The Secret for Growth

The Secret for Growth

It is always my wish and prayer that my students and all those that I know grow with each passing year. As we begin 2010, I would like to share a small story about speaks of the secret for growth, whether it be in your spiritual life, professional life or personal life.

Tansen had been appointed as a musician in Akbar’s court. In his times, to become a court musician was a major accomplishment. You were given immense facilities – a palace to live in, an elephant to move around in, etc. It was a musician’s dream. Upon receiving this news, he made the long journey to visit his Guru Swami Haridas deep in the forest. After sharing the news, he bowed at feet of his teacher and sought his blessings.

“I am very happy that you have accomplished so much. Always stay like this,” his Guru said, “if you want to continue to grow.”

Tansen rose and asked him to explain.

“Observe the posture of one seeking to climb a mountain. He is always leaning forward, keeping his head bowed. Observe the posture of one going down a mountain. He stands tall with his chest out. If you want to reach great heights, you must keep your head bowed and keep your ego in check. When you stand tall, you will no longer be able to go higher.”

Tansen got the message.

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State of Today’s Indian Classical Music Concerts

State of Today’s Indian Classical Music Concerts

A musician needs two types of people in the audience – those who really understand the depth of the music and those who may not understand its full depth, but offer financial support for the musician.


Commercial music concerts of Indian classical music have changed over the last two to three decades. On the good side, it is becoming more financially possible to be a classical musician, on the bad side, audiences with a deep understanding of music are decreasing.

There was a time, when the first five rows of commercial concerts were filled with people who understood music, the people in suits and rich kurtas were behind these rows. Only then did the artist get into the mood to play real music because there were people who understood it.

I remember one concert that happened in Ahmedabad 20-30 years ago. It was a concert of a well-known musician who was travelling abroad. A short time into the concert, the audience had stopped the concert. Five people were on stage. They asked the musician not to play paltas. If he was to play, he had to play real music or there was no need for the concert. This was the strength of the audience. There was no room for gimmicks. The audience understood Indian classical music and did not accept anything less than true playing.

Today, things have changed. Today, in many commercial concerts, the financial supporters, who often do not have a very deep understanding, are the ones who occupy the front rows, while those who understand music, the students and connoisseurs end up sitting in some corner. The demand for high-quality has decreased and the artist consequentially does not play that music as it is not required.

You can clearly see the changes in commercial concerts. Commercial concerts of a single artist used to begin at 8pm and end at least 3-4 hours later. Now they finish in a span of 45 – 90 minutes. The alaap alone used to last 1 – 2 hours. Now, we hear perhaps a 5 minute alaap and 2-3 raags in that time period. It’s not necessarily that the artist is not able to give these long concerts. In the younger generation there might not be many (as the concert demand has changed), but we still do have artists who can perform these real concerts. The audience though is not ready or trained to listen to and enjoy these concerts.

The training of an audience will not happen overnight. It requires regular exposure to high-quality musicians. Those who have an understanding should not be afraid to demand high-quality music, while those who are developing an understanding should not simply accept whatever the market is giving them to be the best.

The development of an audience takes time and commitment, but if it is not done, there will be a very small chance of hearing a real Indian classical music concert in the future.

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Rhythm in Plants, Laya in Everything

Rhythm in Plants, Laya in Everything

I always tell my students that music has to be digested. Laya (variations of rhythm) have to become a part of you. The experience that one gets when music becomes apart of your being is incredibly beautiful.


Today, I was re-designing the layout of my garden. I have over 200 potted plants in my garden. As I worked with my gardener sorting the plants, I was examining each of my plants and was mesmerised by the rhythm that each plant had.
Each plant was unique, each had its own laya. One had a straight branch that had three offshoots at the end; in it I saw adi-laya. On another plant, there was seven leaves, a flower and then seven leaves again; in it I could see a laya of 8 beats. The leaves represented the laya and the flower represented the sum. The cycle of 7 (leaves) came to the sum (flower) and continued on. Each branch of one of my palms was split into 13. The plant had a laya of 13. In this way, I saw the rhythm in each plant.

