Tabla is a classic percussion instrument of North Indian origin incorporating twin hand drums. It is an essential element of North Indian classical music. It has been the primary percussion instrument in Hindustani classical music since the 18th century. Tabla is indeed versatile enough that one can play it solo, with other instruments and voices, or as a part of larger ensembles. 

The term tabla comes from the Arabic word “Tabl”. This means “drum.” Scholars disagree on the musical instrument’s ultimate origin. However, some link it back to indigenous musical instruments of the Indian subcontinent. According to the Indian point of view, tabla comes from an ancient indigenous civilization. Some have claimed that stone sculpture engravings at Bhaja Caves portray a lady playing a pair of drums as proof of the tabla’s ancient Indian origins.

The second version of this idea claims that the tabla emerged from ancient Indian “Puskara” drums. Many temple sculptures, such as those at India’s Muktesvara and Bhuvaneswara temples from the 6th and 7th centuries show evidence of the hand-held “Puskara”. These works of art depict drummers seated with two or three tiny drums in their hands with fingers positioned as if they are playing the drums. However, none of these ancient engravings indicate that the drums were constructed of the same material and skin as the contemporary tabla. Also, that they played the same music.

Structure of Tabla

The tabla contains two single-headed barrel-shaped tiny drums with different sizes and forms for the left and right drums. The left hand is baya and the right hand is daya. The right hand (dominant hand) of the musician plays the daya tabla. It is roughly 15 centimeters (6 in) in diameter and 25 centimeters (10 in) high. The drum is tuned to a certain note in the soloist’s key, generally the tonic, dominant, or subdominant. Therefore it complements the melody.

Gatta is a cylindrical wood block put between the strap and the shell that allows tension to be changed by vertical placement. A tiny, hefty hammer is used to strike vertically on the braided part of the head for fine-tuning. The baya tabla is a somewhat larger and deeper kettledrum-shaped instrument. It has a diameter of approximately 20 centimeters (8 in) and a height of about 25 centimeters (10 in). Its bass tone is significantly deeper, similar to that of its distant relative, the kettle drum.

Many different materials can be useful to construct this. Brass is the most common, copper is the most expensive but it is probably the best, whereas aluminum and steel are the low-cost versions. The baya drum is built and tuned a fifth to an octave lower than the daya drum. During a concert, the musician changes the pitch and tone color of each drum by applying heel pressure to his hand.

Syahi

The Syahi is a central area of “tuning paste” on the head of each drum. Syahi is present in majority of Indian drums. This approach gives these drums their distinct sound by allowing them to create harmonic overtones. Syahi comprises of many layers of a starch paste combined with a black powder of different origins. The alteration of the drum’s natural overtones is due to the precise construction and shape of this area, which results in the clarity of pitch (see inharmonicity) and range of tonal capabilities unique to this instrument with a bell-like sound.