Since prehistoric times, human beings recognised rhythm as an integral part of nature and human-animal activity. They experimented with rudimentary instrument making and developed the earliest percussion instruments like rattles, scrapers, stampers, clappers and slit drums. These were followed by more evolved forms of percussion instruments, which used animal skin stretched over the open end of the instruments.
India has a wide range of instruments and a still wider range of percussion instruments. Of these, the tabla has been recognised as one of the most sophisticated and has attracted the interest of musicians, scholars and music lovers the world over.
Like in the case of most Indian instruments, the origin of tabla is also surrounded by myths. Many musicians are of the opinion that Amir Khusrau, the noted poetmusician, invented the tabla towards the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth century, but there is no historical evidence to substantiate this view. Some researchers also believe that the tabla has always existed in India since centuries on the basis of their having located a similar looking instrument in some cave sculptures. However, it is difficult to establish even from these researches, the exact date of origin. It is clear that no single person has been totally responsible for the invention of the tabla and that the instrument has developed both in its physical structure and its repertoire as a result of diverse influences. These influences have come from within India and without. Instruments sharing similar names, like the tabal jung, tabal baladi, and tabal sami, have found mention in Persian and Arabic literature and could have influenced the origin and evolution of the tabla during the medieval period of Indian history.
Information on the earliest tabla player Siddhar Khan Dhadhi, dates back to the first half of the eighteenth century. Since then until now, the tabla has traversed a meandering journey. Beginning as an accompanying instrument to vocal and instrumental music and to dance, it later acquired solo status. During this period, the instrument has been enriched by the numerous experiments carried out by tabla players. Their artistic endeavours have resulted in a gamut of compositional concepts, stylistic features and performance practices that reflect almost every aspect of human emotion.
This has been possible due to the highly sophisticated language of the tabla, which in turn has been the result of the structure of the instrument. The black layer (syahi) on the membrane covering the head of both the tabla or dayan (right hand treble drum) and the dagga or bayan (left hand base drum), made from powdered metal filings and held together by a rice-paste glue, gives both the drums their distinctive character. A variety of sounds can be produced on the instrument by striking the head on different parts. Each of these sounds in turn can be recited with the help of mnemonic syllables. It is these sounds and syllables, which help the tabla players to translate their rhythmic ideas into tangible patterns for the student and the listener. They are the means to preserving this body of knowledge in an essentially oral tradition.
While in performance, the tabla players express themselves by improvising spontaneously or by interpreting preconceived musical ideas. The improvisatory aspect is largely at work when the tabla is an accompanying instrument. In this role, the tabla player is placed in a critical position where he or she has to respond spontaneously to the ideas of the soloist. As an accompanist, the tabla player maintains a constant flow of rhythm by marking time through cycles of fixed beats divided into bars and improvises whenever the music demands. This cyclical concept of rhythm or tala is represented on the tabla by a structured set of strokes called theka. A good accompanist not only maintains the rhythmic canvas of the theka but also improvises in response to the preceding melodic section and carries forward the same musical idea. On some occasions, the response involves the introduction of contrasting colours, which in turn lead the soloist to newer areas of musical development. There are also moments when the tabla player draws from the wealth of compositions, which form the corpus of tabla solo repertoire. All rhythmic improvisation normally ends with a tihai, which is a pattern of strokes repeated thrice, mathematically equidistant between the three rounds. The tihai finishes on the first beat of the following cycle. The first beat of the cycle is extremely important and forms the axis of musical development. Thus an accomplished tabla player contributes to the music as an accompanist.
Tabla solo is yet another facet of this instrument and is a unique phenomenon in the world of drumming. Seldom does one come across a single percussive instrument holding its own for hours, accompanied only by a melodic refrain, which marks each of the beats of the tala. This is possible only due to the rich repertoire of compositions, which stands witness to the creative genius of the artistes who have experimented with form and tonal colour and have opened new vistas for percussion music. It is in this situation that the interpretative ability of tabla players is challenged. They have to interpret compositions that have been assimilated during the training process by understanding their aesthetics and lending them an individual touch as performers.
A traditional tabla solo begins at a slow pace and the tempo increases through the extendable compositions, which follow a theme and variations pattern. The variations follow logical sequence and employ devices like repeating phrases used in the theme, introducing pauses, and playing various permutations and combinations of the phrases in the theme. The first of these compositions is the peshkar, followed by qaida and rela. Each of these explorations of the theme concludes with the tihai.
The latter half of the solo dwells on non-extendable compositions, which of shorter length. These include gat, tukda and chakradar, with subsidiary numerous varieties like tipalli gat, choupalli gat, dodhara gat, tidhara gat, choudhara gat, fard gat, gat-tukda, bedam chakradar, and farmaishi chakradar. The names refer to the peculiar features of each of these compositional forms. This part of the solo is played at medium speed, gradually moving to the faster tempo.
Over the years, the solo repertoire has evolved in various parts of the country and each region has shown stylistic characteristics. Successive generations continued these stylistics differences in the manner of their application to composing and performance. Each of these styles was named after the place of origin such as Delhi, Ajrada, Lucknow, Farrukhabad, Banaras, Punjab and their ramifications. Like in other forms of art music, the continuance of a style through three successive generations gave it the status of a gharana. At first the gharana referred to families of hereditary musicians pursuing particular styles. Later, the acceptance of disciples from outside hereditary musicians’ families extended the scope of the gharana to include all those following that style.
Apart from its role in art music, tabla has also been an important asset to popular music of the film and non-film varieties, to theatre music, and to devotional music. It has also achieved a privileged position in cross-cultural musical experiments. While constant endeavours are made by tabla players and manufacturers to enhance the scope of the instrument, the path-breaking work carried out by the great masters never ceases to amaze a student.
There is a growing need to document and analyse the intricacies of this art. There has been sporadic writing on a variety of subjects dealing with tabla. Noteworthy among these are Pandit Arvind Mulgaonkar’s Tabla (Marathi), Robert Gotlieb’s The Major Traditions of North Indian Tabla Drumming Part I & II, Dr. Aban Mistry’s Pakhawaj aur tabla ke gharane evam paramparayen (Hindi and its English translation), and James Kippen’s The Tabla of Lucknow: A Cultural Analysis of a Musical Tradition. Now, with the rapid changes in technology, one hopes that more such information will be made accessible in multi-media format.