Everything is rhythm. Everything has its own natural rhythm. The disruption of natural rhythm leads to things breaking down, but when something runs in its natural rhythm, it is in harmony, with itself, with its surroundings, with nature.

Music and rhythm are to be digested. When it is, one can see it in everything.

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Finding a Tabla Teacher

Finding a Tabla Teacher

Today, a young man and his father came to my music school. The son wanted to take tabla lessons at our institute and he had been referred to me by a music friend of mine. At Rhythm Riders, we take very few new local students as a quality control measure more than anything else. I told him this, yet the father persisted saying that his son wanted to learn more seriously . His son had been learning from someone else for 4 years, but now finding a tabla teacher who could take him forward was very important. I could see that the boy was talented and very interested in music, so I conceded and gave him a chance to play.

Once our general class has thinned out, I called the boy to me with a pair of tabla. What happened afterwards on one hand, saddened me and on the other hand, invoked no response as I had seen this so many times over the years.

The boy’s basic hand was incorrect, meaning that his hand placement and movement to play basic bols was incorrect. Four years of carelessness or incompetency on the part of his teacher and potentially the boy had led to damage that is essentially irreversible. If I took this boy as a student at our school, we would first ask him to forget everything he has been taught and start from the absolute basics, that too though, would never led to a perfectly set hand (like that of our other students, who began their training with us) as it is near impossible to forget what has become ingrained in the hands over the course of 4 years.

This scene is not new to me, I have experienced it time and time again. It angers me and saddens me – the lack of effort/ research that is put into finding a tabla teacher.

Indian classical music has the potential to spiritually uplift the musician and listener. It is a vidya (art/ knowledge) whose learning is said to carry forth from one birth to the next. It has the ability to heal and empower and do so much more, yet when someone seeks to learn this art, they often spend less time on finding a teacher than they do on buying a shirt.

For example, I have seen people start learning from a particular teacher simply because their neighbour also learns from them. They start without asking any questions and doing any research. When we choose what school to send our child to, we look at the quality of the education, the caliber of its graduates, etc, so why not for training in Indian classical music?

Quality should not be excused for the sake of convenience. I understand that in today’s day and age, time is viewed as an increasingly limited commodity, but does that extra 30 minute drive take precedence over you losing the opportunity to reach a certain level of mastery? (as in the example at the start, the young man has now has no or very limited options to learn from a genuine tabla teacher as his hand is damaged).

The caliber and qualifications of a teacher are crucial considerations. One does not necessarily have to begin learning from a maestro. (In fact, most maestros do not take beginner students, but rather take students of their students once a certain level of competency is displayed). Maestro or no maestro, one has to look at the level of competency the teacher has in their own playing and/or knowledge. The caliber of a teacher can be gauged by the caliber of his students. If a teacher does not have any (or very few) students that play very is well or have a good grasp of the art, how can one assume that your training will be any better?

An often overlooked question – How long have they been learning?

In my years abroad, I have seen countless tabla players come to me who learnt tabla in India (or elsewhere) for a few years (most likely, not seriously but as a hobby) and then migrated abroad. One of the first things they do upon migration is teach tabla. Why? Because with a few hours of work in the evening, they can cover their basic expenses at the least. To me, this is an absolute crime. They are not necessarily even qualified performers, let alone, qualified teachers. But they do it and get away with it because they can find the students – people who did not do their research and decided to learn from the person closest to them.

How long have they been teaching? If they don’t have many years of experience, do they have someone who is monitoring their teaching? Teaching Indian classical music is not an innate capability, but one that has to be developed.

Who did they learn from? If they have learned from 5 unrelated teachers in a period of 3 years, a question should arise in terms of the teacher’s grounding in the art as their own learning has been “all over the place”.

Is there a potential for growth? Once you have reached a certain level, can you access a more knowledgeable teacher – ie the teacher of your teacher? This question is particularly important if you are considering learning Indian classical music seriously. The concept of lineage loyalty, while diluted, still exists to a certain degree.

