Percussion, New to Indian Music

What is Tala? Beyond just rhythm and providing a beat

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

In Indian classical music, whether Hindustani (North Indian) or Carnatic (South Indian), rhythm is encapsulated in the concept of taal (spelt and pronounced tala in English) which means ‘clap.’ Loosely speaking, one may define it as ‘rhythm’, but the idea is more complex than this, and works by time being divided cyclically rather than in linear fashion. Each cycle is in turn sub-divided into segments of varying measurement.

It requires exceptional skill on the part of the percussionist as well as the melodic soloist to keep track of all the measurements and sub-divisions pertaining to any given taal. At first, it is taught by counting and clapping to show the relevant beats but eventually it becomes part of the natural instinct of professional musicians (as well as some of their audiences) to know exactly where they are, physically, at any given time in any rhythm cycle.

One will often notice that even when there is an interruption in the recital, or the soloist has paused to speak to the audience or one of the accompanists, the taal itself continues uninterrupted – almost like a loop – in the background with the soloist resuming at the appropriate beat.

There are several hundred kinds of rhythm cycles in Indian classical music with varying numbers of beats, but in the North it is more usual to hear the varieties that come in 16, 12, 10, 7, or 14 beats (respectively - tintal, ektal, jhaptal, rupak taal, and dhamar, jhoomra, or deepchandi). Taals also have a vocalised equivalent whereby beats are expressed as phonetic representations of various strokes played on different percussion instruments. Percussionists will often recite these phrases and then demonstrate the same on the tabla or mridangam. This is known as bol in Hindustani music, and solkattu in the Carnatic tradition.

Taals also have a 'low' point known as khali (empty) usually shown by waving the hand. But the most puzzling thing for those who are new to Indian classical music is that the completion of a rhythm cycle – its 'highest' point, known as sam – does not happen on the final beat of the cycle, as is typical for Western music, but on the first beat of the next cycle. But, it is a very visual affair and easy to spot as musicians, as well as audiences, will be seen to nod, or clap or raise their hands when this beat is reached.

The soloist has to sound an important note of the raag (melodic structure) as both the percussionist's and soloist's phrases culminate at the sam. Both will often nod to each other with great satisfaction – as though to say "all is well, we are on track". The end of each rhythm cycle – particularly during the faster pieces – also forms a highpoint in that the soloist and accompanist seem to renew their bond and reaffirm their togetherness on the journey – the journey of gradually unfolding – and revealing – a raag.

Listen to the music | Pandit Yogesh Samsi learned the tabla from legendary percussion master Ustad Alla Rakha for over 20 years. Here he performs an intricate solo in the 16-beat tintal cycle, including rapid spoken bols - live from Darbar Festival 2013. 

Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia.

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