Tabla is one of the most well-known instruments of Hindustani Classical Music. It is said that drums originated as early as 6 to 7th century AD. In the Pushkaras depictions in the Ajanta sculptures, one can see drums in musical performance.
Tabla has significant place in the world of Indian Classical Music since every musician regardless of the dancers, singers or instrumentalists are incomplete without its musical presentation.
As per the legends, the renowned 13th century musician and Sufi mystic Amir Khusrau broke a mridanga (pakhawaj) in two parts and said “Toda tab bhi bola!’ (That means it broke yet spoke!). Though it is a fun story to listen, there are no works of Khusrau’s to back this claim.
The tabla is essentially two drums played by the same musician. Both drums have multiple skins onto which a fine-tuning paste, or siyahi (mixture of boiled rice, manganese dust, and iron fillings), is added to help produce the extensive variation of tones these drums can create.
The ‘Tabla’ instrument consists of two drums, called as bayan (played on left side) and dayan (played on right side). It is as per the hand they are most frequently played with. The drums comprise of a sheet of goatskin hard-pressed over a metal or earthen vessel. The right vessels are formed in a different way, with the right being narrow and more cylinder-shaped.
The bayan is bigger of the two drums and is usually made of metal or pottery. The siyahion in the bayan is asymmetrical, which allows the artist to add adjustable pressure on the skin, altering the pitch of the table with the palm of his/her hand whereas striking it with the fingertips. The smaller drum is known as the dayan, or at most of the times referred to as the tabla. Dayan is usually formed of heavy lathe-turned rosewood and deliver much upper pitch sounds as compared to the bayan.
The tabla is played both as a solo and an accompanying instrument. Interestingly, it is used as an accompaniment for khayal and thumri music. There are various styles of performing with the tabla. They are called as gharanas, and there are 6 major ones- entitled after the places from where they were created. These are: Farrukhabad, Punjab, Delhi, Agra, Benares and Ajrara. The gharanas vary in the technique utilized to play and the collections.
Tabla has a light and smooth sound. Hence, it is well-matched for accompanying khayal, thumri and various other soft instruments like sarod, sarangi and sitar. Dayan can be tuned precisely, but bayan has an unlimited pitch. It can be tuned precisely to an octave lesser than tabla. The drums are kept vertical on the ground and played with the fingers. Tabla has an extremely developed technique of playing. This instrument is proficient of producing almost all the arrays of rhythms that a artist can conceive of.
Eminent artists such as Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pandit Kalinath Mishra have made tabla famous around the world.