It is important to note here also that a great performer is not necessarily an equally qualified teacher. Teaching and performing require different qualities to be successful. For example, the smartest student in the class may not be the best tutor. Well-renowned artists also pose a general disadvantage to the student with regards to time.

Time and level of attention or love are also important considerations. How much face to face time will your teacher give you? A frequent performer may not be able to sit with you every week, but when they do sit with you, do they give you their full attention with love and affection? The feelings of love and affection are very important in guru-shishya parampara, which is the way that Indian classical music is supposed to be taught. Also, if the teacher is not able to give you regular attention, does a senior student of his/her sit with you on a regular basis? Regular contact/ supervision is important as that is the way only way to prevent bad habits from developing. I know of many people who took lessons for some time and then practiced on their own for a period of time. That unsupervised practice led to damage in their hand as no one was correcting them.

The level of supervision must also be considered. Even if you sit with a teacher regularly, are you being corrected or simply given more and more material and minimal corrections? By watching videos of maestros, even a beginner, without understanding the complicated patterns, can get a sense of basic practices. You can see how basic notes are played, where hand placement is, etc. For example, in terms of tabla, you can get an idea of how teentaal is played, as it is played with similar movements by all maestros, regardless of gharana. You can make out the difference between tin and tun just by watching videos.

For tabla students, you can find countless videos online of maestros to get an understanding of basic bols and hand positioning, I call this “standard playing”. Some names include: Ustad Allarakha (Abbaji), Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Swapan Chauduri, Pandit Anindo Chatterjee, Pandit Sharda Sahai and many more.

There are many other things one can consider, but I have covered the major points here. In short, learning Indian classical music or any vidya is (or can be) a lifelong journey that can open up many beautiful worlds. When embarking on this journey, your guide or teacher is of utmost importance, so do take the task of deciding upon a teacher seriously. Please do your research and find a good teacher. A good teacher can unlock the doors to a wonderful world. A bad teacher can potentially bar the chances of the doors to this world opening. If a standard or good teacher is not available to fit your convenience, I would not suggest learning that instrument/ form at that time from a substandard teacher. At the same time, once you have found a teacher, it is your responsibility as a student to follow their instructions very carefully. Carelessness on the part of the student also leads poor or slow results.

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Vijay – one of my first US workshop attendees

Vijay – one of my first US workshop attendees

In my initial years of working in America, my student Sejal and I used to conduct small workshops. At this point, I was a new name to American audiences, so it was usually a small audience (10 – 15). Even though there was small attendance, EVERY workshop I found someone who went onto become a devoted student who did many things for me over and spent great amounts of time with me. It was a sign of how my luck worked so well in America.


Today, I want to recall the story of my third workshop, held in NYC during my first trip to the US. There was a bald, mid-aged guy with a very sweet smile sitting in the front. He took great interest in the workshop and was giving a great response.

After the workshop, he was the first person to greet me. He name was Vijay. He was an engineer living in New Jersey. Originally from India, Vijay had been living in the US for 25 years. As a child, he used to play tabla and continued to play every so often at the local temple, accompanying bhajans or kirtan. We had made ONE advertisement over the radio. Vijay had heard those two lines on the radio and came to the workshop.

“I feel like I have found my guru,” he said to me. “When can I see you again?”

I told him about the workshop that was to be held the next day in New Jersey, where I was staying.

The next day, Vijay arrived with 2 kg of sweets, a huge bouquet of flowers, an Indian outfit and cash to gift to me. The Americans I was surrounded by looked on with surprise and asked if it was my birthday. It was their first introduction to the Indian practice of coming with gifts to offer to one’s guru.

My relationship with Vijay only grew from that point forward. Whenever I went to the US, he was with me every night and he would NEVER come empty-handed. Sweets, fruits, food, gifts, he would always come with something to give. Whenever anything was needed for Taalim, he would be one of the first people to come and help. Vijay has since moved to Atlanta, but we still keep in touch. In fact, a few days ago I received a call. It was Vijay. He was in Ahmedabad. For the first time, after so many years, he got to see my home and all the work we are doing in India first-hand.

