About The Tabla & Tabla Music

Tabla is an incredibly diverse instrument that can be used in a wide range of musical settings. Tabla is great for groove as well as complex and improvised music. These days it common to hear tabla being used in creative ways in all sorts of music. Thankfully, we are hearing tabla more and more everyday.The instrument has its origins in India and has an incredible history with a vast repertoire of fascinating material. The solo tabla repertoire, known as tabla lehara, is one of the most complex, detailed and satisfying percussion repertoires anywhere in the world. It includes a variety of compositional forms that range from pre-composed completely set compositions, to semi improvised theme and variation forms all the way to very open improvisational forms.

Below is an outline of some of the forms used in the solo tabla lehara repertoire. The information below is an extract from the tabla repertoire book Sam Evans is currently writing. Anyone wishing to reference this material may do so with the following reference: Evans,S. (2010) Representing Tabla Music: Defining an Effective Notation System for Indian Tabla Repertoire. Masters Thesis, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.

Tala and Theka
In its most basic form a tala is a rhythmic cycle defined by a series of musical elements. The entire duration of a tala or rhythmic cycle, is known as an avartan, similar to a bar within the metric frame work of western music. The avartan is subdivided into specific groupings known as vibharg, or subdivisions of the bar. The pulse or crochet beat, called a matra. There is also a structure of accents within the tal that is applied in each vibharg. These accents are referred to as tali, kali and sam.

Each tala has a corresponding theka played on the tabla. Theka is used in all forms of tabla music and may be thought of as the groove, or the feel played by the tabla player. Besides its aesthetic appeal, each theka is designed with a specific series of notes to outline the above elements within each tala. A tabla player will use the structure and the notes provided in the theka to maintain the tala. In performance, it is uncommon to hear a tabla musician playing only the notes of an original theka. Instead, tabla players use a variety of embellishments, both rhythmic and melodic, to create their own approach to the theka for a given situation. As the main task of the tabla player in accompaniment situations is to maintain the tala in a musical manner, the theka and tala are often thought of as one.

Tihai is perhaps the most iconic aspect of Indian rhythmic theory. Tihai is a rhythmic tool used by all musicians in Indian music to conclude compositions, sections of music and solos by performers. It may also be used during performance for musical phrasing as well as a device for interplay between musicians.

Structurally, a tihai is a single phrase or palla, that is repeated three times and must concluded with the last note of the phrase as the first note of the following section. While the concluding point is usually the sam, it is also common for a tihai to conclude on kali or at the starting point of a melodic composition (often a few beats from the sam). Some basic rules may be applied here in definition: a tihai must have a phrase which is played, exactly the same, three times; the duration of the phrase and the rests between the repeats must remain the same; and the last note of the tihai must be the first note of the intended concluding point. A tihai may begin from any point in the cycle and the rest may be of any duration. However, the phrase and rest must be the same length each time. If a tihai does not include a rest it is referred to as a bedum tihai (lit: without a breath).

Peshkar, meaning ‘presentation’ is the first compositional form to be presented in a solo tabla lehara performance. There are a variety of peshkar compositions and performance approaches currently in use that generally have foundations in the different Gharanas of tabla playing. There exists between them a wide variety of moods as well as structural and improvisational rules, even though all may be termed peshkar.

Peshkar is often referred to as the aalap of tabla solo and it is within this form that the performer has the greatest amount of improvisational freedom and personal expression in the solo repertoire. Peshkar begins with a long and slow theme that, unlike many other solo tabla forms, does not repeat phrasing during the kali section. The performer develops the theme through improvisation that is based on the original theme while maintaining the slow, introspective mood of the peshkar style. Unlike most other theme and variation forms in the solo tabla repertoire, the performer is not required to repeat variations created in the first and second vibhargs while performing the kali section, and is not entirely restricted by the bols used in the opening theme. It is common to hear performers of peshkar focusing on sophisticated tihais that distort the listeners’ perception of time, only to reveal the consistent underlying cycle at the sam, the first beat of the cycle and the concluding point of the tihai.

Kaida is perhaps the most structurally sophisticated compositional form used in the solo tabla repertoire. Kaida literally means ‘a system of rules’. The kaida form introduces tabla players to each bol required to master the instrument in a progressive system that focuses on skills development. The kaida form originated in the Delhi Gharana of tabla playing though the date of origin for the kaida form is uncertain, though it does appear in written form in 1895 in Sadiq Ali Khan’s Qanun-e-Mausiqi.

The form of kaida serves three fundamental and very important roles for tabla players. The first of these is developmental: presenting one bol at a time, tabla students learn not only how to play the bols and fingerings, but also how to apply them and how to improvise within them. As the kaidas progress, students learn more bols and most importantly, how to combine bols and how each bol relates to the other.

The second function relates to improvisation. Through the theme and variations used in the kaida form, tabla players learn how to develop their improvisations in a progressive, thematic, logical and stylistically appropriate manner. Initially students of the tabla are given an entire composition that includes a theme, a series of methodical variations and a tihai. With time, students learn to improvise the variations and concluding tihai in the style and within the rules of kaida. This enables students to develop the skills required to create their own improvisations in any musical situation in a thematic and musical manner.

The third function is that of performance. A kaida should also be a performance event that is filled with musical interest, artistic aesthetics and a variety of musical ‘colours and flavours’. The kaida system presents performers with a wide variety of moods to express on the set of drums, it is in the hands of the player to produce a musical performance.

