Carnatic Rhythms 101: How to slap your thigh like a pro

  • Author: Jahnavi Harrison

Aruna Sairam's performance at Darbar Festival 2016 was a demonstration of how to count the beat with true flair. Fingers flying, heartily slapping her thigh, shooting up and down in a vivid illustration of the pulse:

Indian classical music is renowned for its rhythmic complexity and when it comes to a dizzying array of talam (rhythmic cycles), the South Indian Carnatic tradition is king. In previous decades in India, and even today, the majority of concertgoers have some rudimentary understanding of the different rhythms that are employed in the music. If not, most will at least try to follow along in the classic way - counting out the beats with their fingers on their leg.

It binds you to the music, helps you to get to grips with the skeleton that is holding the melody together, and is fun challenge, especially with complex rhythms that don’t always fall on an even beat. If the lead performer is a vocalist, they will count the rhythm with their hands almost the whole way through, so you can watch them and follow along once you get the hang of the count. Instrumentalists’ hands are fully occupied, so they don’t provide such easy cues.

A simple understanding of the way to count the talam can help to get even the most novice feeling the beat. Each type of rhythm or talam cycles continuously through a set number of beats. The most common is adi tala. Adi means ‘first’, or ‘original’ in Sanskrit and this cycle of eight beats is certainly the easiest to follow. We’ll use this as an example. Each cycle of eight is called an avartanam and would commonly accommodate up to 32 notes (four per beat).

To count adi tala you would:

• First beat your palm, face down (1)

• Then tap with your fingers - pinky (2), ring finger (3), middle finger (4), then palm again (5)

• Turn your hand over and tap the back (6), palm (7) and back of the hand (8).

This cycle will repeat over and over, and though the music may sound like it’s getting faster, the actual speed of the talam will generally not increase, rather usually the number of notes per beat will increase or decrease to give a change of tempo. The different movements of the hand when counting are called angas (limbs) and each have a name.

Some of the most common are:

• Laghu - a beat of the palm + the counting of the fingers (1)

• Drutam - a beat with the palm and then the back of the hand (0)

• Anudrutam - one beat of the palm (U)

So adi talam would be laghu, drutam, drutam or 1-0-0

The 7 basic talam of Carnatic music are:

• Eka (1)

• Rupaka (0-1)

• Triputa (1-0-0)

• Matya (1-0-1)

• Jhampa (1-U-0)

• Ata (1-1-0-0)

• Dhruva (1-0-1-1)

The laghu (beat and counting of fingers) can have differing numbers of beats. This number is called the jaati.

There are five different types of jaati:

• Tisra - 3 beats

• Chatushra - 4 beats

• Khanda - 5 beats

• Mishra - 7 beats

• Sankeerna - 9 beats

Adi talam is the popular name for Chatushra Jaati Triputa talam. To illustrate, the laghu of adi talam has four beats (Chatushra) and the pattern is 1-0-0 (Triputa). This means that each of the seven talam can have five types according to the jaati, giving a total of 35 different talams. Don't worry if this doesn't sink in straight away!

The tempo of a piece is called the kalam. A piece can be performed at a half-tempo slow speed (vilambita) by reducing the number of notes per beat. The standard speed is called madhyama kaalam and an expert musician can rev up the tempo several more notches, increasing the number of notes per beat whilst keeping the basic pulse at the same speed.

The number of notes per beat is called gati or nadai (walk, or gait). For instance, the familiar 1-2-3 lilt of the waltz has a gati of three. Adi talam has a gati of four (chatushra gati).

If in doubt, always watch the artist playing the mridangam drum. They are masters of rhythm and usually give clues to the beginning of the rhythmic cycle with their body language - watch their facial expressions as well as their drum strokes. Once you can understand where the cycle begins and ends, listening to how they fit endless combinations of rhythmic patterns within the repetitive framework is truly exhilarating.

Practice makes perfect, and you’ll be slapping like a pro in no time!

Go deeper | watch master mridangam player Dr. Trichy Sankaran give an hour-long introduction lesson at Darbar Festival 2018, available on the Darbar Concert Hall. And you can listen to a countless variety of Carnatic rhythms on our YouTube channel - for example Neyveli B. Venkatesh's superb beachside mridangam solo, which pushes adi talam to its outer limits.

Jahnavi Harrison is a multi-disciplinary artist, specialising in vocal music, Kirtan meditation, and Indian devotional dance.

Darbar believes in the power of Indian classical music to stir, thrill, and inspire. Explore our YouTube channel, or subscribe to the Darbar Concert Hall to watch extended festival performances, talks and documentaries in pristine HD & UHD quality.

Be notified when we add a new articles

Festival 2020

XXth June 2020, Venue Name

read more

buy tickets

Other articles you may like

9 Sep 2019

In-depth Carnatic Primer: South India’s mellifluous,...

Carnatic music's wealth of powerful, highly developed ideas deserves far more global attention. Here's an in-depth... Read More

10 May 2019

The Tanpura: one note wonder

It's like the rush of a marsh on a midsummer night with a million crickets, or the howling wind stirring and the... Read More

11 May 2019

The Mridangam: an ancient, divine drum

One of the most ancient drums of India, the mridangam, which literally means 'body of clay', originated in South... Read More

New to indian Classical Music?

The beginner's guide to Indian classical music. Whether you’re completely new to raga music or just need a refresher, we’ve put together this brief overview of all things raga music to help you feel at ease when visiting one of our concerts or watch our videos on our YouTube or our Darbar Concert Hall.


Follow us

Keep up to date with the latest news, events, music and musings across our social channels

YouTube latest

For hundreds more clips and shorts, vist our YT page here

Subscribe to our newsletters

Be the first to hear before events go on sale. Get the latest news and articles from Darbar