How to Play Tabla and Its Bols

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How to Play Tabla and Its Bols
Classical Music

How to Play Tabla and Its Bols

In the world of Indian music, tabla plays an important role. There are various stories regarding the birth of tabla. According to one source, the word tabla derives from the word tabl in Parsi. Others say the famous pakhouj player of Delhi Sidhar khan was the father of tabla. Whatever its source, the tabla continues to be a very important and well-loved drum that is an essential part of the music of northern India

 Understand the different parts of the tabla.
Understand the different parts of the tabla.

The tabla consists of two separate wooden drums, one smaller and one larger. The smaller drum, positioned on the right, is called the daylan (or tabla) and the larger drum, positioned on the left, is called the baylan.Each drum makes a different tone but together they make the distinctive sound we associate with the tabla, a sound that is central to classical Indian music.

 Learn how the tabla is made.
Learn how the tabla is made.

In order to play this drum well and keep your instrument in good working condition, it is important to understand how it is made. The daylan is made of wood, usually from a Neem or Shisham tree. The baylan is made out of metal or clay.The two drums are made of different materials so that each has a distinct sound all its own.

  • Both drums are covered with a goatskin drum heads. The drum heads are attached to the drum with long leather strips that attach to a leather ring at the bottom of the drum.
  • In order to tune the drum, tabla makers insert wooden blocks between the drum body and the leather strips. Moving the wooden blocks up and down along the drum adjusts the tightness of the drum head and tone of the drum.
  • An element that is unique to the tabla is the application of the sinai, a patch of iron fillings mixed with rice paste applied to the surface of the drum, right on the goat hide, which allows for further tuning of the drums.
Learn how to sit while playing tabla.
Learn how to sit while playing tabla.
Before starting to play, you need to learn how to position your body correctly, as posture and body position are very important to playing the tabla.

  • Sit cross legged on the ground. This will position your body on the same level as your tabla.
  • Place the drums in front of you, close enough to almost touch your legs, with the space between the drums right at the center of your body. The larger drum, on your left, should sit flat, with the top of the drum facing straight up. The face of the smaller drum, on your right, should be facing away from you, at approximately 35 degrees.[5]
  • The position of your waist should straight. Keep your posture upright.
  • You should put one hand on each drum. Make sure that each of your hands can comfortably reach the drums in front of them. The placement of both hands should not be stiff. It should be in comfortable position, so that playing tabla is easy.
Position your hand on the daylan, the smaller drum on the right.
Position your hand on the daylan, the smaller drum on the right.
 The three fingers starting from the right of your hand, your middle finger, ring finger and little finger, should be positioned on the sinai at the center of the drum.

  • Make sure that your index finger is raised up away from the head of the drum just a little bit.Rest the heel of your hand on the edge of the drum.
Practice hitting the daylan.
Practice hitting the daylan.

Keep your contact with the drum centered on the sinai at the center of the drum head.

  • Lift your hand just a few inches and then bring down your middle, ring, and little fingers onto the center of the drum. This is a stroke called Te.[6]
  • Lift your hand just a few inches and then bring down just your pointer finger into the very center of the sinai. This is a stroke called Teh.
Position your left hand onto the baylan, the larger drum on your left.
Position your left hand onto the baylan, the larger drum on your left.
Place the palm of your hand on the drum, so that your hand covers up the sinai and your elbow is bent. If you are in the correct position the heel of your hand will be just covering the sinai and your forearm will be resting on the edge of the drum.

  • The sinai on the baylan is positioned off center. Make sure your drum is positioned so that the sinai is at about 2 o’clock, if the top of the drum was a clock. This makes it comfortable for your palm to cover it and your forearm to rest on the edge of the drum.
Practice hitting the baylan.
Practice hitting the baylan.

Keep your forearm resting on the drum and simply lift your hand up, flexing at the wrist, and bring it down gently. This stroke is called Ke.

Learn how to follow tabla bol (wordings).
Learn how to follow tabla bol (wordings).

Indian percussionists follow a system of wordings, as opposed to a western system of musical notation. Each word in a bol stands in for a sound you make on the drum, for example the strokes Te and Teh that you have already learned. A series of these words will create a bol.

Practice playing the tabla.
Practice playing the tabla.
 While practicing, keep the rhythm slow so that you can focus on hitting the drum and combining sounds correctly.

  • Don’t try to practice more than one tabla bol at a time. Repeat the practice of same bol at least one hour a day.
  • While practicing, avoid talking with others. Concentrate on tabla playing.
    Increase the rhythm gradually after you have mastered the basic stroke of playing the tabla. Your goal should be to increase speed but not at the expense of losing accuracy.
Play around with different sounds you can make on the drum.
Play around with different sounds you can make on the drum.

Once you have mastered the basics of the tabla, feel free to experiment with your own style. For example, use the force of index finger on the edge of tabla to create a nice tone.

Bols Of Tabla
Bols Of Tabla

This is a list of the basic strokes with their techniques. Please note that the Roman script is very weak. In particular the English “D” and “T” are very ambiguous. Please note too that many different bols are written the same in English. Use the Devnagri script to help clarify the pronunciation.

The techniques which are described here are for right handed people. A left handed person should simply reverse the drums and exchange the terms left and right.

Dha
Dha

Dha

dha
(Pronounced as in “Ad hoc”) This is a bol that uses both hands. It is a combination of Ta and Ga. There are at least four ways to play this bol; however the two most common versions are the Delhi (Dilli) style and the Purbi style. The Dilli (Delhi) style is illustrated here. See Ga and Ta for details of their technique.

Dhin
Dhin

Dhin

Dhin– (Pronounced as in “and hinder”) Dhin is a simultaneous playing of Ga and Tin. There are at least four different ways to play Dhin. One common version is illustrated here. See Ga and Tin for details of their technique.

