The tabla is a paired drum set played by complicated combinations of hand and finger-strokes and is the most commonly played percussion instrument in the classical music traditions of North India. Today, the tabla and its music is highly popular around the world due to its unique timbre and sophistication and is played by people from all different backgrounds and cultures (Mandaiker, 2016). This essay will briefly explore how the ethnomusicological concepts of spiritually-rooted music and social issues revolving around music apply to the tabla in order to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural context of the tabla and how it has led to its present state today.
The tabla is used in religious and spiritual practices in Sikhism and Sufism, in addition to Hinduism, and is found in its traditional uses today in the northern regions of India, as well as Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan (Tabla, 2018). It believed to have originated from the Indian subcontinent and serves as a core element to the traditional musical practices of Hindustani music in northern India, dating back to at least the 18th century (Kasliwal, 2001). However, as with many instruments that seem traditional to India, there are many different legends and myths surrounding the true origins of the tabla (Mandaiker, 2016).
The most common theory surrounding the origin of the tabla is that it was imported or developed from similar drums brought to the Indian subcontinent by the Muslim Moghuls. This theory uses evidence of other paired drum sets in use by Muslims resembling the modern-day tabla, or a possible splitting of single, barrel-shaped drums, and refers to the fact that the word tabl is the generic word for drum, and is likely were the word tabla derives its name from (Gottlieb, 1). Other theories is that tabla is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, perhaps derivative of the puskara, but later given a Arab name during Muslim rule. This theory uses recent findings of the ancient cave carvings depicting tabla-like drums dating back to the 6th and 7th centuries CE, as well as descriptions in ancient Hindu texts of tabla-like drums with their signature paste patches as evidence (Tabla, 2018). It is used in religious contexts during bhatki practices, such as bhajan and kirtan singing, in Hinduism and Sikhism, and is also a prominent instrument in the spiritual/mystic traditions of the Sufi Muslim musicians of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (“Tabla”, 2018). The various rhythmic frameworks, known as the tala in Indian classical music, can be traced back to ancient Hindu texts and serve as the foundation for the rhythms of the tabla, showing a clear influence of Hinduism.
In Hindu culture, music is viewed as a way of bringing one closer to the Gods, and therefore enlightenment. This is termed nada yoga, or “union” (yoga) through “flow of sound” (nada) (“What is Nada Yoga?”). According to Miles Shrewberry, “the instrument is a pathway to God, so in a sense, removing your shoes signifies both respect and cleanliness to the instrument and what it represents. We also never step over the instrument, much like the Indonesian gamelan, because it is disrespectful to show the bottom of one’s feet toward something as sacred as an instrument” (Emery, 2017). The tabla continues to play an important part of traditional devotional music in South Asia, serving as a bridge between cultures and traditions, similar to the Hindu Jogis on the border of North and South India who are knowledgeable of Muslim traditions and participate in their communities (Viswanathan, 123).
Today, the tabla is performed in Western-style concert settings around the world and is often found fusing many different genres and instruments, as seen in Jungalbandi’s “DrumScape” where many traditional Indian hand drums perform alongside the Western drum-set and electronic hand drums (Percussion Ensemble, 2016). It is also taught at Western Universities throughout the world, using both the traditional bol syllables and Western-style notation. Although the exact origins of the tabla have not been solidified, we can see that its use has been important across many religious and spiritual cultures over the centuries, evolving into a concert instrument performed worldwide, and fusing many musical genres, thereby popularizing tabla around the world.
Analyzing the societal forces and issues that shaped the development of the tabla and its music can give us a far deeper and more complex understanding of it. Issues surrounding class, family structures, gender, and ethnicity and/or race, greatly affect the arts by influencing aspects such as the art’s purpose, patronage systems, educational systems, and culture surrounding the music. In the 18th century, different family groups, called gharanas, emerged as tabla players of the royal courts in the Indian subcontinent that developed specialized techniques and repertoire for playing the tabla that would be orally transmitted to future generations or apprentices. The gharanas are noted as the reason for the development of the tabla into a solo instrument with their orally-transmitted repertoire (Gottlieb, 8). Mnemonic syllables, called bol, were developed in order to sing the rhythms before they are played on the drums, as demonstrated in Bobby Singh’s Ted Talk (Singh, 2010).
There are six main schools of tabla developing from the six main gharanas, each with their own specific bol techniques, who are responsible for the evolution of the tabla as a solo instrument, creating a vast solo repertoire to be orally transmitted as well. During royal patronage, it was deemed important to keep the gharana traditions secret, but today the traditions have been combined to create newer styles and due to evolving lifestyles and training methods, making lineage purity nearly impossible (Mandaiker, 2016). The ancient caste system in India is a hierarchical social stratification system that determines a person’s job from birth until death, and therefore determines who can even be a musician at all (“Caste system in India”).
Traditional gender roles have also played a part in the development of the instrument, its techniques, and repertoire, as men were traditionally the only ones who were instrumentalists and improvisers, and improvisation makes up much of Indian classical and solo music. Women were traditionally vocalists or dancers, or perhaps allowed to play a drone instrument like the tampura. Marriage into the gharanas was encouraged, especially when there was no son to carry on the traditions (Gottlieb, 8). However, these norms have changed, and the caste system is less strict than it once was. More people are able to learn tabla than ever before, including those in Western countries where tabla masters often can be found teaching at Universities. As evidenced, societal factors deeply influence the development of a music and its instruments, as exemplified with the evolution of the tabla.
Tabla playing is based upon ancient Hindu musical systems which are thousands of years old. It is an instrument with Hindu roots, but was also greatly influenced and developed by Muslim culture and traditions. It’s also has been dramatically influenced by the gharanas who orally passed down early tabla techniques and developed it into a solo instrument with its own repertoire. The caste system and traditional gender roles also have impacted how the tabla and its music developed over time. The tabla has gained a global audience and attracted new players from all sorts of backgrounds throughout the world by both sharing its beautiful traditions and by fusing them with other kinds of music. By examining tabla through the cultural concepts of spiritually-rooted music and social issues surrounding music, it is clear that the tabla has a very complex, but rich and beautiful history that has deeply impacted the tabla as it is known around the world today.
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