history: origin and development
Tabla, although relatively young compared to the history of Indian Classical Music, has gone through various phases of development in the past few hundred years. Even though it is new, we don't have enough evidence and proper documents to confidently pinpoint its origin or how it was invented. There are many theories regarding the origin of tabla.
1. Reference to Bharat Muni’s Natyashastra: There is an instrument mentioned in Sage Bharat Muni’s Natyashastra called tripushkar. Tri means three. Pushkar means blue lotus.The concept of this instrument probably existed after rain droplets were observed, which made a sound after hitting the pushkar (blue lotus) leaves. There are 3 components to it:
Urdhwak - Urdhwak means upright. This instrument was kept perpendicular on the floor.
Aalingya -Aalingya means hug. This instrument was tied with a strap and worn around the neck.
Ankik - Ank means thigh. This instrument was kept in the lap. Of these 3 the aalingya faded away because of its awkward position and what remained was the tabla.
2. Reference to Vedas / Bhoomi-Dundubhi: There is an instrument called bhoomi-dundubhi; bhumi means earth and dundubhi means percussion. People in ancient times attempted to stretch animal skin on earth and hit it with sticks or danced on it to produce sounds, which may be the origin of all percussion instruments including tabla.
3. Lala Bhawanidas Pakhawaaji: There was a maestro called Lala Bhawanidas Pakhawaaji. He was a court maestro for an empire. Lala Bhawanidas Pakhawaaji lost a pakhwaaj competition (which was like a war and hence called dangal), and in anger threw the pakhawaaj on the floor. The pakhawaaj broke in two pieces. As the instrument was worshiped and it was an offense to break it, Lala Bhawanidas felt guilty. As a result, he tried to tape it back. The resulting instruments sounded totally different. One was called tabla and the other dagga. “toda tab bhi bola... is liye tabla" (the instrument made a sound even after breaking).
4. In Middle East: In Sumerian and Babylonian scripts, the word "balag" refers to percussion. There were instruments called tabal baladi, tabal turkey, tabal jang, tabal sami, tabal mirgi, etc. During war, they used to put two instruments on the back of a camel in order to increase the energy and morale of warriors and to motivate them. They played such instruments using sticks. The resemblance of such terms and the word "tabla" indicates a trace back to the origin of tabla.
5. Amir Khusro: In the 12th century, Amir Khusro created a plethora of instruments. He also created numerous raags, taals, and more. He was regarded as a very talented and creative musician. Some even say that he is the founder of tabla. In Madanula Mousiqi, a book written by Muhammad Qaram Imam, there is no mention of tabla but the writer gives credit to Amir Khusro of producing 17 taal/thekas, many of which were based on Persian beats (behers). However, in the 16th century during Akbar’s era, Abul Fazal wrote a book called Aaina-e-Akbari, which has no mention of tabla. This hints that tabla was not in existence before that era and is not as ancient as other Indian Classical instruments. Furthermore, the advanced structure of the tabla, namely the shahi, proves that the tabla is not older than a few hundred years.
6. Emperor Muhammad Shah: Emperor Badshah Muhammad Shah II employed Rehmat Khan to play pakhawaaj in his court. His second son was also named Amir Khusro who also used to learn khayal gayaki from Sadarang-Adarang who were the founders of that style.
7. Khayal Gayaki: In the 17th century, khayal gayaki came into existence. Musicians Sadarang-Adarang founded and popularized the style of singing. At that time, pakhawaaj was the only percussion instrument used to accompany dhrupad music, but it had a very robust sound with a heavy bass. The volume and type of sound was not completely suitable for the accompaniment of khayal gayaki, so they wanted an instrument that was more delicate and sonorous to sync with this style of singing. The tabla was created as an apt substitute.
8. Khushro Khan: During the same time frame, it is claimed that another pakhawaaji known as Khushro Khan found tabla for accompaniment of khayal gayaki. The resemblance in the names Amir Khusro and Khushro Khan might be a reason why the credit of discovering tabla is oftentimes given to Amir Khusro.
Development and changes in recent times:
The shahi that was used earlier was a fine powder of iron: mixed from a paste of starch, glue, and water. Nowadays, stones are collected from a river in Ahmedabad, which are abundant in manganese ore. They are crushed into a very fine powder and then the layers of the paste are applied on the pudi. The first layer is applied over a layer of glue, and is sun dried for a couple days. After this layer is dried, consecutive layers are applied, each layer being completely dried with the help of a rubbing stone's friction. A very smooth stone is used for this job, and the water left in the layers is evaporated with the heat that is generated due to the friction. What remains is a dry shahi, which needs to be dried furthermore before the tabla can be used.
Dr. C.V. Raman: A great physicist with a good musical background, he researched and experimented with the physics involved in tabla. He discovered the overtones of tabla and thoroughly analyzed them. He has presented an interesting paper on the nodes and anti-nodes produced after the strikes on tabla and dagga. If the generated frequencies of the instruments with no shahi are compared with that of the instruments with shahi, it is observed that the frequency of the instruments with shahi are almost 20% more than without. The sustenance of the sound is mainly because of the shahi. Instruments with shahi not only can be tuned to a particular note but also help in maintaining and enhancing the musical aspect of presentation, especially during accompaniment. Dr. C.V. Raman also attempted to use monkey skin and nuts and screws to tune the tabla, but this concept did not completely work as the sounds were distorted.
When you pull up the tabla, there is a process of how it should be done. If the tabla's waadi is pulled in an uneven way, there remains no proper balance of the pudi, which can affect how different bols are played. But nowadays, some creative tabla makers have come up with a tabla that can be tuned to 3-4 notes in a shorter duration of time. These tablas are made with double pudis and can be tuned using nuts and bolts by either tightening or loosening them. Today, tabla makers have also come up with a modern synthetic waadi in place of one made of animal hide. In ancient times, the dagga was made up of clay/mud, but tabla makers shifted to using metals such as steel or copper as they are far more durable.
There are many legends about how tabla came into existence, but all critics, musicians, and listeners unanimously agree on it being one of the most sonorous and useful instruments in Indian Classical Music.