Ga
Ga

Ga

Ga– (Pronounced as in “Gum”) This is a stroke of the left hand. The most common technique is to hold the wrist down and arch the fingers over the syahi. The middle and ring-fingers then strike the maidan (the exposed skin between the syahi and the chat.) One must always remember that this stroke is “khula” or an open stroke, therefore it must be very resonant.

 

Ga may be difficult for the beginner. There is a tendency to strike the drum and withdraw the hand under conscious control. Such action cannot be performed consciously. It is essential that the fingers and hand be relaxed the instant the drum is struck so that the hand can rebound of its own accord; like a ricochet. Only then can you hear the full open sound that characterizes this stroke.

There are numerous variations on the technique. For speed the index finger is often used to supplement the main Ga. Some players use only the middle finger, although this is generally considered to be a very poor technique. In some rare cases all four finger tips are used. There is another type of Ga which is played with the full open hand; nowadays this is generally used for special effects such as one might find in a  kathak recital.

Ga also has many variations in pronunciation. Common ones are Ge, Ghe, Ghin, or Ghin.

Ka
Ka

Ka

Ka– (Pronounced as in “Cup”) This is a very common nonresonant stroke of the left hand. It is also the easiest to execute. One simply strikes the bayan with the flat palm and fingers. Notice that the tips of the fingers extend slightly over the rim of the bayan. It is a flat slapping sound with no resonance, therefore it is called “band“. The most common version is shown in the illustration, however other forms exist.

Na
Na

Na

Na– (Pronounced as in “Not” ) This is a common resonant stroke of the right hand. It is produced by holding the last two fingers lightly against the syahi and using the index finger to forcefully hit the rim (chat or kinar) of the tabla. It is important to keep the middle finger extended so as not to hit the drum.

The correct position may be visualized by an “X” running across the drum. This cross pattern is not imaginary but is a reflection of actual resonance characteristics. The position of this cross is determined by the ring finger and little finger. Sliding these fingers around will cause the position of the cross to vary. Maximum efficiency is produced when one strikes the chat at the position where the other leg of the cross passes over the rim. This is shown in the accompanying illustration.

Na
Na

Na

Na– (Pronounced as in “Nut”) This is a nonresonant stroke which is made by striking the edge of the syahi with the last two fingers of the right hand. This stroke has numerous names, especially when used as part of larger bol expressions. Some common ones are Da, Ra and Ta.

Ta

Ta

– (Pronounced as in Taco) This is a common stroke of the right hand. There are at least four ways to play this bol. However only two are common: the Dilli (Delhi) approach and the Purbi approach. The Dilli (Delhi) style is to play it exactly like Na (i.e. striking sharply with the index finger against the rim). See Na for further information on this technique. The Purbi approach is to place the last two fingers lightly against the syahi and then strike sharply in the maidan with the index finger. This is very similar to Tin; unlike Tin, it is played more forcefully.

Ti
Ti

Ti

– (Pronounced as in “Team”) There are several approaches to this stroke. One very common way is to strike the center of the syahi with the middle finger of the right hand. This is shown in the accompanying illustration. However many times Ti is considered to be synonymous with Tin. Please refer to Tin for this technique.

Ti Ra Ki Ta
Ti Ra Ki Ta

Ti Ra Ki Ta

– This bol is composed of four strokes. There are two basic techniques, the Dilli (Delhi) and the Purbi styles. The Delhi style is characterized by an independent use of the middle finger. Ti is played by striking the center of the syahi with the middle finger of the right hand. Ra is played by striking the center of the syahi with the index finger of the right hand. Ki is played by striking the left hand sharply against the head (like Ka). Ta is played by striking the edge of the syahi with the last two fingers of the right hand. All of these strokes are nonresonant (i.e. bandh).

The Purbi approach is a different. We lead off with the last three fingers of the right hand (i.e.middle, ring, and little fingers); this would be the Ti. Ra is played by striking the center of the syahi with the index finger. Ki is a standard left hand Ka, and the final Ta would be played with the last three fingers.

Ti Ta

– This bol is made of two strokes. There are at least five techniques for executing this stroke, but we shall describe only two here. One Dilli (Delhi) and one Purbi.

The basic Dilli (Delhi) style is simple. Ti is made by striking the center of the syahi with the middle finger. This is a non-resonant (band) stroke. Ta is made by striking the center of the syahi with the index finger. This too is a non-resonant (bandh) stroke and should have a sound that is indistinguishable from Ti .

The Purbi style is a little bit different. Ti is executed by striking sharply with the last three fingers of the right hand. (i.e. middle, ring, and little fingers). Ta is executed by striking the center of the syahi with the index finger.

Tin
Tin

Tin

– ( Pronounced as in “Tin can”) This is a resonant stroke of the right hand. Its hand position is very similar to Na, but it is much softer and more delicate. This stroke is produced by placing the last two fingers of the right hand lightly against the syahi and striking on the border between the syahi and the maidan. As with Na, the middle finger is extended and does not strike the drum. Great care must be taken so that the stroke is resonant. This resonance will only come if it is a light ricochet. The exact striking position is determined by the construction of the drum but it is usually at the border of the syahi and maidan. Beginners often have a difficult time making Tin sound different from Na. There are two points to keep in mind. First, the stroke must be resonant. Second, it must be played very softly.

Tu
Tu

Tu

Tu– (Pronounced “Two“) This is a resonant stroke of the right hand. The head is not muted at all but allowed to resonate freely. The head is struck in the center of the syahi with the index finger of the right hand. There are several variations in pronunciation. Some common examples are Tun, Thu, Thun, etc.