Tabla and Talas

On Indian Tabla and Popular Talas

by Peyman Nasehpour

Introduction. Indo-Persian cultural exchange is a deep field of research. Throughout history, Indian and Persian cultures have influenced each other repeatedly times. In the following, we explore the history and both musical cultures of India and Persia to show their interactions.

The influence of Indian culture on Persian music. It is famous that "Good King "Bahram Gour بهرام گور" of Persia was moved by the laments of his most impoverished subjects. They called for music and wished to celebrate like the rich. Bahram Gour asked his father-in-law, King Shankel of Kanauj, who lived in the high valley of the Ganges, to send twelve thousand musicians. When they arrived, the king provided them with a means of living off the fact of land, giving each a donkey, a cow, and a thousand bushels of wheat. After a year had passed, they appeared before him, starving. They had simply eaten the cows and the wheat. Annoyed, the king advised them to fit their instruments with strings of silk, mount their donkeys, and take to the road - and henceforth earn their living from their music." Perhaps this was the first influence of Indian music on Persian music and in this way, the melodies and musical instruments came to ancient Persia. In the following, we give some examples:

  • In the radif's repertoire of Persian art music, there are some melodies named "Rak-e-Abdollah راک عبدالله", "Rak-e-Kashmir راک کشمیر", and "Rak-e-Hindi راک هندی". Note that the word "rak راک" is an Arabicized of the Indian word "rag راگ" and the "rag" means a musical mode in Indian music. The word "rag" literally means color which should be related to the Persian word, "rang رنگ". The names of the melodies indicate that they should be the Persian version of Indian rags. Also, note that the musical piece "Ramkali رامکلی" in "Dastgah-e-Abu-Ata دستگاه ابوعطا" should be related to the Indian rag "Ramkali" in Hindustani sangeet, i.e., the North Indian classical music. Also, let me add that the musical piece "Danaseri دَناسری" in "Dastgah-e-Homayoun دستگاه همایون" should be related to the Indian rag "Dhanashri".

  • "Dara-ye-Hendi درای هندی" was a kind of metallic percussion instrument from India to be performed in Iran. For example, Hafiz (one of the most famous poets of Persia) says:

چشمِ من در رهِ این قافله‌یِ راه بماند

تا به گوشِ دلم آوازِ درا باز آمد

And this can be translated into English as follows

In the rear of that Kafila, my eye drew much water

Since to my heart's ear, the sound of the bell hath come back

  • In Persian literature, "van ون" is the name of a kind of harp to be played by fingers. In other resources, it is also the name of small cymbals played by fingers (refer to Dehkhoda dictionary). However, as Mehdi Forough reports in his book, the "van" is ascribed to a kind of stringed instrument with two gourd resonators which should be related to the Indian instrument "Rudra veena".

The existence of these Indian musical instruments shows the influence of Indian culture on Persian music.

The influence of Persian culture on North Indian music. It is well known that today there are two systems of Indian music. One system is found in Northern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh which is called the Hindustani sangeet. The Carnatic sangeet is the system found in Southern India. The Hindustani system may be thought of as a mixture of traditional Hindu musical concepts and Persian performance practice. The advent of Islamic rule over Northern India maybe caused the musicians to seek patronage in the courts of the new rules. Several centuries of this arrangement caused Hindu music to absorb musical influences from the Islamic world, primarily greater Persia. In the following, we give a couple of examples to verify what is claimed above:

  • The Indian instrument "sitar" (in Urdu ستار) is very similar to the Kashmiri sitar and both should be influenced by the Persian instrument "setar سه‌تار".

  • Amir Khosro Dehlavi is a Persian-speaking Indian poet and musician. In one of his verses, he brings the expression "tonbak-e-hendi تنبک هندی" which can be translated into "Indian tonbak". Note that tonbak is a Persian goblet-shaped drum. Dehlavi's verse is as follows:

کشیده تنبک هندی، فغانی

شده تنبک زنش، چون ترجمانی

This verse can be translated as follows:

The Indian tonbak has wailed

The tonbak player has become like a translator

  • The excellent study of tabla by Rebecca Stewart (The Tabla in Perspective. Unpublished thesis, UCLA, 1974) has suggested that the Indian tabla was most likely a hybrid resulting from experiments with existing drums such as the Indian barrel-shaped drum "pakhawaj", the Indo-Persian barrel-shaped drum dholak, and the Persian kettledrums "naqqara" (for more, see Persian Kettledrums). The origins of tabla repertoire and technique may be found in all three and in physical structure there are also elements of all three: for example, the smaller pakhawaj head for the dayan, the naqqara kettledrum for the bayan, and the flexible use of the bass of the dholak. Note that the name "tabla طبلا" is derived from the word "tabl طبل" which is a generic term for the drum in the Arabic language.

  • The names of some Indian ragas are most probably of Persian origin. We give some examples: "Amiri امیری", "Bahar بهار", "Bayati بیاتی", "Darbari درباری", "Sarparda سرپرده", and "Shahana شاهانه".

  • In the art of tabla solo performance, there are various forms such as "peshkar" and "kaida". Peshkar is an improvisational composition performed at the beginning of a tabla solo performance at a slow tempo. The word "peshkar پِشکار" is a dialect of the Persian expression "pishkar پیش‌کار" which is a combination of the two words "pish پیش" and "kar کار" meaning "pre" and "work", respectively. The form kaida is a very important form such that itself and its variations follow special rules in the art of improvisation in a tabla solo performance. Note that the word "kaida" is a dialect of the Arabic word "qaida قاعده" which means a "rule".

