Let's talk about the rhythmic component of Hindustani music, taal.
The main percussion instruments used in Hindustani classical music are the tabla and (the somewhat less common) pakhwaj. The tabla is a set of two kettledrums of different sizes and timbers that are played simultaneously by tapping on them with the hands in various ways to produce different kinds of sounds. These sounds are then strung together in sequences to create different rhythm patterns (taal) to accompany musical performances.
In the hands of an expert tabla player, the tabla can make all kinds of fantastic sounds, but there are a couple of dozen commonly produced sounds - dhaa, ga, ge, gi, ka, ke, dhi, dhin, tin, tun, tit, ti, te, Ta, tr, naa, ne, re, khat, taa, dhaage, tiTa, tirikiTa. Of course, these are just vocalizations of the actual sounds produced by the tabla. They are called bol, and it is these bols that are combined in various ways to get many interesting rhythms (taals).
Ustad Allah Rakha (tabla) and Pundit Ravi Shankar demonstrate bols on the tabla
(from 0:00 to 2:45)
(dhaa dhin dhin dhaa / dhaa dhin dhin dhaa / dhaa tin tin taa/ taa dhin dhin dhaa)
Click to hear: Ektaal - 12 beats (2/2/2/2/2/2)
(dhin dhin / dhaage tirikiTa / tu naa / kat tin / dhaage tirikiTa / dhi naa)
Click to hear: Jhaptaal - 10 beats (2/3/2/3)
(dhi naa / dhi dhi naa / ti naa / dhi dhi naa)
Click to hear: Deepchandi - 14 beats (3/4/3/4)
(dhaa dhin (S) / dhaa dhaa tin (S) / taa tin (S) / dhaa dhaa dhin (S)
*(S) indicates a silent beat, where nothing is played.)
Click to hear: Rupak - 7 beats (3/2/2)
(ti ti naa / dhi naa / dhi naa)
Click to hear: Dadra - 6 beats (3/3)
(dhaa ge naa / dhaa ti naa)
Click to hear: Keherwa - 8 beats (4/4)
(dhaa gi naa ti / naa ka dhi naa)
Visualizing rhythm as a cycle
How Taal Works
Fixed raga compositions (bandish) are usually set to a certain taal, which means that each line is melodically structured to fit into the groove of that taal. Let's take a look at what I mean. Here is a bandish set to fit a 12-beat rhythm cycle. Watch the video to see how every line of lyric is melodically structured to fit into a total of 12 beats.
gaavata durgaa raagini
oDava sura shuddha bani
varajita ga-ni ata shobhini
vaadi sura vara madhyama
samvaadi shaDaja kahata
dhira vira ata gambhira
samaya kahata tina yaamini
Raag Durga, Bandish: Gaavata Durga Raagini
That was a simple example. Singing to a tabla is a bit more complicated because the first beat of the rhythm does not necessarily coincide with the first note of the melody line. Different melodies are structured to begin at different points in a rhythm cycle (taal). Why? Because a taal played on the tabla has accented and unaccented beats woven together in a unique pattern, and the accented and unaccented portions of the melody must fit nicely into this groove. Take a careful listen to this audio version of the Teentaal (16-beat cycle) as played on the tabla.
If you count along, you will find yourself automatically dividing the 16 beats into groups of four. Notice how the last group of four beats is played in a special way to indicate that the cycle is coming to an end, and how this is followed by an emphatically played first beat at the beginning of a new cycle. A simple rule for fitting a melody line nicely into its specified rhythm pattern is to find its most emphatic syllable and match that with the taal cycle's first beat. One way to do this is to start each line of lyric on the appropriate beat of the previous cycle of the taal.
Let's take a look at another bandish set to the Teentaal (16-beat rhythm cycle). In this composition the first syllable of each line begins at beat 9 of the rhythm cycle in order for its most emphatic syllable to coincide with the taal's first beat. I've indicated the starting beat in brackets before each line of lyric, and marked the most emphatic syllable of that line in bold:
(9) piyaa ki najariyaa jaadu bhari
(9) moha liyo mana prema bhari
(9) kavana jatana aba kari e aali
(9) naahi pare mohe chena eka ghari
Raag Yaman, Bandish: Piyaa Ki Najariyaa
It gets more complicated. Some compositions are structured so that different lines begin at different beats for the most emphatic syllable of each line to correctly coincide with the first beat of the next cycle of the rhythm.
