Posture and technique for good tabla playing 

The below video clip of my guru Pt Abhijit Banerjee illustrates a good example of ideal posture and technique for tabla playing:

The angle of the video clearly shows that Panditji’s left shoulder is doing a lot of the work when playing the bayan. This is an important point. Many beginners struggle to get good volume and tone out of their bayan. One of the reasons for this is the incorrect assumption that tabla is played with fingers and hands alone – this is not true. 

Fingers and hands alone do not have much strength and power. For good tabla playing the ideal technique is to use the muscles of the back and shoulders to generate most of the power, which is transmitted by the fingers and hands to the drum. 

If one watches and observes Panditji’s movements closely one can see his shoulders (and ultimately the muscles of the upper and lower back) are generating most of the force and power. By contrast, the fingers and hands are relatively relaxed. 

One can also note the overall solidity and steadiness of his seated posture. There is very little extraneous movement when he plays – only the arms and shoulders are moving. This is another core principle of good tabla playing – efficiency. Making the minimum movements required to play the strokes, while generating maximum power by use of the shoulders and back. 

(Would like to acknowledge my guru-bhai Farid for posting the above video to YouTube)

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Taking the slack out of your drum

Great instructional video by Ty Burhoe showing how to take the slack out of your drum: 

Learning how to perform these basic maintenance tasks is essential for any tabla player. 

Pandit Sankha Chatterjee

Pandit Sankha Chatterjee is a very senior tabla player, currently in his 80s, who had the distinction of being the disciple of both Ustad Karamatullah Khan and Ustad Masit Khan of the Farrukabad gharana, as well as Ustad Alla Rakha of Punjab gharana. 

In a series of 3 videos, he has shared a lifetime of wisdom and experience regarding music and tabla, which are well worth watching:

Video 1:

Video 2:

Video 3:

He has a very engaging and humorous style and discusses a range of topics from the traditional way of teaching tabla, the differences between gharanas, tips for good tabla accompaniment and many others. 

The 3 types of Tabla players, according to Utd Ahmedjan Thirakwa

Some time ago I came across a video on YouTube of a Professor Sudhir Varma and a few of his companions reminiscing about Ustad Ahmedjan Thirakwa. The video contains several interesting and amusing anecdotes about the life and character of Thirakwa-saheb, unfortunately it is all in Hindi and there are no sub-titles. 

However, one of the interesting tidbits from this video is the description of 3 types of tabla players by Ustad Ahmedjan Thirakwa. To paraphrase the quote: 

“When I was a young man, there used to be tabla players. However, nowadays there seem to be three types: Tabliya (tabla players), Hatheliya and Hisabiya!” 

This is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek observation by Ustadji. What he means by this is that in the modern era, in addition to Tabliya (tabla players), there are also: 

  • Hatheliya (“hard hitters”) – those who hit the tabla extremely hard, play at excessive volume and/or at excessive speed 
  • Hisabiya (“calculators”) – those who are obsessed with mathematical calculation, complex tihais and the like 

What is interesting about this is that Ustadji feels that the latter two categories are detrimental developments in the art of tabla playing. Playing with excessive force and volume is frowned upon by him, as is overzealous mathematical calculation. 

I was personally quite surprised to learn that the older generation of tabla players were, apparently, not enamoured with mathematical complexity, as this is nowadays a commonplace feature of tabla playing, perhaps most notably exemplified by Ustad Alla Rakha and his sons and disciples. 

Reflecting on this, my conclusion is that Thirakwa-saheb and his contemporaries felt that the “effect” of good tabla playing upon the listener is ultimately subtle, which is more important than dazzling listeners with ear-splitting volume or mind-boggling mathematical calculation. It can be noted that one doesn’t hear long and complex tihais, which are often pre-rehearsed, in Thirakwa-saheb’s tabla. 

I think there is probably a useful parallel to be drawn with Hindustani vocal or instrumental music. Here also we see many performers attempting to dazzle audiences with long and drawn out taans, arriving at the sam in spectacular fashion, or in some cases singing at excessively loud volume etc. Yet the important thing is (or should be) the effect on the listener, which is generally achieved through gradual and careful elaboration of the raga, staying in sur etc. 

Thirakwa-saheb was well-known to be steeped in not only tabla but also in vocal music, one can often hear him singing along to the lehra in his tabla solo recordings. Therefore one can expect that he brought the ethos of raga and vocal music into his tabla playing: gradual and careful elaboration, staying in sur and creating a subtly enchanting effect upon the listener, rather than attempting to overpower them with forceful playing. 

