HISTORY OF THE TABLA
The tabla drum pair is the most prominent percussion instrument of Hindustani music, though to consider its richly varied timbres, pitches and types of resonance mere rhythmic percussion is surely to understate its intensely melodic qualities.
There are many stylistic traditions of tabla playing, although the differences between them are no longer as distinctive as they once were. Modern scholarship has tended to restrict the number of gharanas – stylistic schools – to six: Delhi, Lucknow, Ajrada, Farukhabad, Benares and Punjab. However, there are marked differences between the various silsila – teaching lines – in some of these "schools", and many people recognize many more gharanas (such as Qasur, Laliyana, Kothiwal, and so on).
I dealt with the tabla drums in my first book, The Tabla of Lucknow, and I have dedicated many other publications to its social system, its music and its rhythmic and metric system. In my new book I reconstruct the details of tabla technique and repertoire from the late 19th century: click on the image below to learn more about Gurudev's Drumming Legacy (Ashgate 2006).
I have written a lot on the history of tabla, and the following excerpt (translated from the French, abridged, and without full references) is taken from my article “Le rythme: Vitalit� de l'Inde.” In Gloire des princes, louange des dieux: Patrimoine musical de l'Hindoustan du XIVe au Xxe si�cle. Paris: Cit� de la musique et R�union des Mus�es Nationaux, 2003, pp.152-73. It may not be reproduced in any form, electronic or otherwise, without my express written permission. For further information about the original publication, click on the image below to access the link.
The word tabla derives from a generic Arabic term for “drum”: tabl. It comprises a pair of drums that clearly demonstrate the hybrid nature of the instrument: the “right hand” drum is known as the dahina or dayan (lit. right), or simply the tabla; the “left hand” drum is called bayan (lit. left). Musicians most often refer to the pair as tabla-bayan. A common story of its origin tells of the pakhavaj being chopped in half, with each half then set upright to be played horizontally. This may not be far from the truth: the dahina is clearly modeled on the pakhavaj in every respect, and early Punjabi examples of the bayan seem to suggest it too was a slightly flared cylinder made of partially hollowed wood. Like the bass of the pakhavaj, the Punjabi bayan also used a temporary spot of dough to achieve its deep resonant tone. This method of preparing the drum for playing is still common today in the northwest, and in Sikh temples everywhere.
As with many genres of music and types of instruments, it is thought that the tabla was invented by Amir Khusrau 700 years ago; yet no iconographic or bibliographic evidence exists to support that claim. The first pictorial evidence of the tabla can be traced to the Punjab hill chieftaincies in the 1740s, and so we can assume its “invention” to have occurred in the early 1700s. Following this, these drums appear in paintings and drawings with ever-greater frequency, and the bayan takes several different forms.
It would seem that the spread of the tabla from the Punjab to other centers of patronage in North India in the second half of the eighteenth century was extremely rapid: this was an era when the Mughal Empire’s influence was waning and wealthy regional courts rose to prominence. The tabla’s function at that time was inextricably bound to the seductive songs and dances of professional female entertainers: the British referred to this kind of entertainment as the “nautch” (Hindi: nach, meaning “dance”). As “nautch girls” found employment in the courts and homes of the aristocracy across northern India, so did the tabla....
Within the nautch ensemble the tabla was routinely played bound in a cloth (bastani) around the drummer’s waist. As can be seen in many depictions the tabla player stood behind the dancer as she performed. The tabla’s inherent musical flexibility and adaptability soon led to its inclusion in a wide variety of other contexts and genres. Indeed, the main reason tabla has since largely supplanted the pakhavaj, dholak and naqqara over the past two hundred years is that it has the capability of imitating the best qualities of each of them: the timbral variety of the pakhavaj’s long and complex compositions; the dance-like “grooves” of the dholak; and the rapid, rippling drum rolls of the naqqara....
We know that a great many musicians and dancers traveled with the court from Faizabad to Lucknow, and that the prospects for making one’s fortune under the generous Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah attracted a great many more musicians and dancers from the crumbling imperial capital, Delhi. Bakhshu Khan Dhadhi, a tabla drummer from Qasur in western Punjab, migrated to the city around this time: his descendants and their drumming style became known as the Lucknow gharana (school, tradition) of tabla, and his great-great-great-great grandsons continue to live and play tabla in Lucknow today.
[...] The nineteenth century saw the establishment of regional centers where the tabla flourished in its role as accompaniment to dance and semi-classical vocal genres such as thumri and tappa. In each region certain families began to dominate because of their musical success as players and teachers, and distinct regional styles and repertoires emerged. It was probably in the early twentieth century that descendants of these tabla families began to recognize the value of advertising their musical pedigrees and adopted the term gharana. This was a strategy that both mimicked the lineages and stylistic schools of more prestigious vocal genres such as khyal and reflected a heightened awareness of India’s search for a historically grounded identity in the face of British imperialism.
