The Importance of Sound Production on Tabla

Rahul Bhattacharya (also known as Saby Bhattacharya) is an accomplished sarod player living  in Melbourne. He blogs about sarod at sarod.com.au. One of his posts concerns the importance of ‘sound production’ on the sarod:

Sound Production on the Sarod: Some Perspectives

Saby and I have discussed this topic in person on several occasions. I thought it would it be interesting to share some of my thoughts on this subject in relation to tabla.

Sound production (the art of producing sound) on Indian instruments is a life-long journey. Be it tabla, sitar, sarod or any other instrument, the structure of the instruments is such that they are highly sensitive to the touch of an individual, creating great possibilities for musical expression. Just to get a basic sound “na” out of a tabla, for example, can take a beginner months to get right. It is not an instrument that one can pick up and immediately start banging away on. Much time and effort is needed even to produce the basic sounds. And it is then a never ending process to constantly refine one’s sound – playing articulately, with clarity, adequate volume, accentuating certain phrases and so on and so forth.

As one matures as a tabla player, the basic sounds such as “na”, “tite” or “tirakita” ought to be consistently improved and refined. One does not need to listen to a long tabla solo to distinguish a great tabla player from a lesser one, even the “na” or “dha” of a great tabla player can be distinguished from that of a less experienced player. Saby’s post mentions the concept of a “musician’s touch”. This can perhaps also be referred to as a “master’s touch”.

Sound production on the baya (bass drum) by itself has significant potential for exploration by a tabla player. Whereas on the dayan (treble drum) one is in general producing ‘discrete’ or individual sounds, on the bayan one is producing ‘continuous’ sounds. There is therefore a lot of potential to explore modulations of the bayan sound, usually using pressure from the heel of the palm, occasionally by sliding the hand across the face of the drum, or a combination of both. Some players (e.g. Zakir Hussain) have even been known to produce actual melodies from the bayan. There is a tendency amongst some players to go a little “overboard” with their bayan playing to a point where it can become a little distracting, care should be taken not to play loudly or aggressively just for the sake of doing so.

It may be worth mentioning that the bayan is a differentiating factor for the tabla, not only from other global percussion instruments but even from other Indian percussion instruments such as pakhawaj, mridangam etc. None of these instruments features a separate bass drum whose sound can be modulated. It is therefore well worth reflecting on and developing this aspect of one’s tabla playing.

Obviously there is a matter of personal taste involved and also some stylistic differences between individuals and gharana lineages, however in general, the ideal is a balanced sound that is as close a reflection as possible of spoken tabla bols. With an excellent balance between the right and left hands.

Very few artists reach this vaunted goal. Like any other aspect of one’s tabla playing, sound production is something that one needs to work on deliberately and consciously. Taking care to ensure clarity is maintained even at higher speed.

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