A Quickie on Taals

– Ajay Parasuraman

In Sanskrit, the word ‘taal’ means ‘to strike with palms’. In Tamil, ‘taalam’ means ‘to clap’. In Hindi, the word means ‘beat’ and in Bengali, besides ‘rhythm’ the word ‘taal’ also means ‘sanity’. Taal is the rhythm to which a song/kriti is set in. A Taal’s rhythm repeats its cycle after a fixed period, thus acting as a time counter. A taal does not have a fixed tempo and can be played at different speeds.

In Hindustani classical music a typical recital of a raga falls into two or three parts categorized by the tempo of the music – Vilambit laya (Slow tempo), Madhya laya (Medium tempo) and Drut laya (Fast tempo).
In Carnatic Music, there are five categories of tempo: Chauka kaala (1 stroke per beat), Vilamba kaala (2 strokes per beat), Madhyama kaala (4 beats per beat), Dhuridha kaala (8 strokes per beat), Adi-Dhuridha kaala(16 strokes per beat). In each, the speeds are allowed to vary, but the fundamental rhythms do NOT.

As I have mentioned, the cycle of the Taal will repeat after a certain while. This ‘certain while’ comprises the avartan of the Taal.

Tala: In Carnatic

In Carnatic, each pulse count is called an aksharam or a kriyā, the interval between each being equal, though capable of division into faster matras or svaras, the fundamental unit of time. The tala is defined by the number and arrangement of aksharams inside an avartanam. There are three sub-patterns of beats into which all talas are divided; laghu, dhrutam and anudhrutam.

— A dhrutam is a pattern of 2 beats. This is notated as ‘O’.

— An anudhrutam is a single beat, notated as ‘U’.

— A laghu is a pattern with a variable number of beats, 3, 4, 5, 7 or 9, depending upon the type of the tala. It is notated as ‘1’. The number of matras in an aksharam is called the nadai or jati. This number can be 3, 4, 5, 7 or 9, and these types are respectively called Tisra, Chatusra, Khanda, Misra and Sankeerna.

Jati Aksharams in laghu Phonetic representation of beats
Tisra 3 Tha Ki Ta
Chatusra 4 Tha Ka Dhi Mi
Khanda 5 Tha Ka Tha Ki Ta
Misra 7 Tha Ki Ta Tha Ka Dhi Mi
Sankeerna 9 Tha Ka Dhi Mi Tha Ka Tha Ki Ta

The seven families of Talas are:

Tala Description of avartanam Length of laghu Total Aksharas
Dhruva 1O11 4 14
Matya 1O1 4 10
Rupaka O1 4 6
Jhampa 1UO 7 10
Triputa 1OO 3 7
Ata 11OO 5 14
Eka 1 4 4

For instance one avartanam of Khanda-jati Rupaka tala comprises a 2-beat dhrutam followed by a 5-beat laghu. An avartanam is thus 7 aksharams long. With all possible combinations of tala types and laghu lengths, there are 5 x 7 = 35 talas having lengths ranging from 3 (Tisra-jati Eka) to 29 (sankeerna-jati Dhruva) aksharams. Chatusra-gati Khanda-jaati Rupaka tala has 7 aksharams, each of which is 4 matras long; each avartanam of the tala is 4 x 7 = 28 matras long. For Misra-gati Khanda-jati Rupaka tala, it would be 7 x 7 = 49 matra.

The most common tala, one you must all be surely familar with, is the Adi (means Primordial in Sanksrit) — technically, the Chatusra-nadai Chatusra-jaati Triputa tala. From the above tables, this tala has eight aksharams, each being 4 svarams long. Other common talas include:

  • Chatusra-nadai Chatusra-jaati Rupaka tala (or simply Rupaka tala) . A large body of krtis is set to this tala.
  • Khanda Chaapu (a 10-count) and Misra Chapu (a 14-count), both of which do not fit very well into the suladi sapta tala scheme.
  • Chatusra-nadai Khanda-jati Ata tala (or simply Ata tala) . Around half of the varnams are set to this tala.
  • Tisra-nadai Chatusra-jati Triputa tala (Adi Tala Tisra-Nadai). Note that, as this tala is a twenty-four beat cycle, compositions in this tala theoretically can, and sometimes are, sung in rupaka tala.

I had recently been to a lecture demo on Pallavi renditions and would like to mention that the singer(s), more often that not, render them in the more complicated talas; such pallavis, if sung in a non-Chatusra-nadai tala, are called nadai pallavis.

Eduppu or Start point of a composition

Compositions do not always begin on the first beat of the tala: it may be offset by a certain number of matras or aksharas or combination of both to suit the words nad laya of the composition. The word Talli, used to describe this offset, is from Tamil and literally means “shift”. A composition may also start on one of the last few matras of the previous avartanam. This is called Ateeta Eduppu.

Taal in Hindustani Music

Taals have a vocalised and therefore recordable form wherein individual beats are expressed as phonetic representations of various strokes played upon the tabla. The first beat of any taal, called sam (pronounced as the English word ‘sum’ and meaning even or equal, archaically meaning nil) is denoted with an ‘X’. The first beat is always the most important and heavily emphasised. It is also the point of resolution in the rhythm. A soloist has to sound an important note of the raag there, and the percussionist’s and soloist’s phrases culminate at that point. A North Indian classical dance composition must end on the sam.

