I have been teaching myself to play the Theka of the Ati Vilambit Ektaal (12 beat cycle) in preparation for accompanying the Bada Khayal style of vocal singing.
Ati Vilambit means “extremely slow”. The Bada Khayal movement is an extremely slow, meditative movement which provides the singer the opportunity to explore the raga in an alaap-like fashion, yet provides the structure of a composition.
It is an extremely challenging movement for a tabla player to accompany, due to the very slow speed at which the theka is played. The other challenge stems from the fact that the bols of Ektaal are not as symmetrical as Teentaal. For reference the Ektaal Theka is:
Dhin Dhin DhaGe Tirakita Tun Na | Ka Ta DhaGe Tirakita Dhin Na
Although Ek Taal has 12 beats, in practice, in the Ati Vilambit Theka sub-divides each beat into 4 beats, resulting in a Theka that resembles the following:
Dhin _ _ _ | Dhin _ _ _ | Dha _ Dha _ | Ti Ra Ki Ta | Tin _ _ _ | Na _ _ _
Kat _ _ _ | Tin _ _ _ | Dha _ Dha _ | Ti Ra Ki Ta | Dhin _ _ _ | Dha _ _ _
Keeping a mental count “1 2 3 4” as one is going through the cycle of the theka can help to keep on track. One may notice that the bol Ti Ra Ki Ta corresponds to the count of “1 2 3 4”. Hence the speed at which one plays Ti Ra Ki Ta can be a useful checkpoint for the overall tempo.
Usually a number of additional bols are added to ornament the Theka, which I have not given above, as they are up to the taste and creativity of the individual tabla artist. I recommend listening to recordings of professional tabla players providing accompaniment during a Bada Khayal performance to get ideas on suitable theka ornamentations. After some practice The ornamentations start to become second nature.
Here is a video demonstration by me of how to play Ati Vilambit Ektaal:
A few observations about the Ati Vilambit Ektaal Theka:
- It is much easier to get “lost” within the Ati Vilambit Theka than in Teentaal. First of all, Teentaal is rarely played in as slow a speed as Ati Vilambit Ektaal. Moreover, the structure and bols of Teentaal are much more regular and repetitive than Ektaal.
- A few of the bols of the Theka are changed to suit the slower tempo – in particular the final “Na” is played as “Dha”, in order to make it clear whether we are on the 12th beat and not the 6th beat. Also “DhaGe” is generally played as “Dha _ Dha _”.
- To elaborate on the above point, vocalists can themselves get “lost” in the Ati Vilambit Theka, and rely on cues from the tabla player to keep their place in the cycle. The key seems to be the two “Ti Ra Ki Ta” that appear on beats 4 and 10. If “Ti Ra Ki Ta” is followed by “Tin” this is a cue that we are entering the khali portion of the cycle, whereas if it is followed by “Dhin”, this is a cue that the sam is approaching
- The degree of ornamentation of the Theka appears to be a matter of personal preference. I have heard recordings where tabla players perform a significant amount of ornamentation, sometimes to the extent that one can barely recognize the theka as such! Others perform a more minimal style of ornamentation – which is my personal preference. Aesthetically it seems to better suit the slow and meditative mood of Bada Khayal.
Veteran tabla player Pandit Sankha Chatterjee has commented that it is more difficult to accompany vocals than to accompany instrumental. This is an interesting observation. At first glance, tabla players are typically doing more “interesting” things when they accompany instrumentalists, playing multiple solos, and usually ending with a fast “jhalla” that requires quite a bit of physical dexterity to play well. Whereas with vocal accompaniment they are usually just playing theka most of the time. So Pandit Chatterjee’s observation is interesting, and somewhat non-intuitive.
The reason he offers for this opinion is that even a not-so-good tabla player can accompany an instrumentalist and can still sound good. But to accompany a vocalist you have to have a very crisp, clear theka and to be able to keep a very solid, unwavering tempo. This is harder to do than it may appear. My personal experience somewhat corroborates this, although I think it would also be fair to say that it can be challenging to accompany an instrumentalist as well – one needs a certain depth of material, simply playing theka is not enough – but that being said, I think a tabla player needs to have a certain maturity and emotional depth to properly accompany a classical vocalist.
All this is perhaps brought to a head when accompanying a Bada Khayal performance. The tabla player needs to have a very strong command of the rhythmic cycle in order to keep the Theka. They have to have the sense of how to ornament the Theka, but restrain themselves from over-doing it lest they interfere with the vocal singer’s performance.
Here is an example of a Bada Kheyal in Ati Vilambit Ektaal, tabla accompaniment superbly performed by Pt Swapan Chaudhari:
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