That said, it’s perhaps also worth pointing out the flip side: in the modern, commercial era without the benefit of state or royal sponsorship, musicians (including classical musicians) have had to cater to the tastes of the mass audience out of necessity. No one has done this better than Zakir Hussain, who greatly popularised tabla playing and brought it to the attention of the masses. So we must give credit where credit is due. 

For those of us (I include myself in this category) who are interested in looking beyond just mass appeal, however, it can be helpful to look to the stalwarts of the older generation such as Thirakwa-saheb for inspiration and guidance on the traditional form and essence of classical tabla playing. 

Different types of tabla

Deviating from the usual themes of gharana, composition and practice – I thought I would write a bit about the various types of tabla I have, how I came to own them, and a bit about the characteristics of different tabla makers.

First off, it’s probably worth pointing out that sourcing a good set of tabla is a difficult task. There are a number of different makers in all of the various cities of India – finding which ones are good, being able to source a quality instrument from them, not getting ripped off; and then finding a tabla that sounds good, looks good, and stays in tune – these are all the challenges a tabla player faces. Particularly for those living outside India.

Finding a quality tabla maker

Although the “style” of tabla (e.g. Bombay vs Calcutta) seems to boil down mainly to a matter of personal preference and habit, there is no doubt that sourcing an instrument from one of the top tabla makers is highly recommended if at all possible. It takes some effort to work out who the good makers are, and even then one is not necessarily guaranteed a good instrument – there is a risk of getting ripped off especially if you are a beginner, from abroad, or both. An introduction by one’s teacher, fellow student or fellow tabla player is usually the best approach.

Tabla, along with all the other instruments used in India, is still very much a hand made, highly specialised craft done on a small scale. Therefore, a good tabla maker who knows what they are doing, uses quality material and – ideally – actually cares about creating a high quality product is ideal. In my experience there are a handful of stand-out tabla makers / craftsmen across India, whom I’ll list below:

Kolkata

  • Narayan Badya Bhandar (Shyamal Das)
  • Rhythm Tabla Shop (Mukta Das)
  • Badya Niketan

Calcutta / Kolkata has produced some of the most outstanding tabla players of the current generation (Anindo Chatterjee, Swapan Chaudhari and many others) and also happens to produce extremely high quality tabla – known for thinner skins and a sweeter sound than Mumbai drums (more on this below). The three makers listed above are the ones I know of that have the best reputation. I have personally been to Shyamal Das’s shop on Rakhal Das Auddy Road and have sourced a number of my drums from him. Shyamal was a very quiet, dignified man who struck me as being the quintessential master craftsman more interested in creating a quality product than in producing for the mass market to make money.

I don’t have direct experience of Mukta Das’s drums but he’s probably the most popular of the Kolkata makers today – I’ve seen his drums used by several big name tabla players, most notably Swapan Chaudhari.

A couple of big name tabla players use Badya Niketan’s drums (most notably Subhankar Banerjee) and he seems to have a reputation for making good bayans in particular. Beyond that I don’t have much knowledge of or first-hand experience of Badya Niketan.

In general, my impression is that the Calcutta makers are fine craftsmen who generally make a quality product. The drums sound great but are reputed to not be as durable as the Mumbai drums – this is the only downside.

Mumbai / Pune

  • Haridas Vhatkar
  • Vishnu Sutar
  • Somnath Kakade / Bharat Kakade

I feel like I am missing a couple of names from this list, however these are the makers that come to mind when thinking of Mumbai / Pune.

Haridas Vhatkar is arguably the most famous tabla maker in the world due to his patronage for nearly half a century by the great Ustad Zakir Hussain, and Ustad Allah Rakha before that. Even Pandit Anindo Chatterjee, despite being from Calcutta, was using Haridas Vhaktar made tabla for a long time. While I have no direct experience of Haridas Vhatkar drums, their reputation precedes them. Clarity of tone, durability, tunefulness (staying consitently and evenly in tune is one of the hallmarks of a well-made tabla, and one of the reasons to buy from a good maker) are all top notch. They are expensive though and there is a long waiting list to get one.

Vishnu Sutar seems to be a hidden gem among the tabla craftsmen of Maharashtra. While not as famous a name as Haridas Vhatkar, I’ve heard rave reviews of his drums from friends who’ve played them, and at least one well-known Mumbai tabla player (Aneesh Pradhan) uses his drums exclusively.

