Versatile vibrations: how the tabla can mimic anything

The tabla is unquestionably one the world’s most versatile percussion instruments. Like the classical dance traditions it has been associated with for centuries, it blends abstract mathematical tension with the immediate, childlike joys of quick movements, conjuring an amazing array of visceral sound textures in this mission. 

Juxtapositions like these have a long history in Indian culture. For just one example, Kathak choreographers combine the cerebral and the playful, balancing mime-like expressional movements (abhinaya) with those that embody ‘pure form’ (nritta) – dancers may mimic the divine rage of a many-armed demon, then turn to the abstract worlds of mathematical structure. 

Similarly, a tabla player will draw from the dense arithmetic of the kayda improvisation system before having fun by impersonating the sounds of the world around us. Watch Ustad Zakir Hussain draw a few ‘rhythm sketches’ over the 16-beat tintal cycle  – a cannon, a deer looking for food, and a steam train:

In the past, this mode of performances served to inform as well as to entertain. In particular, the rela (‘rushing’) category of the tabla repertoire acted as a sort of ‘recording’ quasi-technology, explicitly aiming to capture the sounds of the Colonial railways among various other phenomena. Many compositions were written that mimicked the strange sounds of the machines as they spread across North India – the first tracks were laid in the 1850s, but recorded sound would not properly spread across India for another couple of generations.

In fact, you could make the case that recorded, played-back sound took a long time to get anywhere near the tabla’s vividly acoustic colour palette, free of record crackle and microphone approximations. In any case, why not choose to convey the actual movement of a steam train with a living, breathing, moving tabla player, visibly manipulating rapid, explosive sequences of clicks, snaps, and booms in front of you? It doesn’t stop there either – watch Zakir have a go at some horse sounds (I guess this is the ‘oldskool’ version of his train impression)…

● Read nextHow did a teenage Zakir Hussain end up living on the Grateful Dead’s ranch?


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