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The tabla is the most popular percussion instrument used in the classical and popular music of the northern regions of South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, northern India, Pakistan). The history of this instrument is at times the subject of heated debate. The most common historical account credits the 13th century Persian poet Amir Khusrau as having invented the instrument. However, none of his own writings on music mention the drum (nor the string instrument sitar). Another common historical narrative portrays the tabla as being thousands of years old, yet this is mere conjecture, based on slipshod interpretations of iconography. Reliable historical evidence places the invention of this instrument in the 18th century.

The term tabla is an Arabic word which means "drum", and this attests to its status as a product resulting from the fusion of musical elements from indigenous Hindu and Central Asian Muslim cultures that began in the late 16th century. The tabla is widely used in many religious prayers, including the Shabad Kirtan.

Gharānā — tabla tradition

The transformation of the tabla from a religious-folk instrument to a more sophisticated instrument of art-music occurred in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, when significant changes took place in the feudal court music of northern South Asia. Although largely denied by most popular histories of this instrument, the tabla was played by hereditary groups (i.e. castes) of musicians who were ascribed low social status by the greater society. The majority of the performers were Muslim and resided in or near the centers of Mughal power and culture such as Delhi, Lucknow, and Lahore. However, one notable group of Hindu hereditary musicians was located in the holy city of Benares ("Varanasi"). In public performances, tabla players were primarily accompanists to vocalists and instrumentalists; however, they developed a sophisticated solo repertoire that they performed in their own musical gatherings. It is this solo repertoire along with student-teacher lineages that are the defining socio-cultural elements of tabla tradition known by the Urdu-Hindi term gharānā (ghar = "house" Hindi, -ānā = "of the" Persian).

Most performers and scholars recognize six gharānās of tabla. They appeared or evolved in the following order, presumably:

  1. Delhi gharānā
  2. Lucknow gharānā
  3. Ajrara gharānā, later followed by
  4. Faurkhabad gharānā
  5. Benaras gharānā
  6. Punjab gharānā

Other tabla performers have identified further derivations of the above traditions, but these are a subjective claims, largely motivated by self-promotion. Some traditions indeed have sub-lineages and sub-styles that meet the criteria to warrant a separate gharānā name, but such sociomusical identities have not taken hold in the public discourse of Hindustani art music, such as the Qasur lineage of tabla players of the Punjab region.

Each gharānā is traditionally set apart from the others by unique aspects of the compositional and playing styles of its exponents. In the days of court patronage the preservation of these distinctions was important in order to maintain the prestige of the sponsoring court. Gharānā secrets were closely guarded and often only passed along family lines. Being born into or marrying into a lineage holding family was often the only way to gain access to this knowledge.

Today many of these gharānā distinctions have been blurred as information has been more freely shared and newer generations of players have learned and combined aspects from multiple gharānās to form their own styles. There is much debate as to whether the concept of gharānā even still applies to modern players. Some think the era of gharānā has effectively come to an end as the unique aspects of each gharānā have been mostly lost through the mixing of styles and the socio-economic difficulties of maintaining lineage purity through rigorous training.

Nonetheless the greatness of each gharānā can still be observed through study of its traditional material and, when accessible, recordings of its great players. The current generation of traditionally trained masters still hold vast amounts of traditional compositional knowledge and expertise.

This body of compositional knowledge and the intricate theoretical basis which informs it is still actively being transmitted from teacher to student all over the world. In addition to the instrument itself, the term "tabla" is often used in reference to this knowledge and the process of its transmission.

Nomenclature and construction

The smaller drum, played with the dominant hand, is called dāyā (lit. "right"; a.k.a. dāhina, siddha, chattū) and can also be referred to individually as "tabla." It is made from a conical piece of wood hollowed out to approximately half of its total depth. One of the primary tones on the drum is tuned to a specific note, and thus contributes to and complements the melody. The tuning range is limited although different dāyā-s are produced in different sizes, each with a different range. For a given dāyā, to achieve harmony with the soloist, it will usually be necessary to tune to either the tonic, dominant or subdominant of the soloist's key.

The larger drum, played with the other hand, is called bāyā (lit. "left"; aka. dagga, duggī, dhāmā). It is a bowl shape made of metal (or sometimes clay or wood, although not favored for durability). It has a much deeper bass tone, much like its distant cousin, the kettle drum.

The playing technique for both drums involves extensive use of the fingers and palms in various configurations to create a wide variety of different sounds. On the bāyā the heel of the hand is also used to apply pressure, or in a sliding motion, so that the pitch is changed during the sound's decay. This "modulating" effect on the bass drum and the wide range of sounds possible on the instrument as a whole are the main characteristics that make tabla unique among percussion instruments.

Both drum shells are covered with a head (or puri) constructed from goat or cow skin. An outer ring of skin is overlaid on the main skin and serves to suppresses some of the natural overtones. These two skins are bound together with a complex woven braid that also gives the entire assembly enough strength to be tensioned onto the shell. The completed head construction is affixed to the drum shell with a single continuous piece of cow or camel hide strap laced between the braid of the head assembly and another ring (made from the same strap material) placed on the bottom of the drum. The strap is tensioned to achieve the desired pitch of the drum. Additionally, cylindrical wood blocks are inserted between the strap and the shell allowing the tension to be adjusted by their vertical positioning. Fine tuning is achieved by striking vertically on the braided portion of the head using a small hammer.

The skins of both drums also have an inner circle on the head referred to as the siyāhī (lit. "ink"; a.k.a. shāī or gāb). This is constructed using multiple layers of a paste made from cooked rice mixed with a black powder of various origins. The precise construction and shaping of this area (especially on the smaller drum) is responsible for modification of the drum's natural overtones, resulting in the clarity of pitch and variety of tonal possibilities unique to this instrument. The skill required for the proper construction of this area is highly refined and is the main differentiating factor in the quality of a particular instrument.

For stability while playing, each drum is positioned on a toroidal bundle called chutta, consisting of plant fiber or another malleable material wrapped in cloth.

The tabla in popular culture

While it is certainly correct to introduce the tabla as an instrument "from the Subcontinent" or "played in the classical music of India", one must take notice of the international popularity of this instrument resulting from its large-scale, transnational diffusion first caused by notable "musical ambassadors" such as the late Ustad Alla Rakha, and later through recorded media. Arguably, the tabla is the most popular Hindustani musical instrument at present, used in a variety of musical genres of multiple cultures and sub-cultures. The infectious timbres of this instrument are used extensively by studio engineers who frequently include digital samples of the tabla that they purchased from a CD or downloaded from the internet or come installed in the sound libraries of electronic keyboards. One can hear the tabla in numerous Hollywood and US prime time television soundtracks such as Cyborg 2, The Scorpion King, American Beauty, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Gran Turismo 4 and Law & Order. The tabla has also become a popular fusion instrument and is found in performance and recordings of an array of musical styles from traditional forms such as flamenco to cutting edge electronica.

Famous players and teachers

  • Akram Khan
  • Afaq Hussain
  • Ahmedjan Thirakwa
  • Alla Rakha
  • Allah Dittah
  • Aloke Dutta
  • Altaf Hussain Tafo Khan
  • Amir Hussain Khan
  • Aneesh Pradhan
  • Anindo Chatterjee
  • Anokelal Mishra
  • Bashir Hussain Goga
  • Bashir Khan Karachiwale
  • Bikram Ghosh
  • Chatur Lal
  • Enayet Hossain (
  • Fariad Hussain Bhulli Khan
  • Fateh Din Qasuri
  • Feroz Khan
  • Bhai Gurmeet Singh Virdee
  • Habibuddin Khan
  • Jnan Prakash Ghosh
  • Kanai Datta
  • Karamilhahi
  • Karim Baksh Pairna
  • Karsh Kale
  • Keramatullah Khan
  • Latif Ahmed Khan
  • Mahaparush Mishra
  • Masit Khan
  • Miran Baksh Gilwalia
  • Nabi Baksh
  • Nayan Ghosh
  • Nikhil Ghosh
  • Qader Baksh
  • Samta Prasad
  • Shafaat Ahmed Khan
  • Shankar Ghosh
  • Shaukat Hussain Khan
  • Shubhankar Banerjee
  • Suresh Talkwalkar
  • Swapan Chaudhari
  • Talvin Singh
  • Tanmoy Bose
  • Tari Khan (
  • Trilok Gurtu
  • Vishal Nagar
  • Wajid Hussain
  • Yogesh Samsi
  • Zakir Hussain
  • Zakir Singh

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