Hindustani Classical Music

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)

There are over a hundred different taals, but only a handful are used in serious classical music. Here are a few examples. The first three (Teentaal, Ektaal and Jhaptaal) are very common in classical music, the next three (Deepchandi, Rupak and Dadra) are more common in semi-classical music, and the last one (Keherwa) is the life and soul of folk music.

Click to hear: Teentaal - 16 beats (4/4/4/4)
(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)

Each taal is divided into several sections because this makes it easier to understand and recognize (the slashes indicate where one section ends and a new one begins). So, for instance, the Teentaal has four sections of four beats each, while the Ektaal has six sections of two beats each. Ruupak is asymmetric - it has three sections of three, two and two beats respectively. All the sections taken together represent one complete cycle of the taal, which is then repeated over and over again for the duration of the piece of music to which it is applied. Here's a video of Teentaal to help you visualize rhythm as a cycle. (I apologize if there is an av-sync problem with the rhythm demonstration videos below. Please try reloading the page if you find the video out of sync.)

Visualizing rhythm as a cycle
Rhythm: Teentaal

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 16-beat rhythm cycle. Watch the video to see how every line of lyric is melodically structured to fit into a total of 16 beats.

piya ki nazariya jaadu bhari
moha liyo mana prema bhari
kavana jatana aba kari e aali
naahi pare mohe chaina eka ghari

16-Beat Composition
Raag Yaman, Bandish: Piya ki nazariya

Here is an extract from a bandish melodically structured to fit into a total of 12 beats.

ata sohata chandra badana
mriga nayana madamaati
basata chandana chauki para

ata sohata amara dhyaana
mohana madhava mukunda
mukha murali manohara

12-Beat Composition
Raag Durga, Bandish: Ata sohata chandra badana

Those were simplified examples. 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.

Click to hear: Teentaal

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 different lines begin on different beats in order for their most emphatic syllables to correctly 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:

(7) ja, ja re apne mandirava
(9) sun paave mori saans nanadiya
(9) ja re apne mandirva
(7) ja, ja re apne mandirava

(9) suna ho sadarang, tum ko chahat hai
(9) ka tum humko, thagana diya
(7) ja, ja re apne mandirava

16-Beat Composition
Raag Bhimpalasi, Bandish: Ja, ja re apne mandirva

In practice, instead of the singer counting the beats and making her entry at the appropriate beat of the taal cycle, it is usually the singer who starts first, and the tabla makes a dramatic entry at the most emphatic note of the first line of melody. From then on, of course, the tabla will continue to play and the singer must make sure to keep on top of the beat.

Point of Resolution - Sum (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 sum. 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 sum 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 sum syllable on the first beat of the rhythm cycle.

Example of improvisation in Hindustani classical music
Raag Bhimpalasi, Bandish: Ja, ja re apne mandirva

That was just me demonstrating, but real artists do a much better job. You do not have to sing the sum 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 sum 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 sum as the point of resolution. Here's an extract from a real raga performance using the same bandish:

Dr. Ashwini Deshpande
Bandish: Ja Ja Re Apne Mandirva, Raag Bhimpalasi

Rhythm Textures - taali and khaali

Apart from the sum, 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 sum.

Taal Structure

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