The overall structure of a kaida can be divided into three sections: an opening theme, a series of variations based on the opening theme and a concluding tihai. The main focus during a kaida is the thematic development that is achieved through a series of variations, or palta.

Rela is a fast and flowing compositional form characterised by simple repeating bols designed to be played at high speed. Rela literally means ‘torrent’ or ‘flowing’. Common bols used for rela compositions are terekete, deredere and dhinegene. While rela has a similar form to kaida the overall approach to thematic development is different. Beginning with a theme, the rela form is developed through a series of variations and ultimately culminates in a concluding tihai, much the same as the kaida form. Compared to the kaida form, the opening theme and variations used in rela are less complex, use fewer bols, and may include more repetition. While the variations used to develop the music follow the same general rules of the kaida form, rela offers the performer a greater level of freedom and a less strict approach to the form.

Chalan, (sometimes spelt calan) is a compositional form that is particular to the Farukhabad Gharana of tabla playing. There is much debate regarding a complete definition of the compositional form as it may be performed with a wide scope of variation with regards to the structure and rules of the form.

In common performance, a chalan is similar in its structure to a kaida. One of the principle aspects defining chalan as separate from kaida is that chalan themes include a wider variety of bols than those found in the kaida form. Chalan also includes more rhythmic variation than either kaida or rela forms. The bols in chalan compositions are more similar to those used in the gat form than the bols of kaida or rela forms. It may be useful to think that chalan straddles the bol usage divide between the limited bols used in the forms of kaida and rela and the wide variety of bols used in the gat and tukra forms.

Gat is a very distinct compositional structure that appears in a wide variety of forms. Gat originated in the Kathak dance repertoire and is most prevalent in the Farukhabad and Lucknow Gharanas. Gat compositions are considered the most valued and highly treasured pieces within a tabla players repertoire as they include a wide scope of technical and creative possibilities in the interpretation and improvisation within the pieces.

Most gat compositions were composed by performers from eastern India and the diversity of rules applied within the different types of gat is one of the characteristics of the form. One of the most outstanding features of the gat is the way in which it is performed. While kinar strokes such as na, ta and dha are used in the recitation and written form, these strokes are all performed on the sur section of the tabla drum in gat compositions. That is, all dha strokes are played as dhin, and all na/ta strokes are played as tin. The effect of this is a very sweet, resonant and rounded timbral sound to the composition, even though it may be played quite loud.

Tukra compositions are usually short in length and strong in character. Traditionally performed at full volume and with great speed tukra is a virtuosic form usually played in the final section of a solo tabla performance. Tukra compositions conclude with a tihai and make use of a wide range of bols to convey the complex themes of the compositions. It is common for a tukra to have a particular theme, story or mood associated with the composition. Sometimes these stories are told at the time of performance. They are usually short and simple illustrative themes that are conveyed by the composition, such as ‘a cat jumping a fence attempting to escape from a monkey’. There is no restriction on the bols to be used for a tukra, but it is common to hear terekete and deredere bols used during the composition and a rhythmically syncopated tihai.

Dupodi and Tripodi
Dupodi and tripodi are very distinctive compositional forms particular to North Indian tabla drumming. In a dupodi composition each bol is played twice. In tripodi compositions each bol is played three times. The duration of each repeated bol varies according to the composition leading to an intricate array of rhythmic possibilities. It is common in these compositions for the repeating phrases to create cross rhythms against the pulse and vibharg of the tal. Due its structure, dupodi and tripodi compositions do not usually include a tihai.

Like dupodi and tripodi, triplai is a fascinating form of North Indian tabla drumming. Triplai compositions are designed so that they may be played in three subdivisions of the beat and still conclude at the sam of the tal. The order of the notes and rests remains exactly the same in each subdivision, as does the relative note values. The only aspect that changes is the relationship between the pulse of the music and the length of notes. For example, if a composition begins in a triplet sub-division, it will then be played in the timing of semiquavers and then in sextuplets.

Chakradah is a complex cyclical form used in Indian music. It is a compositional form within the solo tabla repertoire that is played three times and calculated to conclude on the sam. Chakradah compositions are often composed in a similar style to the tukra form, but, instead of being, for example, 16 beats in duration in a tintal composition, it may be 11 beats in duration, repeated three times and concluding on the first note of the tal. Each repeated section of the chakradah will have a tihai and the rest between each section will remain the same each time. If there is no rest between the repeated sections, the composition is known as a bedum chakradah.

Chakradah is commonly considered the most difficult compositional form to perform. For example, the composition may be very complex in its structure and have a duration of more than one cycle in each repeated section. The rest may be a fraction of a beat causing the musician to play the entire section a semiquaver ahead, or behind where it naturally occurs. With this in mind, chakradah is often used to conclude a solo tabla recital.


© Sam Evans 2010 All Rights Reserved

The Melbourne
Tabla School

MTS Tabla Movies

MTS Tabla Photos

MTS Tabla Concerts

MTS Tabla News

MTS Merchandise

Student Ensembles &
Professional Groups

Purchase, Hire & Repair

About MTS

The Melbourne Tabla School was established by Sam Evans to assist the growth and interest of tabla in Australia. In creating a context for the tabla in Australia the school seeks to promote both traditional and modern approaches to the instrument. Read more....

Design by Blue Websites


Melbourne Tabla School

Sam Evans

Phone: 0423 145 447



Tabla School Concert Gallery

ad ad ad ad ad ad

© Sam Evans 2010 All Rights Reserved