Also:       dahina      dayan      bayan      baya      duggi      

Title: The Genius of Ravi Shankar—Tabla solo in Jhaptal; (tabla player not listed). Label: Sony Music. Format: CD. Catalogue#: A 26498. Track: 3.

Title: Instruments de musique du monde—Tabla (Inde); Chatur Lal, tabla and voice. Label: Le chant du monde. Format: CD. Catalogue#: LDX 274 675. Track: 13.

Contextual Associations

Tabla is a pair of single-head vessel membranophones (individually named tabla, dayan, or dahina for the higher-pitched drum [detail #1], and bayan, baya, or duggi for the lower-pitched one [detail #2]) played as a unit in a variety of North Indian genres. It is the primary drum of Hindustani classical music and is used to accompany both instrumental soloists and vocal soloists in genres such as khyal, thumri, and ghazal. In the classical dance tradition of kathak the tabla is also essential and is performed in a tight rhythmic rapport with the percussive footwork of the dancer. Tabla is also used to accompany devotional music genres such as Hindu bhajan singing and qavvali singing by Muslim sufis. Since the 1930s the tabla has been a mainstay in the studio ensembles for India’s gigantic and popular film industry. Traditionally played by Muslim men who learn the art of tabla playing through membership in stylistic lineages (gharanas), in recent decades there is a greater number of educational options available to non-Muslim students wanting to learn the instrument. Through much of the history of the tabla its performers have been viewed as lower in status than the soloists they accompany. However, in recent decades as Indian performers have toured abroad, tabla performers have come to be viewed more as the artistic equals of their soloists both in India and elsewhere. Two tabla performers in particular, Allauddin Khan and Zakir Hussain, brought the tabla into its own as a solo instrument within Indian classical music and cross-cultural fusion experiments during the 20th century. For some Indians, the two drums that make up the tabla pair carry gender associations, female for the dayan (the high-pitched drum played with the right hand) and male for the bayan (low-pitched drum played with the left hand).


Both of the drums that comprise the tabla have a vessel body/shell with a multiple-membrane drumhead covering its opening. The shell of the bayan is crafted of wood, preferably a variety called bijisar. It has a truncated conical shape, the diameter of the vessel being smaller at the top, membrane-covered end than at its bottom, closed end. The walls of the drum are less than a half-inch thick except for the base, which is thicker. This closed bottom has an integral disc-shaped stem carved at its center about a half-inch high and four inches in diameter; this feature is crucial to its drumhead tension system (detail #3). The head (puri) (detail #4) is made of two layered goatskin membranes, the top one of which has a large hole cut out of its middle. A hoop (gajra), slightly larger in diameter than the opening at the top of the shell, made of plaited rawhide strips is sewn around the double membrane. At the center of the head is a round patch of permanently attached tuning paste made from iron-oxide ash, glue, wheat-flour paste, soot, and copper vitriol (Dick and Sen, p. 495). The head is placed over the shell and a long rawhide lace is threaded around the hoop, down the length of the shell, passes around a counterhoop (gudri) made of rawhide lace that encircles the stem at the base of the shell, and back up the shell (detail #5). This procedure is repeated sixteen times around the hoops to create a V-pattern lacing. Eight short wood dowels (gatta) are place between pairs of laces and the shell for membrane tension control (detail #6). The shell of the bayan drum is bowl-shaped, is made from chrome-plated copper, and has a stubby circular stem at its base that is about a quarter-inch high and three inches in diameter (detail #7). Its head has a diameter about half-again wider than that of the dayan. The details of head design and attachment are basically the same as described above for the dayan with the following differences: no tuning dowels are used, and the tuning paste is located off-center.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The tabla is performed by a single musician seated cross-legged on the floor, the pair of drums resting on padded ring stands in front of him with their heads tilted slightly forward. The wooden dayan (‘right’) drum is to the player’s right and is struck with his right palm and fingers, the bayan (‘left’) drum is to his left and played with his left palm and fingers. The heads are tuned before, and occasionally adjusted during, performance by pounding the drums’ plaited hoops from above or below with a small metal hammer until the they are tuned; the tuning of the dayan is further aided by pounding the gatta dowels up and down the side of the shell. The dayan is tuned to match the tonal center (Sa) selected by the soloist for the performance, the bayan to an optimal tension for the production of the strokes produced on this drum. A skilled musician can produce a great range of pitches and open and damped timbres on the tabla. A student learns, without the aid of written notation, a vast vocabulary of drum ‘compositions’ (rhythmic-timbre phrases) and how to combine them when performing. This learning process is facilitated by a system of mnemonic syllables (bol) that allows them to vocalize drum patterns--in audio #2 clip the drummer first recites a short passage and then plays it on the drums.


India has an expansive history of drums and drumming, but the tabla as pictured and discussed here is of relatively recent origin. This pairing came about probably in the Moghul court of Delhi only in the latter half of the 18th century when the two previously existing drum types were paired. The major stylistic influences on tabla drumming are thought to be the drumming practices of the outdoor military ensemble (naubat) and those of the dholak and pakhavaj drums.

Bibliographic Citations

Dick, Alastair and Devdan Sen. 1984. “Tabla.” NGDMI v.3: 492-497.

Ghosh, Nikhil. 2011. “Tabla.” In The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Music of India. ed. Nikhil Ghosh. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, v.3: 1050-1052.

Miner, Allyn. 2000. "Musical Instruments: Northern Area." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 5. South Asia. ed. Alison Arnold. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., pp. 331-349.

Wade, Bonnie. 1979. Music in India: The Classical Traditions. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: South Asia

Nation: India

Formation: Indo-Aryan

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.11 membranophone--separate vessel drum, the single playing head encloses a body in the form of a vessel that is curvilinear or rectilinear in profile

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: pair of drums

Shell design: vessel with opening

Number and function of membranes: one, for sounding

Membrane design: framed with stiff woven hoop

Membrane attachment: framed membrane hoop laced to smaller-diameter ring counterhoop

Membrane tension control: sliding dowels between lacing and shell

Sounding for membranophone: striking directly with both hands

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


5.5 in. diameter of rim opening (wood drum) 9 in. diameter of rim opening (metal drum)

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin
metal - sheet
lacing - rawhide

Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin