Instrument Profile

Tabla: Drums of North India

By Eric Phinney

Tabla is the most famous percussion instrument of North India. It is most commonly used in North Indian classical music, but its versatility in all musical styles has enabled it to become the most popular percussion instrument in all of India. The level of sophistication and tonal beauty it possesses has elevated the instrument to an unmatched status in the world of percussion.

What is the Tabla?

Tabla, a set of two drums, is the modern caretaker of an ancient rhythmic tradition that is perhaps 5000 years old in a part of the world that is considered a birthplace of civilization. I began studying tabla with a master teacher fifteen years ago after years of traditional Western percussion studies, and continue to be humbled by the tradition, complexity, and magic that are inherent in this study. I will try to touch on a few aspects that will hopefully illuminate an instrument that for many people is both exotic and fascinating.


The history of classical music in India is considered to be at least 5000 years old as represented by a continuum of musicians passing the music down in the oral tradition. As one of the oldest musical traditions in the world, there are qualities that many feel bridge the gap from the divine aspect of the creation of sound itself to musical expression. The first references to the melodic and rhythmic systems of Indian music are found in the Vedas, a sacred collection of literature in the ancient Sanskrit language dating from 1500 BC. The first mention of ragas (melody) and talas (rhythm) are in the Vedas and these ancient eternal qualities are still used in modern classical music.

The original percussion instrument of North Indian classical music was a two-headed barrel-shaped drum called the pakhawaj. The pakhawaj was used to accompany vocalists as well as instrumentalists playing string instruments (vina, sitar) or winds (bansuri bamboo flute). Indian musicians of the 17th and 18th centuries were employed as court musicians, just like their European counterparts of the time. Legend has it that an argument ensued between two pakhawaj players employed by the Moghul court of Mohammed Shah in the early 18th century over a drum competition. The single-barrel drum was chopped in two by an angry sword-carrying drummer named Sidar Khan. Whether that is true or not, modern research suggests that the tabla were invented in the first half of the 18th century (about 1738) by a drummer named Amir Khusru, who was instructed to develop a more subtle and melodic percussion instrument that could accompany the new style of music called Khayal. That style, with tabla accompaniment, is the basis of the modern performances of Indian classical music.

Description of the Tabla

The tabla is a set of two drums that are played while sitting on the floor. The larger drum, called Bayan, was originally made from clay, but is now constructed of metal (bras, steel, or copper). The Bayan is considered the bass drum of the set, but there is a tremendous range of expression possible by using certain techniques employed by a skilled drummer. The right-hand drum is called the Dahina, and is made of a seasoned hard wood and hollowed out like the Bayan.

Each drum has two layers of goatskin stretched across its top to provide a playing surface. The top layer is cut in a circle around the rim, and the bottom layer stretches across the entire drum. The most unique aspect of tabla construction is the application of an iron and rice paste that is placed in a circle on top of the drum head. That black paste is called the Shyahi and, once it is dried, it allows for sound possibilities that are not found on any other drum in the world. There are goatskin straps to hold the drum heads in place at a very high tension, and tuning blocks on the side of the drums to control the pitch. The Dahina is tuned to the tonic pitch of the composition the instrumentalist or vocalist is performing, while the Bayan is tuned not to a specific pitch, but to one that can easily be modulated to imitate the intricate drum language. Both drums are played with the fingers and sometimes the palm of the hand. Learning tabla requires many years of dedicated lessons with a good teacher and regular, rigorous practice of many hours a day.

The larger, left-hand drum is called "Bayan." The smaller, right-hand drum is called "Dahina."

Studying the Tabla

The study of tabla is in the oral tradition and is a continuation of the pakhawaj repertoire, which is thousands of years old, and has developed into a supremely refined style, technique, and literature. The vast oral literature of drumming is divided into two categories, fixed rhythmic compositions and theme and variations. In ancient times, a language was developed using words called bols that were descriptive of the sounds that the drum makes. Some of these words are rooted in Sanskrit and are derived from the vibrations of the universe. Today, there are about sixteen different sounds or bols, which is remarkable for only two small drums.

The words are arranged like poetry, first in phrases, then sentences, followed by paragraphs, chapters, and then novels. These literary references are the fixed compositions that have specific names, categories, and meaning to tabla players. A person who studies tabla has to memorize an enormous number of these compositions, and they are preserved in notebooks with only the words and no musical notations. These words or bols are enough information for a tabla player to perform the music. The other technique tabla players use is a theme and variations technique similar to the great Western classical composers. In this system, a tabla player is expected to improvise like a great jazz artist.

Soon after tabla drums were invented in the early 18th century, some of the early expert players began to develop stylistic specialties that eventually turned into distinct regional schools (or families) of tabla playing called gharanas. 

Each gharana started to develop compositions and techniques that were unique to their region, and these repertoires were carefully guarded so that the other gharanas would not steal them. Each gharana would draw a lineage or family tree showing the line of great players over the generations and the compositional contributions by noteworthy players. The repertoire was passed down from father to son, or teacher to student.

Until very recently, the study of tabla was an apprentice system, or guru/disciple relationship. A direct descendent of the founder of the gharana, or an acknowledged master player would be given permission to become a guru (master teacher) and was then able to accept students. After many years of study, a student would be accepted as a disciple, which is a very serious commitment that often involves living with the guru and helping with household chores or any other work that the guru might request. The guru will then be totally committed to teaching everything they know, including secret family compositions that could be 250 years old, as well as to help and guide the student in non-musical areas as well. This commitment is realized at a special ceremony that usually takes place in a Hindu temple and, at that point, the student may no longer study with another teacher. I became a disciple of Pandit Samir Chatterjee of the Farrukhabad gharana in 2001 and respect this relationship like father and son. In the modern world, this ancient apprentice system is in danger because of many new pressures and attitudes, but it still functions and the expectations are the same for a student from the West as it is for a student in India.

Tabla & Yoga Tie-In

Many people see the similarities of tabla practice to that of yoga. There is a particular rite of passage, called Chilla, that is required of serious tabla students. It is a vow you take for yourself, after consulting with your teacher, that you will play as long as you are awake. You confine yourself into a room away from daylight so that your sense of time, day and night is suspended. The only reason to stop playing is to use the restroom or to eat or drink easily digestible food. You stay away from all possible distraction and are not allowed to see anybody, except the person who brings your food. This practice used to last forty consecutive days (the word Chilla meaning 40 days), but you can do it for 3 days, a week, a month, or three months. I have personally done a 3-day and 7-day Chilla and I can attest to the power and changes this discipline can have on somebody. 


As mentioned earlier, an enormous amount of practice is necessary to be a tabla player. (Want to learn to play?)

All the professional tabla players today and throughout history have been through this intense training, which is why there is a very real common respect and spirituality amongst players who achieve an advanced level of performance.


Tabla has enjoyed unprecedented popularity worldwide over the last thirty years. Many people in the West got their first introduction to Indian classical music from Ravi Shankar, who toured Europe and the United States with the great tabla maestro, Alla Rakha. They performed together at the Monterey Pop Festival as well as at Woodstock in the 1960s, and a fascination began. The Beatles began using sitar and tabla on their recordings, and George Harrison began his lifelong association with Ravi Shankar and Indian classical music.

Alla Rakha’s son, the great Zakir Hussain, has done even more work popularizing the instrument by taking it out of the Indian classical world and collaborating with jazz, rock, and other world music artists. His work with jazz fusion guitarist John McLaughlin is legendary, as is the groundbreaking Planet Drum project with Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead.

Table Demonstration

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