Since the New Year, I have taken several tabla lessons with Chandran. It has been a real treat to learn how to play this drum – although I will be the first to admit that I do not “know” how to play the tabla, as it takes years of studying even to begin to understand the instrument. The tabla is my favorite percussion instrument (for reasons I will get to in another post); in short, I have always been fascinated by the sound of the drum and seemingly infinite possibilities of rhythms of the drum.
I must admit that one of the most basic elements of playing the tabla, the positioning of the body, is very difficult for me. When I practice with Chandran, it can only be for about thirty minutes or so before I need to stretch my legs. Because in Western society children are taught to sit in chairs, and not on the ground, we grow up with a different capacity of flexibility than most Indians. For many people, Eastern or Western, this is not a big deal; but for those who know me, I have very long legs and extensive cross-legged sitting can be a problem for me! Oh well…
The coordination of the various finger positioning and moments is a tremendous challenge, to say the least. A true student of the tabla spends countless hours every day to perfect the mechanics of playing the tabla. Being that I understand the complexity of the training, I do not let myself get overwhelmed when I struggle to play something correctly. Further, like all instruments, tabla is best played with a clear mind.
As I have written in an earlier post, the different finger strokes, called bols, each produce a unique sound. There are eleven “main” bols; although, I only know of about half of them (I would never claim to truly “know” any bol). Each bol (finger stroke) can be played on a different part of the drum; so there are a multitude of combinations of sounds that can be made. There are three parts of the drumhead that are played: the edge of tabla (called the kinar), the interior white portion of the head (called the chantii) and the black circle in the middle of the head (called the siyahi). The pitch of the drum is highest on the edge of the drum.
Since my first lesson, Chandran always has asserted that to get the proper tone out of the drum, the bol (the finger stroke) must be done as quickly and tightly as possible. Your finger must never rest on the head of the drum. “It is like you are touching fire,” Chandran has told me. “Or like [the movement of] a snake.” It can be very strenuous to always have the fingers hovering above the drum without any support.
View of Marina Beach from Chandran's house.
In another life, I would love to dedicate forty-plus hours a week to study the tabla. The paradoxically “gift and curse” element of the tabla is that because, in my opinion, it the most expansive and complicated percussion instrument, it does sound the best; nevertheless, the tabla requires an unprecedented level of dedication just to play it on an elementary level and get the proper sounds out of the drums. I know that when I get back to New York, I will be practicing tabla when I can; yet, I do wish I could really learn how to play this instrument. That being said, I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to learn more about the tabla.
I will post more videos when I can.
Kalai with parrot