Raag Hindustani
© 2011, Sādhana

Rhythm (taal) in Indian Classical Music

Let's talk about rhythm.

The main percussion instruments used in Hindustani (North Indian) classical music are the tabla and (the somewhat less common) pakhavaj. The tabla is a set of two drums 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 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, kat, 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 rhythm patterns.

Rhythm patterns have names such as Teentaal, Ektaal, Jhaptaal, and so on, but the generic name for rhythm patterns is "taal." The concept of rhythm itself is also called "taal." Below are some examples of taals popularly used in various genres within Hindustani classical music.

Different kinds of taals

As you may have noticed, each taal is divided into several sections because this makes it easier to understand and recognize. For instance, Teentaal (16 beats) is made up of four sections of four beats each, while Ektaal (12 beats) is made up of six sections of two beats each. Ruupak (7 beats) 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.

How Does Taal Work?

In Indian classical music, it is very important to understand taal as a cycle. Technically, all rhythm is cyclical because it repeats over and over again. But with shorter patterns, like 4-beat rhythms, one can be fooled into seeing rhythm as linear. In Indian classical music, longer patterns of 16 beats or 12 beats are very commonly used, and these cannot be understood or applied to music correctly unless they are viewed cyclically.

The videos below are designed to help you understand the importance of seeing taal as a cycle in the context of Indian classical music. The first two videos use raga compositions set to Ektaal (a 12-beat rhythm cycle) and Teentaal (a 16-beat rhythm cycle) to show how compositions in Indian classical music are set to rhythm. The third video demonstrates improvisation in Indian classical music within the framework of a composition and its taal, which reinforces why it is so important to see taal as a cycle.

All fixed raga compositions are set to specific taals, which means that each line of the composition is designed to fit nicely into the groove of the chosen taal. The first video below demonstrates using a very simple composition set to Ektaal (a 12-beat rhythm cycle). Pay attention to how every line of the composition fits exactly into the Ektaal cycle.

Visualizing rhythm as a cycle
Ektaal composition in Raag Durga

That was a very basic example. Not all compositions begin on the first beat of the rhythm cycle, nor does every single line of a composition have to fit exactly into the full length of the cycle. Why? Because not all compositions are designed to sound like a march, and their accented and unaccented syllables may not fit exactly into the taal's groove. Still, to the extent possible, it is nice to be able to match accented and unaccented portions of the composition with those of the taal. The way we do this is by matching the most emphatic syllable in each line of the composition with the first beat of the taal cycle.

Here is another simple composition set to Teentaal (a 16-beat rhythm cycle). In this composition, the syllable indicated in bold is the most emphatic one in each line. Each line is accordingly structured so that this emphatic syllable falls on the first beat of the cycle. As a result, the composition's accented and unaccented syllables end up fitting quite nicely into the groove of the Teentaal rhythm.

eri aali piya bina, sakhi,
kal na parat mohe ghari-pala chhina-dina
jab se piya pardes gavana kino
ratiyan kaTata hain taare gina-gina

Setting a composition to rhythm
Teentaal composition in Raag Yaman

The first beat of the rhythm cycle is called sam (rhymes with "some" and "from"). It is played emphatically to mark the beginning of the cycle. Since compositions are structured so that the most emphatic syllable of each line falls on the first beat of the rhythm cycle, the combination of emphasis in both rhythm and melody makes the sam very recognizable for the audience, and because of this, it plays a very important role in classical music performances.

Improvising On a Composition

Indian classical music uses both free improvisation, and improvisation around an existing raga composition. When improvising around a composition, the composition provides a melodic and rhythmic framework for improvisation. An artist can take a small 4-line composition and improvise around it for an extended period of time. One way of improvising around a composition is to perform melodic variations of the lines of the composition itself. This type of improvisation is called bol banao. (For other kinds of improvisation, see my page on improvisation).

The Importance of Sam

The main rule when improvising around a composition is to ensure that the variations fit correctly into the composition's taal structure. One way to do this could be to keep the variations the same length as the original, but this would limit the artist's scope for creative expression. So instead, one syllable in each line of melody is consistently matched with one beat of the rhythm cycle. This is where the sam comes in. As the sam is usually the strongest beat in the rhythm cycle, and it is matched with the most prominent syllable in the melody line, rhythmic consistency in this one syllable is enough to make the performance coherent. It also allows the artist enough room for creativity without straying too far from the composition.

Here is a demonstration of bol banao on the Teentaal composition used in the previous example above. The standard version of each line is performed first, followed by variations on it. The highlighted syllable in each line has to be matched with the 1st beat, sam.

Improvising on Eri Ali Piya Bina
 [eri aali piya bina, sakhi,
 kal na parat mohe ghari-pala chhina-dina
 jab se piya pardes gavana kino
 ratiyan kaTata hain taare gina-gina

That was just me demonstrating, but real artists do a much better job. You do not have to return to the sam syllable every single cycle (artists often improvise variations that span several cycles), but when you do return to the composition, the sam should fall on the first beat.

This makes the improvisations 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 on the correct syllable, it is very satisfying to hear.

Ankita Joshi
Composition in Raag Kirwani

The Structure of a Taal (Theka)

The standard sequence of beats that defines a taal in its simplest form is called 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

Accented beats in the taal sequence (indicated in bold) are called taali (clap), while unaccented beats (indicated in italics) are called khaali (empty). This terminology reflects the traditional method for keeping time using your hands while you sing. On the tabla, taali beats are played with a resonating effect, while khaali beats are played with a dry or metallic sound.

Strung together, the different types of beats give texture and accentuation to the taal pattern as well as providing aural clues as to which part of the taal cycle is currently being played, which is important to keep track of so that you can return to the sam correctly on the correct syllable.

Tabla Improvisation and Compositions

The standard theka of a taal is only its simplest version. There is usually a lot of variation within the framework of the theka in many scenarios. At very slow tempos, for instance, you will hear detailed versions of the same taal as the tabla player improvises to fill in the long gaps between the beats.

But even at faster tempos, it is common for the tabla player to improvise variations on the standard theka to make the performance more exciting and to better bring out the rhythmic beauty of a raga composition.

Also, though taal mostly plays a supporting role to melody in Indian classical music, it can stand by itself too. There are tabla solo performances where complex tabla compositions built on the framework of existing taal patterns are presented against the backdrop of a simple repetitive melody called lehra. Short tabla solos are also often incorporated into raga performances, during which the main artist steps back and takes on a supporting role by repeatedly playing or singing a single line of melody against which a tabla composition can be presented.

Zakhir Hussein (tabla)

Tempo (laya)

The tempo of the music is called laya. Hindustani classical music performances start out at extremely slow tempos (as slow as 15 beats per minute), gradually increase in tempo over the duration of an hour or more, and culminate at rapid tempos of over 400 bpm.

Performances are usually divided into several sections, and there is often a perceptible increase in tempo as you finish one section and begin the next, but even within sections, there is always a gradual increase in tempo, so it is never feasible to talk about the tempo of a composition in precise terms. Only vague descriptors are used, such as very slow (ati vilambit), slow (vilambit), medium (madhya), lively (drut), and rapid (ati drut). 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 quite an interesting percussion instrument because of the different kinds of sounds it can make, and its ability to be melodically tuned to different pitches. 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.