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The tabla is the most popular percussion instrument used in the classical and popular music of the northern regions of South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, northern India, Pakistan). The history of this instrument is at times the subject of heated debate. The most common historical account credits the 13th century Persian poet Amir Khursau as having invented the instrument. However, none of his own writings on music mention the drum (nor the string instrument sitar). Another common historical narrative portrays the tabla as being thousands of years old, yet this is mere conjecture, based on slipshod interpretations of iconography. Reliable historical evidence places the invention of this instrument in the 18th century.

The term tabla is an Arabic word which means "drum", and this attests to its status as a product resulting from the fusion of musical elements from indigenous Hindu and Central Asian Muslim cultures that began in the late 16th century.

Gharānā — tabla tradition

The transformation of the tabla from a religious-folk instrument to a more sophisticated instrument of art-music occurred in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, when significant changes took place in the feudal court music of northern South Asia. Although largely denied by most popular histories of this instrument, the tabla was performed by hereditary groups (i.e. castes) of musicians who were ascribed very low social status by the greater society. The majority of the performers were Muslim and resided in or near the centers of Mughal power and culture such as Delhi, Lucknow, and Lahore. However, one notable group of Hindu hereditary musicians was located the holy city of Benares ("Varanasi"). In public performances, tabla players were primarily accompanists to vocalists and instrumentalists, however, they developed a highly sophisticated solo repertoire that they performed in their own musical gatherings. It is this solo repertoire along with student-teacher lineages that are the defining socio-cultural elements of tabla tradition known by the Urdu-Hindi term gharānā (ghar = "house" Hindi, -ānā = "of the" Persian).

Most performers and scholars recognize six gharānās of tabla. They appeared or evolved in the following order, presumably:

  1. Delhi gharānā
  2. Lucknow gharānā
  3. Ajrara gharānā, later followed by
  4. Faurkhabad gharānā
  5. Benaras gharānā
  6. Punjab gharānā

Other tabla performers have identified further derivations of the above traditions, but these are a highly subjective claims, largely motivated by self-promotion. Some traditions indeed have sub-lineages and sub-styles that meet the criteria to warrant a separate gharānā name, but such sociomusical 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.

The tabla in popular culture

While it is certainly correct to introduce the tabla as an instrument "from the Subcontinent" or "played in the classical music of India", one must take notice of the international popularity of this instrument resulting from its large-scale, transnational diffusion first caused by notable "musical ambassadors" such as the late Ustad Alla Rakha, and later through recorded media. Arguably, the tabla is the most popular Hindustani musical instrument at present, used in a great variety of musical genres of multiple cultures and sub-cultures. The infectious timbres of this instrument are used extensively by studio engineers who frequently include digital samples of the tabla that they purchased from a CD or downloaded from the internet or come installed in the sound libraries of electronic keyboards. One can easily hear the tabla in numerous Hollywood and US prime time television soundtracks such as Cyborg 2 , The Scorpion King, American Beauty, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and Law & Order.


The tabla consists of a small wooden drum called dāyā (a.k.a. dāhina, tabla, siddha, chattū) and a larger metal one called bāyā (dagga, duggī, dhāmā). The dāyā (lit. "right") is played with the fingers and palm of the right hand, while the bāyā (lit. "left") is played with fingers, palm and wrist of the left hand. The pair of tabla is positioned on two toroidal bundles called chutta, consisting of plant fiber or other malleable material wrapped in cloth.

Both drums of the tabla have an inner circle on the head composed of sandalwood or a tar-like substance called 'tuning paste' or siyāhī (lit. "ink"; a.k.a. shāī or gāb,). This area creates a different sound and decay than the other areas of the drum, allowing even more tone versatility. The siyāhī also allows for the complex harmonics produced by this drum, which are exploited by expert players.

The drum played with the dominant hand is made of wood and is tuned to a specific note, thus contributing to and complementing the melody. The tuning range is limited although different dāyā-s are produced in different sizes, each with a different range. For a given dāyā, 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 other drum of the tabla, the bāyā, is larger and made of metal (or sometimes clay, although this is now rare). It has a much deeper and sustained bass tone, much like its distant cousin, the kettle drum. In addition to the normal strike with the fingertips, the heel of the hand is used to apply pressure, or in a sliding motion so that the pitch is changed during the sound's decay. This creates an unusual and highly characteristic effect.

Famous players and teachers

  • Akram Khan
  • Afaq Hussain
  • Ahmedjan Thirakwa
  • Alla Rakha
  • Allah Dittah
  • Altaf Hussain Tafo Khan
  • Amir Hussain Khan
  • Aneesh Pradhan
  • Anindo Chatterjee
  • Anokelal Mishra
  • Bashir Hussain Goga
  • Bashir Khan Karachiwale
  • Bikram Ghosh
  • Chatur Lal
  • Fariad Hussain Bhulli Khan
  • Fateh Din Qasuri
  • Feroz Khan
  • Habibuddin Khan
  • Jnan Prakash Ghosh
  • Kanai Datta
  • Karamilhahi
  • Karim Baksh Pairna
  • Karsh Kale
  • Keramatullah Khan
  • Mahaparush Mishra
  • Masit Khan
  • Miran Baksh Gilwalia
  • Nabi Baksh
  • Nayan Ghosh
  • Nikhil Ghosh
  • Qader Baksh
  • Samta Prasad
  • Shafaat Ahmed Khan
  • Shankar Ghosh
  • Shaukat Hussain Khan
  • Shubhankar Banerjee
  • Suresh Talkwalkar
  • Swapan Chaudhari
  • Talvin Singh
  • Tanmoy Bose
  • Tari Khan
  • Trilok Gurtu
  • Wajid Hussain
  • Yogesh Samsi
  • Zakir Hussain

See also

List of musical instruments

External links

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04