The beats of a taal are divided into groups known as vibhaags, the first beat of each vibhaag usually being accented. It is this that gives the taal its unique texture. For example, Rupak taal consists of 7 beats while the related Dhamar taal consists of 14 beats. The spacing of the vibhaag accents makes them distinct, otherwise one avartan of Dhamar would be indistinguishable from two of Rupak or vice versa. The first beat of any vibhaag is accompanied by a clap of the hands when reciting the taal and therefore is known as tali (or hand clap).

Furthermore, taals have a low point, known as khali (empty), which is always the first beat of a particular vibhaag, denoted in written form with ‘0’ (zero). The khaal vibhaag has no beats on the bayan, i.e. no bass beats this can be seen as a way to enforce the balance between the usage of heavy (bass dominated) and fine (treble) beats or more simply it can be thought of another mnemonic to keep track of the rhythmic cycle (in addition to Sam). In recitation the Khaali vibhaag is indicated with a sideways wave of the dominant clapping hand (usually the right) or the placing of the back of the hand upon the base hand’s palm in lieu of a clap making an “empty/nil” sound. The khali is played with a stressed syllable that can easily be picked out from the surrounding beats.

Hindustani Taals are typically played on tabla or pakhavaj. The specific strokes and the sound they produce are known as bols. Each bol has its own name that can be vocalized as well as written. Examples of bols may be heard in External Links below. The beats following the first beat of each vibhaag are indicated with digits that are greater than 0, ‘X’ representing the first beat – Sam, the ‘0’ Khali (empty clap) and each number an individual consecutive beat). Rupak, almost uniquely, begins with the khali on Sam. Some rare taals even contain a “half-beat”. For example, Dharami is an 11 1/2 beat cycle where the final “Ka” only occupies half the time of the other beats. Also note, this taal’s 6th beat does not have a played syllable – in western terms it is a “rest”.

Common Hindustani taals

Some taals, for example Dhamaar, Ek, Jhoomra and Chau talas, lend themselves better to slow and medium tempos. Others flourish at faster speeds, like Jhap or Rupak talas. Trital or Teental is one of the most popular, since it is as aesthetic at slower tempos as it is at faster speeds.

Various Gharanas (literally “Houses” which can be inferred to be “styles” – basically styles of the same art with cultivated traditional variances) also have their own preferences. For example, the Kirana Gharana uses Ektaal more frequently for Vilambit Khayal while the Jaipur Gharana uses Trital. Jaipur Gharana is also known to use Ada Trital, a variation of Trital for transitioning from Vilambit to Drut laey. There are many taals in Hindustani music, some of the more popular ones are:

Name Beats Division Vibhaga
Tintal (or Trital or Teental) 16 4+4+4+4 X 2 0 3
Jhoomra 14 3+4+3+4 X 2 0 3
Tilwada 16 4+4+4+4 X 2 0 3
Dhamar 14 5+2+3+4 X 2 0 3
Ektal and Chautal 12 2+2+2+2+2+2 X 0 2 0 3 4
Jhaptal and Jhampa 10 2+3+2+3 X 2 0 3
Keherwa 8 4+4
Roopak 7 3+2+2 X 2 3
Dhadra 6 3+3 X 2

Additional Talas

Rare Hindustani talas

Name Beats Division Vibhaga
Adachoutal 14 2+2+2+2+2+2+2 X 2 0 3 0 4 0
Brahmtal 28 2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2 X 0 2 3 0 4 5 6 0 7 8 9 10 0
Dipchandi 14 3+4+3+4 X 2 0 3
Shikar 17 6+6+2+3 X 0 3 4
Sultal 10 2+2+2+2+2 x 0 2 3 0

Rare Carnatic talas

Other than these 35 talas there are 108 so-called anga talas. The following is the exhaustive pattern of beats used in constructing them.

Anga Symbol Aksharakala Mode of Counting
Anudrutam U 1 1beat
Druta O 2 1 beat + Visarijitam (wave of hand)
Druta-virama (OU) 3
Laghu (Chatusra-jati) l 4 1 beat + 3 finger count
Laghu-virama U) 5
Laghu-druta O) 6
Laghu-druta-virama OU) 7
Guru 8 8 A beat followed by circular movement of the right hand in the clockwise direction with closed fingers.
Guru-virama (8U) 9
Guru-druta (8O) 10
Guru-druta-virama (8OU) 11
Plutam ) 12 1 beat + kryshya (waving the right hand from right to left) + 1 sarpini (waving the right hand from left to right) – each of 4 aksharakalas OR a Guru followed by the hand waving downwards
Pluta-virana U) 13
Pluta-druta O) 14
Pluta-druta-virama OU) 15
Kakapadam + 16 1 beat + patakam (lifting the right hand) + kryshya + sarpini – each of 4 aksharakalas)

Compositions are rare in these lengthy talas. They are mostly used in performing the Pallavi of Ragam Thanam Pallavis. Some examples of anga talas are:

Sarabhandana tala

8 O l l O U U)
O O O U O) OU) U) O
U O U O U) O (OU) O)

Simhanandana tala : It is the longest tala.

8 8 l ) l 8 O O
8 8 l ) l ) 8 l
l +

Another type of tala is the chhanda tala. These are talas set to the lyrics of the Thirupugazh by the Tamil composer Arunagirinathar. He is said to have written 16000 hyms each in a different chhanda tala. Of these, only 1500-2000 are available.

That takes care of the Talas bit as well. Until next time!
And do check out this link as well – it has detailed descriptions of different talas.