(7) jaa, jaa re apne mandiravaa
(9) sun paave mori saans nanadiyaa
(9) jaa re apne mandirvaa
(7) jaa, jaa re apne mandiravaa
(9) suna ho sadaarang, tum ko chaahat hai
(9) kaa tum humko, thagana diyaa
(9) jaa re apne mandiravaa
Raag Bhimpalasi, Bandish: Jaa, jaa re apne mandirvaa
Point of Resolution - Sam (rhymes with "some" and "from")
The syllable in the melody line on which the first beat of the tabla makes its dramatic entry is called sam. It is the most dramatic syllable in the melody line and plays a very important role in classical music performances. Because of its dramatic quality, the sam is the most easily recognizable part of the melody line, so artists use it as the point of "resolution" in their flights of improvisation.
If you listen carefully to a classical raga performance, you will find that during some portions of the performance one small line of lyric is repeated dozens of times with different melodic variations. This is one kind of improvisation. The rule here involves fitting the improvised portion correctly into the given rhythmic structure, and the way the artist displays that skill is by correctly singing the sam syllable on the first beat of the rhythm cycle.
In the video below, I demonstrate by singing variations of the first line (jaa, jaa re apne mandiravaa) of the bandish above. The rule is that the syllable man should always fall on the first beat of the rhythm cycle. Everything else can be varied.
Example of improvisation in Hindustani classical music
Raag Bhimpalasi, Bandish: Jaa, jaa re apne mandirvaa
That was just me demonstrating, but real artists do a much better job. You do not have to sing the sam syllable in every single cycle, but when you do, it should be on the first beat. This kind of improvisation can really be quite exciting, because the audience is treated to the building up and resolution of tension in short or longer bouts. When the artist takes off from the refrain, you're on the edge of your seat, wondering, "Where is she off to this time? What route is she going to take? When is she coming back? Will she make a perfect landing?" So, when the artist returns, triumphant, to the sam at the right moment, there is a release of that built up tension. A good artist can really play with her audience's excitement by keeping them on tenterhooks for just the right amount of time before giving them what they want. And that is why I think of the sam as the point of resolution. Here's an extract from a real raga performance using the same bandish:
Dr. Ashwini Deshpande
Bandish: Jaa Jaa Re Apne Mandirvaa, Raag Bhimpalasi
Rhythm Textures - taali and khaali
Apart from the sam, a taal sequence has two other special kinds of beats - the taali and the khaali, indicated by bold lettering and italics respectively. Taali means clap and indicates a strongly accented beat, while khaali means empty and indicates a muted or more subtle beat. Taali sections are played with a resonating effect, while khaali sections are played with a dry or metallic sound. These give texture and variation to the rhythm as well as providing the singer with an aural clue as to which part of the taal sequence is currently being played. The reason it is important for the singer to know the exact beat position at any given moment in a taal cycle is because this is what helps him resolve the music correctly at the sam.
The specific sequence of beats that define a taal is called its theka. So, for instance, the theka of Teentaal is:
dhaa dhin dhin dhaa / dhaa dhin dhin dhaa / dhaa tin tin taa/ taa dhin dhin dhaa
Every taal has a standard theka, but within the basic structure, the bols are often modified to suit the song. There are also regional or individual variations. So, for instance, Teentaal can also be also played as:
dhaa dhin dhin dhaa / dhaa dhin dhin dhaa / naa tin tin naa/ taa dhin dhin dhaa
naa dhin dhin naa / naa dhin dhin naa / naa tin tin naa/ teke dhin dhin naa
What is more, the standard theka of a taal is only its simple version. At slower tempos, you will hear more detailed versions of the same taal as the tabla player fills in the long gaps between the beats. There can be different levels of detail, and the details are mostly improvised by the tabla player.
Tempo of the Music - Laya
The tempo of the music is called laya. Since Hindustani classical music performances involve a gradual increase in tempo over the duration of the performance, it is never feasible to talk about tempo precisely in terms of how many beats per minute. Only vague descriptors are used, such as slow tempo (vilambit laya), medium tempo (madhya laya), and lively tempo (drut laya). You can also have very slow (ati vilambit) and rapid (ati drut) tempo, but that is about all. Roughly speaking, slow tempo is from 30 to 70 beats per minute (bpm), medium tempo is from 70 to 180 bpm, and fast tempo is from 180 to 350 bpm.
The tabla is unique among percussion instruments because of the different kinds of sounds it can make. Yes, rhythm is often thought to be of secondary importance, something that exists in the background. But, depending on the rapport between the artists concerned, a tabla-accompanied performance can come alive with all the excitement of a fascinating conversation - sometimes playful, sometimes competitive, sometimes passionate, sometimes intimate, and always a pleasure to listen to.
Pundit Shivkumar Sharma (santoor) and Ustad Zakhir Hussain (tabla)
Raag Kaunsi-Kanada, Rupak taal