A Complete Guide to Tabla


There is no denying in the fact that Indian rhythm is one of the most complex, ancient and versatile rhythms in the world. Time and again, Indian music has delivered the right kind of expression and passion. It is also responsible for the invention of some critical musical instruments, including Tabla.

A membranophone percussion instrument, Tabla is often used in Hindustani Classical Music. It is also used for celebrations in Afghani music. The instrument is pivotal for Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh’s music as well. Consisting of a pair of hand drums, Tabla is created using goatskin heads with Syahi or ink. The instrument has contrasting sizes and timbres.

The first drum, or the smaller one is known as Dayan and played with the dominant hand. It is cylindrical in shape and made out of wood.

The skin on the drum is stretched and tightened to ensure that it produces a distinct pitch when touched from different angles. Bayan is the low pitched and has a shape similar to that of a bowl. This one has a metal shell.

What differentiates the two drums is the fact that the larger one has a membrane looser than that of the Dayan, which allows the player to manipulate the pitch and go spontaneous during a performance.

India’s contribution to the world of music is enormous. The soft, light, thumping and vibrating sounds of Tabla are credited to Indians. The country is responsible for the development of Carnatic and Hindustani music, both of which use Tabla repeatedly. Tabla is the foundation of ragas and melodies or tala and rhythmic meters in India.

Tabla today is used for expression. It is one of those few instruments that can be played effortlessly in solo concerts, and the fact that it can be improvised spontaneously gives it an edge.

The playing technique of a Tabla is complex and the extensive use of fingers or palms in various configurations can help in creating diverse sounds or rhythms. These sounds are called ‘bol’ and are reflected in mnemonic syllables.

Pressure is applied to the drum using heel of the hand. When the hand is used in sliding motion, a player can tune to the pitch during sound’s decay.

Tablas are played in two styles; tali and khali, both of which produce unique rhythms and pitch.


Gharanas and Ragas – The History of Tabla

tabla history

While Tabla is distinctively Indian, the origins of this musical instrument can be traced to Cairo, Egypt. Let’s see how the roots of Tabla have evolved over the years.

  • Vedic or Upanishad eras in India saw the development of Taals and rhythms. Some percussion instruments like Pushkar were developed even before Mridangam (a prime percussion instrument from South India). It is believed that the first versions of Tabla appeared during this era.
  • Tabla, while its roots can be traced back to Cairo’s percussion instruments was a well-known item in ancient India. 200 BC drawings and carvings at Bhaje caves in Maharashtra reveal that Tabla had been used for hundreds of years, particularly for female performances and dancing. It is not known who invented Tabla, but it is believed that the instrument evolved over the years to reach its present form.
  • Tabla was quite popular during the Yadava Rule as well. From 1212-1247 AD in South, the instrument was widely used for performances in the emperor’s court.
  • Credits for the modern Tabla are given to the Turkish Sufi Poet and musician Amir Khusro. The 13th century poet designed drums that could be played from the top and while sitting. He did it to make a drum that was more diverse and allowed players to create more complex, rhythmic structures. That is the reason why Tablas are so common in Indian Sufi Style.
  • Tablas were then used in conjunction with Sitar melodies that Amir composed during his lifetime.
  • The use of Tabla spread across ancient India primarily because of the kings who ruled different areas throughout their reign. And, since South Asia and the Indian subcontinent are so beautifully linked together, Tabla was exposed to several other cultures and countries, which led to its widespread popularity.
  • Recent studies suggest that Tabla is likely to be an experiment with the existing drums in India, such as Dholak. These drums were played horizontally and singularly. Experiments with them could have resulted in the development of vertical, single sided Tabla. Studies also suggest that the repertoire and techniques used for playing existing drums and Tabla are quite similar.

To play the Tabla, a complex fingertip and hand percussive technique is used. Full palm is usually not employed. Sideway motions are hardly used because they limit sound complexity.

Understanding Gharanas

In Hindustani Classical Music, several Gharanas or family of music have been established. This includes a section of musicians or a school of music with a musical lineage that makes Gharanas recognizable with a particular person or place.

Gharanas are designated on their style of music and presentation. While individuals in Gharanas may have their own unique styles, their training and conditioning is similar.