Somnath Kakade is a young and upcoming tabla maker based in Pune who has created a very good name for himself in just a few years. I have personally bought drums and skins from Somnath on a few occasions (for myself as a well as friends and students) and I can recommend him highly. The quality and tone of his bayan (and bayan skins) is particularly noteworthy. After I played one of his bayans I immediately switched all my bayans to Somnath skins. His dayan are probably not quite as good as someone like Haridas Vhatkar’s but still of very high quality and much easier to get hold of. Somnath is also personally very easy to deal with. Pt Anindo Chatterjee and his son Anubrata Chatterjee are mostly playing Somnath Kakade made tabla these days.

Delhi

While I have no direct experience of the Delhi tabla makers (save a relatively obscure one called Mansoor Khan from whom I bought my first drums), these are the ones that I know of that have the best reputation:

  • Qasim Niyazi Tabla Maker
  • Gullu Tabla Maker

Delhi style tabla are probably mostly similar to Mumbai style, although with slightly softer skins if I’m not mistaken. My initial set of tabla were from Delhi, however over time I’ve come to prefer Calcutta style tabla and for bayan I’m using Somnath’s skins. Although the quality of the instruments from the above makers will be good, an unfortunate reality of the Delhi tabla makers is that dealing with them is often not easy (e.g. price rip-offs) and it’s probably best to go through a trusted third party…

Hyderabad

There is one famous tabla maker in Hyderabad known as Akbar Miya. He seems to have a good reputation, or did at one time at any rate, as the original Akbar Miya has long since passed away and the shop is now being run by his sons and grandsons. Although the quality of their instruments is known to be good, I don’t have immediate experience of playing them. I did try and procure a new skin for one of my dayans recently from Akbar Miya – however it was difficult to get them to ship it abroad. Although I was quite keen to try one of their skins, due to logistical difficulties I’ll probably end up sourcing one from Somnath instead, who is much easier to deal with in this respect.

Benares

There are a number of quality tabla makers in Benares… however given that I’m not very familiar with the landscape there I won’t attempt to provide a list as I don’t think I will be able to do it justice. The only Benares tabla maker I have any experience with is Anwar tabla maker, who is the supplier for Tabla Wala online tabla store. 

Different types of tabla: Mumbai vs Calcutta

One of the oft-repeated debates amongst tabla players is “what type of tabla is best?”. In my experience, as long as one has a good quality pair of drums from a quality maker, the style of tabla ultimately makes little difference. I think that really just boils down to personal preference, and whatever you are used to. Mumbai or Pune based tabla players tend to use the tabla from their region. Kolkata based players inevitably use Kolkata style tablas – I don’t think it really matters that much, at the end of the day.

Calcutta tabla have a reputation for long sustain, a “sweet” sound and a “bell like” tone – all of which is true. There is a misconception though that, because they have thinner skins, Calcutta tablas are easier to play than Mumbai or Pune style tabla, as less effort is ostensibly required to make a sound. I have to say that I completely disagree with this view. I have found that Calcutta tabla can in fact be harder to play than Mumbai tabla, for the following reason – because of the sweeter tone and the thinner skins, Calcutta tablas can be less forgiving. Even a minor devitation of finger placement can result in an “off” sound, whereas Mumbai drums are more forgiving in this regard. I personally feel that playing Calcutta style tablas ultimately requires an overall better technique based on my experience of having played both types.

Mumbai style drums have thicker skins and, more importantly, a thicker syahi. Although it is true that a slightly harder hit is required to get a sound out of the “chanti” on a Mumbai drum, I don’t think it is really that significant. Also, because of the thicker syahi, I find it slightly easier to get thick and chunky sounding “Ti Te” and “Tirakita” strokes from Mumbai/Pune style skins. I find overall the Mumbai / Pune drums to be slightly more forgiving of bad technique, one can hit pretty much anywhere on the chanti and still get a good, full sound out of it – not so on on the Calcutta drums.

Mumbai drums do have a reputation for being longer-lasting than Calcutta drums, and this is probably true.

Delhi and Benares style tabla are mostly similar to the Mumbai style with thicker skins and thicker “gab” or “syahi”. Benares have quite thin bayan skins to aid sliding motions of the wrist which are common in Benares style of tabla playing. Benares dayans also tend to be highly resonant with a lot of sustain and a somewhat “piercing” tone. 

The style of drum one likes really just boils down to habit and personal preference at the end of the day. Although it is good to get a quality pair of drums if you can, ultimately, the type of tabla you have is much less important than the depth and intensity of your dedication and practice (“riyaaz”)!

