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TABLA Tabla (Arabic), a pair of kettle drums with "loaded" drumheads played with the fingers, are the most important rhythmic accompaniment for North Indian classical, religious, popular, and folk music. They are probably a combination of a Central or Western Asian kettledrum tradition (played in pairs with sticks) and South Asian drums such as the mrdangam (played with the fingers, tuned, and with rice paste applied to the head), although the dholak tradition (a barrel-shaped drum) may also have contributed. Documentation of the origins of the tabla (or at least drums appearing to be tabla) does not appear until the eighteenth century in North India.

The higher-pitched right-hand drum (dāyan or, more simply, tablā) has a hollowed wooden shell. The most important feature of the goatskin heads is the weighted center, a circular patch of a specially applied and modified rice paste. The drummer usually tunes an overtone of this drumhead to the tonic pitch of the music. The drummer obtains this overtone (a result of the weighted center) by damping the head's fundamental with the ring finger of the right hand while striking the edges of the head with his or her index finger.

The lower-pitched left-hand drum (bāyan or duggī) is usually a metal vessel, although some musicians still play clay drums. This drum too has a weighted head, although the pitching of this drum is often less specific than the dāyan, and the drummer does not manipulate the over-tones. The patch on this head has the function of helping to focus the sound and pitch so that the drummer has more control over the relative pitch of the drumhead. By pressing the heel of the left hand into the drumhead while striking the drum, the drummer can raise (or alternatively lower) the pitch of the drum.

Drummers learn and remember drum patterns through a system of mnemonic syllables (bols) representing drum strokes: dental sounds represent right-hand strokes, guttural sounds represent left-hand strokes, and aspirated sounds represent simultaneous strokes on both the left and right drumheads.

When the drummer solos, he or she uses a number of different forms. For example, a kāydā (Persian-Hindustani, "rule"; Urdu, qā'idā) is a composition that shows the shape of the tal and theka and serves as the basis for a number of other subcompositions and extemporizations. These include both the dohrā (Persian-Hindustani, "two-fold," "compound," or "couplet"), a variation of a rhythmic musical idea (such as a kāydā) in which sections of the original theme repeat, and the paltā (Hindustani, "turn" or "exchange"), a variation (often a dohrā) of a rhythmic musical idea manipulating individual strokes or groups of strokes.

Gordon Thompson

See alsoMusic ; Tāla


Kippen, James. The Tabla of Lucknow: A Cultural Analysis of aMusical Tradition. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.