Tabla is a pair of drums. It consists of a small right hand drum called dayan and a larger metal one called bayan. The tabla has an interesting construction. The dayan (right hand drum) is almost always made of wood.

Tabla is a pair of drums. It consists of of a small right hand drum called dayan and a larger metal one called bayan.

The tabla has an interesting construction. The dayan (right hand drum) is almost always made of wood. The diameter at the membrane may run from just under five inches to over six inches. The bayan (left hand drum) may be made of iron, aluminium, copper, steel, or clay; yet brass with a nickel or chrome plate is the most common material. Undoubtedly the most striking characteristic of the tabla is the large black spot on each of the playing surfaces. These black spots are a mixture of gum, soot, and iron filings. Their function is to create the bell-like timbre that is characteristic of the instrument.

Tabla: Drums of North India

Tabla is the most famous percussion instrument of North India. It is most commonly used in North Indian classical music, but its versatility in all musical styles has enabled it to become the most popular percussion instrument in all of India. The level of sophistication and tonal beauty it possesses has elevated the instrument to an unmatched status in the world of percussion. Tabla, a set of two drums, is the modern caretaker of an ancient rhythmic tradition that is perhaps 5000 years old in a part of the world that is considered a birthplace of civilization. I began studying tabla with a master teacher fifteen years ago after years of traditional Western percussion studies, and continue to be humbled by the tradition, complexity, and magic that are inherent in this study. I will try to touch on a few aspects that will hopefully illuminate an instrument that for many people is both exotic and fascinating.


The history of classical music in India is considered to be at least 5000 years old as represented by a continuum of musicians passing the music down in the oral tradition. As one of the oldest musical traditions in the world, there are qualities that many feel bridge the gap from the divine aspect of the creation of sound itself to musical expression. The first references to the melodic and rhythmic systems of Indian music are found in the Vedas, a sacred collection of literature in the ancient Sanskrit language dating from 1500 BC. The first mention of ragas (melody) and talas (rhythm) are in the Vedas and these ancient eternal qualities are still used in modern classical music. The original percussion instrument of North Indian classical music was a two-headed barrel-shaped drum called the pakhawaj. The pakhawaj was used to accompany vocalists as well as instrumentalists playing string instruments (vina, sitar) or winds (bansuri bamboo flute). Indian musicians of the 17th and 18th centuries were employed as court musicians, just like their European counterparts of the time. Legend has it that an argument ensued between two pakhawaj players employed by the Moghul court of Mohammed Shah in the early 18th century over a drum competition. The single-barrel drum was chopped in two by an angry sword-carrying drummer named Sidar Khan. Whether that is true or not, modern research suggests that the tabla were invented in the first half of the 18th century (about 1738) by a drummer named Amir Khusru, who was instructed to develop a more subtle and melodic percussion instrument that could accompany the new style of music called Khayal. That style, with tabla accompaniment, is the basis of the modern performances of Indian classical music.

Description of Tabla

The tabla is a set of two drums that are played while sitting on the floor. The larger drum, called Bayan, was originally made from clay, but is now constructed of metal (bras, steel, or copper). The Bayan is considered the bass drum of the set, but there is a tremendous range of expression possible by using certain techniques employed by a skilled drummer. The right-hand drum is called the Dahina, and is made of a seasoned hard wood and hollowed out like the Bayan. Each drum has two layers of goatskin stretched across its top to provide a playing surface. The top layer is cut in a circle around the rim, and the bottom layer stretches across the entire drum. The most unique aspect of tabla construction is the application of an iron and rice paste that is placed in a circle on top of the drum head. That black paste is called the Shyahi and, once it is dried, it allows for sound possibilities that are not found on any other drum in the world. There are goatskin straps to hold the drum heads in place at a very high tension, and tuning blocks on the side of the drums to control the pitch. The Dahina is tuned to the tonic pitch of the composition the instrumentalist or vocalist is performing, while the Bayan is tuned not to a specific pitch, but to one that can easily be modulated to imitate the intricate drum language. Both drums are played with the fingers and sometimes the palm of the hand. Learning tabla requires many years of dedicated lessons with a good teacher and regular, rigorous practice of many hours a day.