My personal collection

This is a 5 1/2 inch dayan from Shyamal Das in Calcutta. Beautiful mahogany wood and a classic Calcutta style skin. It has a beautiful high pitched tone with matchless sustain and a very pleasant tone. Currently tuned to D.

I do sometimes find that the tone of this drum can be a bit too “trebley”, which can be one of the downsides of a Calcutta style skin. Mumbai style heads tend to offer a more well rounded tone, which can be good particularly on smaller and higher pitched drums like this one. 

That said, this is a very lovely instrument with a beautiful tone.

 

One of my two bayans. This one is currently my favourite and one of the best bayans I have ever played!

The shell is a copper/brass alloy which I originally bought from Delhi around ten years ago. I have replaced the original skin with a skin from Somnath Kakade. Interestingly, although this bayan has a 9 1/4 inch diameter, the skin is slightly oversized at 9 1/2 inch. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with it, but either way, the tone and feel of this bayan is absolutely brilliant. Deep, soulful bass tone with great sustain and very responsive to modulation.


This is one of my more recent acquisitions – I got it late last year from Shyamal Das. I had to wait for around 3 months to get it, but the wait was worth it.

It is a slightly larger head (5 3/4″) tuned to C. I had specifically requested one for C pitch (to accompany sarod), as none of my other drums seemed to sound good in C.

Like my other drum from Shyamal this is also made of mahogany wood. The skin on this drum is interesting because both the “chanti” and the “gab” feel slightly thicker than I’m used to for Calcutta drums. It gives a nice, mature tone that is very well-balanced. Nice sustain without being too “trebley”.

 

This is a recent acquisition of mine from someone selling an old pair on tabla from Gumtree. I was attracted to this tabla as soon as I picked it up – the woody is heavy and thick, which is something I like. The original maker was Akbar Miya from Hyderabad, based on the sticker on the shell, however the skin is a Benares skin (5 1/2″ dayan, tuned to C#).

Although I was attracted to the sweet and high-pitched tone of this drum at first, after playing it for a while I found the tone of his drum to be a bit “hard edged”, compared to the relatively softer tone of the Calcutta drums I’m now used to. Given also that the syahi is starting to look a bit weathered, I’m probably going to replace the skin soon. 


This is one of the awesomest tablas in my collection. It has a larger size head (6+ inches) currently tuned to A# – this pitch is mainly used to accompany female vocals. Every serious tabla player should have at least one larger size tabla like this in their collection. The larger heads are very good to practice on to build hand strength, and the deeper tone is also a nice contrast to the smaller, high pitched drums that we usually hear. Pakhawaj bols like “TiTe Kata Gadi Gana” are very good to play on this drum. I originally bought this years ago from someone who had brought it from Mumbai. It has a very nice, sturdy and thick wooden shell. I had the original skin replaced by Shyamal Das when I visited Calcutta in December 2015. Beautiful drum with wonderful, deep and austere tone, that gives a hint of pakhawaj tone. 

An interesting drum (5 3/4″) with a tone that sounds gorgeous at times and at other times a bit “piercing” which can be a little off-putting. First of all this drum has the heaviest (by far) shell of any dayan I have ever seen! It is an immensely heavy shell of “pure shisham” wood. This type of wood is now no longer available in India as the tree is endangered and commercial sales have been banned.

Unfortunately, due probably to a lack of care by the original maker, the drum’s shell is not perfectly circular, meaning that the skin will never sound quite “right” and will have trouble staying in tune. This too has had the original skin replaced by Shyamal Das. The skin is nice and thick for a Calcutta skin, however I wish the gab were a bit thicker – this drum has almost “too much” sustain, so much so that it rings in the ear a bit. There are times I really enjoy playing this drum though, as it has a unique tone and unique feel. I will probably get the skin replaced eventually, ideally by one of the Mumbai makers, as I think a Mumbai style skin would better suit this drum. 

And last but not least, the second of my two bayans. I bought it from Shyamal Das in December 2015, however I was never a fan of the original skin. There is something about the tone of Calcutta style bayans, they can sometimes sound a bit “shallow” compared to the Mumbai/Pune style bayans. I have replaced the skin with one from Somnath, which sounds much better.

For some reason I’ve had trouble keeping this skin in tune evenly all around the drum, which is unusual as tuning is not normally a problem on bayans.

This is a good bayan with a good sound, but I must say my other bayan sounds particularly good. This is now my “backup” bayan. It’s also slightly smaller than the other one, so if space is an issue I usually carry this.

Hope you have enjoyed reading about the different types of tabla drums, the various makers and the overview of my personal collection. 

Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.