  • Tarana is a kind of vocal composition in Hindustani sangeet in which certain words such as "tadim" and "yalali" based on Persian phonemes are rendered at a medium or fast tempo. Note that "tarana" is a dialect of the Persian word "taraneh ترانه" which is a technical term meaning a song in Persian music.

Note that because of two historical facts the existence of Persian words in Indian languages is not surprising. On the one hand, many Indian and Persian languages are part of the Indo-European languages. On the other hand, the Persian language was the region's lingua franca and a widely used official language in North India (before British colonization).

Finally, let me add that as Dariush Talai explains in his book Persian art music uses a modal system that provides a set of modal frameworks. This system has much in common with the modal music of this part of the world, where the main musical cultures other than that of the Persians are those of the Turks, the Arabs, and to some extent the Indians.

The recent influence of Indian culture on Persian music. "Abbass Mehrpouya عباس مهرپویا" was an Iranian musician who started his music education by learning the Arabic oud, and later, the guitar in Iran. When he has become a famous pop singer he traveled to India to learn sitar, and later, used sitar and tabla in his fusion music. A couple of Iranians such as Shapoor Rajabi (a student of Pandit Arvind Parikh), Ali Boroujerdi (a student of Ustad Osman Khan), and Dariush Salari (1950-2020) learned sitar and tried to promote Hindustani sangeet in Iran. In recent decades, some musicians like "Massoud Shaari مسعود شعاری", the famous master of setar (Persian long-necked lute) applied the Indian tabla in their albums.

Because of the common history of the Persian and Indian musical cultures and the promotion of the Hindustani sangeet in Iran, it seemed to me necessary to have a brief introduction to tabla and the talas (rhythms).

Tabla. This is a pair of drums. It consists of a small right-hand drum called dayan (literally means right) and a larger metal one called bayan (literally means left). Undoubtedly the most striking characteristic of the tabla is the large black spot (called "siyahi") on each of the playing surfaces. The "siyahi" is a mixture of gum, soot, and iron filings. Its function is to create the bell-like timbre that is characteristic of the instrument. The invention of sitar and tabla and many other things is attributed to an Indian musician and a Persian-speaking poet "Amir Khosro Dehlavi امیرخسرو دهلوی". There is a tendency among Indians to attribute the development of almost everything to him. For more on Indian tabla masters, see Famous Tabla Players.

Tala. In the theory of Indian music, the tala is a framework in time and structured into two or more sections, each having the same or different numbers of beats. The particular arrangement of audible sounds and silence is what defines the unique character of each tala. Since drums are used to maintain the flow of tala in music and dance, as Pandit Alike Dutta explains in his book, the character of tala becomes clear when manifested on a drum. The technical term for this manifestation of tala on a drum is "theka". In the following, I bring the thekas of a couple of talas that I believe can be easily performed in Indo-Persian fusion music.

Dadra. The "Dadra" is in 6 beats divided into 3+3 and its theka is:

Dha Dhi Na, Na Tu Na.

Rupak. The "Rupak" is in 7 beats divided into 3+2+2 and its theka is:

Tin Tin Na, Dhi Na, Dhi Na.

Kaharba. The "Kaharba" is in 8 beats divided into 4+4 and its theka is:

Dha Ge Na Ti, Na Ke Tu Na.

Ektal. The "Ektal" is in 12 beats divided into 3+3+3+3 and its theka is:

Dhin - Dhin - Dha Ge, TeRe KeTe Tun - Na -,

Kat - Ta - Dha Ge, TeRe KeTe Dhin - Na -.

Dipchandi. The "Dipchandi" is in 14 beats divided into 3+4+3+4 and its theka is:

Dha Dhin -, Dha Dha Dhin -, Na Tun -, Dha Dha Dhin -.

All talas in 16 beats are suitable for Persian music, especially the most popular one called "Tintal".

Tintal. The "Tintal" is in 16 beats divided into 4+4+4+4 and its theka is:

Dha Dhin Dhin Dha,

Dha Dhin Dhin Dha,

Dha Tin Tin Na,

Ta Dhin Dhin Dha.

Acknowledgments. In the years between 1997 and 2003, I did research on Indian music, in particular Hindustani sangeet. On this path, Margrith Sengupta, Lakshman Rai, and Pandit Arvind Parikh (master of Indian sitar) helped me and I am grateful to all of them.


[C]: David R. Courtney, Fundamentals of Tabla, Vol. I, Sur Sangeet Services, Houston, 1998.

[DA]: Alian Danielou, The Raga-s of Northern Indian Music, Barrie & Rockliff (Barrie Books Ltd.), London, 1968.

[DU]: Aloke Dutta, Tabla (Lessons and Practice), 2nd Edition, Texas, 1995.

[F]: Mehdi Forough: Modavemat dar Osul-e-Musighi-ye-Iran, Tehran, 1975.

[S]: Mehdi Setayeshgar, Vazhe-Name-ye-Musighi-ye-Iran Zamin, Tehran, Vol. I (1995) & Vol. II (1996).

[T]: Dariush Talai, A New Approach to the Theory of Persian Art Music (The Radif and the Modal System), Mahoor Cultural & Art Publication, Tehran, 1993.