  • When it comes to playing Tabla, each of the Gharanas has a distinguishing influence on how the instrument can be played. The general framework and the style or logic of presentation differs from one Gharana to the other.
  • Gharanas work in conjunction with Raga or the rhythm. Ragas, emerged in its modern sense in the 16th century and were used for creating dissimilar moods within the music and are more or less used to expose one to different expressions of music. When it comes to playing Tabla, Gharanas and Ragas leave an indelible impression on the player.

Nomenclature – Construction – Types of Tabla

It is believed that the word ‘Tabla’ is derived from the Arabic word called ‘Tabl’ which means a drum. The smaller drum, which is played in the dominant hand is called ‘Dahina’ or right because usually most people play it with the right hand. But most often, it is referred to as ‘Tabla.’

Construction Of The Tabla

tabla construction

Tabla is made using teak and rosewood. The woods are cut into a conical piece and hollowed to approximately half of the total depth. Since, it is a customizable musical instrument, Tabla can be tuned to a specific note to complement the melody.

  • The note to which a Tabla is tuned is either dominant, tonic or subdominant to the soloist’s key. However, the tuning range is limited and cylindrical wood blocks are inserted between straps to allow tension. This helps in vertical positioning and fine tuning of the product.
  • The larger drum, called bayan or the left is significantly different because of its deeper bass tone. In fact, it can be considered as a distinct cousin of another instrument called the kettle drum.
  • Bayan is usually made of brass material or copper, but the latter is more expensive. For more affordable models, aluminium and steel may be used. Old Bayans from Punjab usually have wood. Otherwise clay may be used, although that doesn’t give the instrument durability.
  • Drum shells and heads are largely made using goat or cow skin. Outer ring of skin is actually overlaid over the main skin, which helps in reducing natural overtones. Then, a complex woven braid is used to bind these two heads together. The heads are then affixed using cow or camel hide strap and another ring is placed on the bottom of the drum.
  • Syahi or a tuning ink or paste is used on the central area of the head. This paste is made using black powder and the construction of this Syahi is responsible for modifying the natural overtones of the drum. This gives the Tabla tonal possibilities that are unique to each instrument and result in clarity of the pitch.
  • Refined skill is required for building and constructing a Tabla. The Toroidal band is used positioned on each drum. Made of plant fibre, this helps in ensuring stability while playing.

Types of Tabla

Tabla doesn’t have distinct types. Rather, the types are more individualistic in nature, determined by the Gharanas, Ragas, Personal Preferences and the maker.

Tabla and its influence on Indian Culture

Tabla is an indispensable part of the Indian culture. Along with Sitar, it is one of the most recognized musical instruments in the country. Tabla is found everywhere, from Indian folk songs to pop culture and from The Beatles to Selena Gomez in Western Music.

Tabla reflects the Indian culture’s inherent love for good music and performances. The musical instrument was invented primarily to appease the kings and to ensure that the dance performances were made livelier and more spontaneous in nature.

At the same time, Tabla reflected India’s need for spiritual instruments as well. That’s why the rhythms and tones from Tabla are widely played for religious functions and festivities.

Tabla also represents India’s classical orchestra. Often used with sitar, flute, harmonium and several other instruments, Tabla can help create concert level orchestral performances that majorly reflect Indian classical music and national culture. It also used for folk music in the Indian subcontinent.

Drumming the Tabla- Best Players

Some of the most famous Tabla players are listed below.

Zakir Hussain – India’s finest Tabla player, Zakir Hussain is the name that synonymous with the musical instrument around the world. The son of legendary Tabla Player Alla Rakha, Hussain is known for producing musical compositions, performing all over the world. He is also a film actor and a composer.

Zakir Hussain Indian tabla master

His first Tabla based album was released in 1991 and a year later, he bagged Grammy Award for Best World Music Album. He was the first to win this award. A few years later, his Global Drum Project won him a Grammy in 2009.

He has also composed for Malayalam films, some of which have gone on to the Cannes Film Festival. Over the years, he has also played Tabla for the soundtracks of major Hollywood movies such as Little Buddha and Apocalypse Now.

