A publication of the Batish Institute of Indian Music and Fine Arts

Tabla Lesson #4

by Ashwin Batish

Before I continue with this lesson, I had a good question from one of our readers. I'd like to address his concerns here.


Hi. I am trying to learn the tabla at the relatively advanced age of 53. I have a good teacher and everything is going well except that I have trouble sitting on the floor for any length of time without pain. In your experience, will this get better with time, or should I save myself a lot of trouble and move to a table. This might be a good note for your excellent lesson series.

Thank you for your question. I'll be putting this info up on my next Tabla Lesson in RagaNet.

First let me say that the following suggestions are given with my utmost respects to your teacher and his view point. His recommendations are what's normal to any tabla training. But your situation calls for different measures. So here's what you might like to look into....

Many Western students have this problem and it can be distracting from the learning process.

In India, this habit is adopted for no other reason but because our life style is such that everything is floor level. This is viewed upon as a tradition and hence students find themselves under pressure to conform. Not that I'm against this way of sitting. It is my prefered position of playing the tabla. But I like to think that if there is phisical limitation and there is another way that's more comfortable and does not hinder your learning process.... go for it! Since tradition in the West is towards sitting up on chairs and platforms this also conforms well to performance and practice.

There are different floor level positions for playing Tabla. Let me try covering the most popular.

Many women tabla players are actually encouraged to sit with both legs turned to one side or kneeling as the Japanese do. This probably has something to do with cultural norms. Men are encouraged to sit cross legged or on their knees as the Japanese. As an alternate, I recommend this kneeling position. It also tends to give you some height over the Tabla hence allowing you to strike more boldly. You might try putting a pillow between your heels and your buttocks. This will allow you to sit for extended lengths of time. If you have knee problems, you might look into knee pads. A lot of builders use these for relief.

The issue is, if you are planning to play with another musician, how are they seated? Because, it can be a visual distraction to not be at the same level as other artists you are accompanying.

I have often seen tabla players, especially in recording studios, in India, place their drums on a platform (sometimes this would simply be a pair or chairs) and play sitting on another chair. This works in this situation because all the musicians are being recorded, so visuals are not an issue. But this can be designed to look pleasing in a concert situation.

I am currently working on designing my own tabla holders made out of cast iron. The Tablas fits perfectly on the rings and you can play your drums standing up! Boy that's going to give some traditionalists nightmares!

I hope these suggestion are of some help. Thanks for subscribing to RagaNet. Please tell your friends about it.

Best Wishes,

Ashwin Batish

OK. Back to the regular lessons. In the last lesson I talked about the Tabla paraphenelia. At the end of the lesson I mentioned I'd discuss the various head sizes of the Tabla and their tuning range. This is an important issue.

Of the two drums in the set, the tabla (treble drum) is tuned. The dagga (bass drum) is tunable but the one size (9 to 9 1/2 inches diameter) is standard and works for most situations.

This tabla tuning range is determined by the diameter of the head. This ranges from four and a half inches in diameter to about 6 inches in diameter. The smaller the head the higher the pitch you can tune it to. Also the thinner the syahi chances are that you can tune that head higher. It might not resonate as much as if you had a thicker layer. The thinner layered heads are usually installed on the barrel shaped drum called "Naal". The higher pitch can be addicting :-)

So, in buying your tabla set, always think ahead about where you plan to tune your drums. What application do you anticipate. To many of you this might be a non-issue while you are learning to play this drum. But believe me, as soon as you are in the company of other musicians you will have to tune your drums other wise they'll sound horribly out of tune with the rest of the musicians.

It would be ideal to own more than the one tabla. But this is a luxury not many can afford. I would recommend you get a five inch diameter head size. This can be tuned from a low pitch of G to a high pitch of C# or even D in some cases. But if you do take it this high, always loosen it back down or it might rip the head. Weather extremes are usually the danger in such situations.

As suggest by someone on a newsgroup I was browsing, it would be worth pursuing a tabla head designed out of synthetic materials like glasswool (or other such material) instead of the traditional animal skin. The tablas with the "metal hook pudi holders" would seem ideal for this project. But someone has to weave the pudi as in the traditional manner and install the syahi. The only ones that I know of, live in India :-) The advantage of this would be the uniformity of the material and its indifference to weather related problems. Somethings wouldn't change like water would still disolve the syahi and damage the head permanently.

Here are some tuning ranges fro various head diameters. Caution is advised. If the head is too old it might still split. These suggestions are given for a brand new head or one in reasonably good shape.

4.75 inches D - E flat above middle C
5 inches B flat below middle C - C# above middle C
5.50 inches G below middle C - A (below middle C)
6 inches C an octave below middle C - F below middle C

At anytime if you find you tabla sounding weird back off from the tuning process and analyse what's happening before you go further.

The larger and lower pitched heads sound more like a mridangam. These are used mainly for somber vocal music. They sound very majestic. The smaller higher pitched ones are used in light classical and popular music.

Ashwin Batish

Some exciting new Tabla Video Tutors are now available. Mr. Ashwin Batish is the instructor. He covers a lot of ground. The beauty of learning through video are the visuals - it's just like having the teacher there! And, you can freeze frame, rewind, or fast forward an many times as you like! For the cost of a lesson you can now own the lesson on video!


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