely a reflection of universal custom rather than anything inherent to the gat. Here is a one example (Saksena 1978:59):

masterGat.GIF (16559 bytes)

There are also gats which have a repetition of a phrase three times. The cyclic version usually follow an ABCBCB or ABCBDB structure. This type is sometimes called tinmukhi or tipalli. However, it should be noted that the term tipalli usually refers to a cadential form and is thus outside the scope of this paper (Courtney 1994a).

If a similar approach is taken but the "B" structure is repeated four times it may be called a chaupalli. Sometimes it need not be an entire structure but a single stroke (e.g., Dha Dha Dha Dha)( Sharma 1973). Again many chaupallis are cadential.

The lom-vilom is another fascinating form of a gat. It is a musical palindrome that is the same whether played forwards or backwards. It is a characteristic of the palindrome that there are two halves. The first and second halves must be mirror images of each other. The first half of the lom-vilom is called the aroh (ascending), while the second half is called the avaroh (descending). Here is an example (Shankar 1967:145).

Lom-vilom (ascending)
masterLomVilomAscending.GIF (20006 bytes)

masterLomVilomDescending.GIF (20908 bytes)

There are other forms which are considered to be gats by many musicians but will not be discussed here. These are the chakradar gats, tipalli, chaupalli, and dupalli. We will not discuss them because they are cadential forms and do not fall within the topic of this paper.

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© 1998 - 2017 David and Chandrakantha Courtney

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