Hussain has been awarded Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan in 1988 and 2002 respectively. He has also been awarded the National Endowment for Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship, which is USA’s highest awarded for traditional musicians.

Alla Rakha – An exponent of Tabla and the father of Zakir Hussain, Alla Rakha played the musical instrument to perfection. He was a frequent accompanist for Ravi Shankar, who played the Sitar. Rakha is known for his contributions to the popularity of Tabla at the global arena.

Born in British India, Alla Rakha was trained under the Punjab Gharana of Tabla Players. His career soar when he played for All India Radio and then composed for Hindi Movies.

But the biggest break of his career came when he began performing with Ravi Shankar. The two would have concerts around the world. As a legendary, epic showman, Rakha managed to entice the audience and his prolific compositions introduced Westerners to the world of Indian Classical Music.

His global influence can even be noticed today. He was the one who bridged the gap between Carnatic and Hindustani music, while inspiring American percussionists in Rock n Roll to try Tabla. He was awarded Padma Shri in 1977.

Ahmed Jan Thirakwa – One of the first modern players of Tabla, Thirakwa is a pre-eminent soloist in the country. He is also one of the most influential percussionists in the history of Indian classical music.

Ahmed had command over traditional Tabla repertoire of several Gharanas, which actually helped him compose some of the most soulful rhythms.

He was also the master of fingering techniques in Tabla, using technical virtuosity and creativity to reinterpret playing. Born to a family of musicians, he was called ‘Thirakwa’ or Shimmering because of the tone of his music was similar to the cracking sound of lighting.

He was awarded Padma Bhushan in 1970. To this date, his disciples have been taking his works forward.


Tabla Accessories

tabla accessories

Cushion and Cover – Tablas are played vertically. Therefore, they need stability when they are being drummed. That’s why players should buy deluxe or standard Tabla cushions and covers. These covers will keep the Tabla protected while ensuring that the player has more stability while giving a performance.

Tabla Tuning Blocks – These blocks can be used with Tabla Hammer and Tabla Lacing to provide detail tuning to the Tabla. Tuning blocks are designed for Dayan in particular to ensure that their pitch and tempo is customized for the player. The blocks are placed under the lacing to fine tune.

Tabla Heads – Sometimes, you might need replace Tabla Heads, which can be chosen with thinner skin for better tuning or with thicker skin for more durability.


Tabla Records

Longest Drumming Marathon – The record for longest drumming marathon in Tabla is with Jagit Singh, an Indo-Canadian who played a pair of Tabla for 5 days straight and set the world record. Singh began to play Tabla at the age of four and was taught by his older cousin Ustad Sushil Kumar.

Truptraj Pandya tabla record

Youngest Tabla Performer – Youngest performer of Tabla is Master Truptraj Pandya, who performed for the first time at the age of 2 years and 2 months at the Somiya College in Vidyavihar. Born in 2006, this young mind is already an exponent of the musical instrument.

Guinness Record for Tabla Marathon – This record was established Paramjot Singh from Ludhiana who played 14 day Tabla Marathon. He had played for over 301 hours at a stretch. The previous record was held by Kukjalmannan F Ramkrishnana from Kerala, who played Mridang for 301 hours.


In a Nutshell

Since pre-historic times, humans have recognized the importance of musical instruments. Drums have been used for hundreds and thousands of centuries. Rudimentary instruments from rattles to clappers and slit drums have been created. Years later, they were followed with percussion instruments that featured animal skin, and one such instrument is the Tabla!

With two drums, one small and one large, Tabla has a playing range of a bolt tuned and rope tuned with hammer and dowels. The main Tabla or Dayan is played with the dominant hand.

Since, it is an indigenous musical instrument, India has produced hundreds and thousands of inspiring Tabla players over the years. This includes Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain, Bickram Ghosh, Shankar Ghosh and Anindo Chatterjee among others.

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Shivangi Gupta is a Content Writer Expert at YoGems. With years of experience in writing blogs, articles and guides, she writes about every sport. Also, she is good at sports and expert in shooting and won numerable awards at various events. She started receiving shooting training under her father at the age of 6. To get updated with her posts, stay tuned to the website.