If the wooden, flared cylindrical bayan emerged from the pakhavaj, then the hemispherical bayan that is common today was clearly influenced by the small naqqara clay kettledrums (which were referred to generically as tabl). Late eighteenth century paintings show both kinds of bayan in use, but by the nineteenth century the small hemispherical bayan was pre-eminent. Both clay and metal bayans survive from the period. It is unclear when the permanent black spot became a standard feature, but it begins to appear frequently in paintings quite early in the century. In terms of its organology, the bayan reveals to us a great deal of information: it looked like the naqqara, was played like the dholak, and used a temporary spot of dough (subsequently replaced by the black spot) like the pakhavaj. The placement of the dough to one side would have facilitated the kind of wrist pressure and movement needed to create the dholak’s hyperactive melodic bass lines. When the black spot replaced dough it too was placed off-center so that the wrist could slide unhindered on the skin. The use of a rope lashing and rings to tighten the drumhead...is reminiscent of the dholak; currently this is still the preferred style of construction in Benares (Varanasi). Elsewhere the rawhide thong is common. The bayan remained small in comparison to the tabla until the early twentieth century. Since then it has grown in size, and bulges to its widest point below the rim. Earlier metal bayans were commonly made of steel, but nickel-plated copper and brass are now the norm.
Tabla drums are no longer decoratively painted with bright colors, and the clay bayan is a rarity, though clay was the material of choice in Bengal until relatively recently. Instead of being bound about the waist the drum pair is played on the ground, each one nestling in its own ring to maintain stability. Drummers sit cross-legged to play, although some from Benares still adopt the older kneeling position. The bayan was once commonly placed in the drummer’s lap, but that practice died out following Independence in 1947 and the transition to the modern stage presentation. The tabla’s role has changed too: it has increasingly been featured as a contributing partner in the musical process rather than subsidiary accompaniment. Often the tabla enters into a musical dialogue with the vocalist or main melody instrument, and frequently enjoys its own moment in the spotlight when offered the opportunity to play a short solo. This is reflective of a change in attitude both to the once lowly drum and to the role of rhythmic play in building a modern, dynamic, interactive performance. The burgeoning cult of the public tabla solo performance too seems to signal the recognition of the drummer’s art and the gradual distancing of the instrument from what have been deemed its insalubrious roots in the nautch. From an obscure hybrid drum in early- or mid-eighteenth-century Punjab, the tabla has now blossomed into a global symbol of India.
It is hard to imagine a modern performance of Hindustani music or dance without the tabla drum pair, and its influence has also been strongly felt in many other genres of semi- and light-classical music, film music and pop. Although much more recent in origin than the other drums discussed, it has prospered magnificently and achieved iconic status both in India and around the world. This growth is particularly true of the last fifty years with the rise of a large, bourgeois class of non-hereditary players, the highly successful concert tours in the West from the 1950s and 1960s on, and perhaps also the exposure gained from the Indian musical experiments of The Beatles on the albums Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Indian drums have always shown they can change and adapt to accommodate new directions in form, function, and taste....
The 'right hand' drum, called the dayan (also called the dahina, or the tabla) is a conical (almost cylindrical) drum shell carved out of a solid piece of hard wood. The dayan's shell has one 'open' end, covered by a composite membrane. The base of the drum has a slightly larger diameter than the top. The 'left hand' drum, called the bayan (also called the duggi) is a hemispherical bowl shaped drum made of polished copper, brass, bronze, or clay. Like the dayan, a composite membrane covers the bayan's open end. Both drums stand about 25 centimeters high. The bayan's head measures 22 centimeters across, while the dayan measures approximately 14 centimeters across. from tabla.com
The Tabla is the most popular percussion instrument used in North Indian Classical music. The pair of high and low pitched drums are played with the hands using intricate and complex fast finger and palm strokes, to create a multitude of characteristic tonal and resonating sounds.
Percussion instruments of this construction can be seen in Indian Temple sculptures dating back thousands of years, although it is generally agreed that the present form was popularised in the 17th and 18th Centuries
The percussion instruments came into practice earlier than any other musical instrument and hence this instrument remained as the basic percussion instrument. In folk songs and folk dances Dhol, Dapha and Mridanga were used as the percussion instruments. With the passage of time when the classical songs became popular in Courts and Darbars, in these times too, the Mridanga and Pakhawaj were played with Dhrupad and Dhamar Gayans.
In 13th Century AD, Amir Khusro, the Chief Councillor of Allauddin Khilzi invented Tabla, the new musical instrument by dividing Pakhawaj into two equal halves. This new instrument was played by placing it in front but unfortunately it could not get any position in Royal families of those days. It limited itself up to the Kawals, Gazal Gayaks and the dancers with them. They often performed their programmes before the soldiers etc. Tabla was the main instrument of their performances.
Now-a-days the Tabla has attained the appreciable position in standard musical societies. But in classical dances, Mridanga is still used.
After the invention of the Tabla instrument, it was made popular by Ustad Uddar Khan. He did not produce any new bols but drew them out of the bols of Mridanga according to old rules of Talas.