The amazing thing is that Vijay is only one of the people that I met during those initial workshops, many more came from those small audiences, but those stories are for another time.

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First Meeting with Abbaji (Ustad Allarakha Khan)

First Meeting with Abbaji (Ustad Allarakha Khan)

It was 1975 or 1976. I came to know that Ustad Allarakha was to be in Ahmedabad to accompany Pandit Ravi Shankar. It was a program arranged by Sur Singar, an organization that I was a young youth volunteer for.
I received news of Ustadji’s arrival and that he had checked into a hotel across from Town Hall (I can’t recall the name). I reached to the hotel at 8:30am with a small bouquet of flowers. I knocked on his door. I distinctly remember how he looked when he opened the door. He looked royal and you see his immensive personality. I gave him the bouquet, took his blessings and introduced myself.

He asked me who I was learning from. I gave my Guru’s name – Pandit Sudhirkumar Saxena.

“Yes, I know him. He looks like me,” replied Abbaji.

This all happened at the door of his room. I began to doubt whether or not he would invite me into the room. But with a broad smile, he asked me to come in. He asked me to join him for breakfast. I was very hungry, but was too excited and shy to accept the food he offered. When I said no, he placed the piece of sandwich in my hand and encouraged me to eat. That was the moment when I fell in love with this great maestro.

After breakfast, he asked me to recite some compositions. He listened very seriously as I recited a composition of Ajrada Gharana. After I spoke the composition, he said, “See, in Punjab, we do it like this,” and he started speaking some amazing compositions, which sounded like magic to me, but were beyond my comprehension as I was a junior at that stage.

“I would love to learn this, if you feel that I am competent someday,” I told Abbaji.

“Yes, I will teach you, but the thing is that I don’t spend much time in Mumbai. I spend more of my time abroad.” Then again he started to speak some more compositions.

After an hour and half, I don’t know how, but I asked him, “Can you come to my home for lunch today?”

He started laughing. I was only a young youth. He asked where I lived. I lived only 20 minutes away.

“I would be highly obliged if you come.”

“OK. I don’t disappoint anybody. Let me call Raviji. If he does not have a commitment for me, I’ll come to your house.”

He called up Raviji and said to him,”There is a kid in front of me. He is very sweet and asking me to come to his house. Do you have something for me?”

Raviji wanted to rest, so Abbaji was free to come to my home.

I called my parents, who were very excited to hear the news and insisted that Abbaji have lunch at our home. When I told Abbaji about lunch, he told me that he would see.

Now as I was only a young teenager, I did not drive a scooter, let alone a car. I asked Abbaji if he would be willing to travel by rickshaw, which he kindly agreed to.

A portion of the drive was along a lonely road next to railway tracks. Our luck was such that the rickshaw stopped working right along this lonely road! There was no one around and the rickshaw driver’s many attempts were futile. I was very embarrassed at this point, but to my surprise, Abbaji turned to me and suggested we find another rickshaw.

We walked about 1 km in the hot sun of Ahmedabad before we found another rickshaw and arrived at my home.

After meeting my parents and formalities, Abbaji asked me to get tablas and play for him. After hearing some of my playing, he taught me a Punjab composition, it was my first Punjab composition. I greatly enjoyed our time and it continued as we had our lunch.

After lunch, I had called a neighbour who has a car, so that we could drop Abbaji at the hotel in an appropriate mode of transportation.

The time we spent together that day is something I will always remember. After that day, whenever Abbaji came to Ahmedabad (once or twice annually), I would always be present as his sevak and he regularly visited my home.

About 15 years later, after the demise of my second guru, Ustad Latif Ahmed Khan, I followed through on my desire to learn Punjab and became a gandaband student of Abbaji. I’ll save stories about my ganda-band ceremony and other experiences with him for another time.

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Tabla Taalim by Sejal Kukadia

Tabla Taalim by Sejal Kukadia

I am very pleased to inform you about the wonderful tabla textbook that my dear American student, Sejal Kukadia has written. I am very proud of her and wish her all the best. The book is beautifully done and I know it will be a great resource for all. If you wish to purchase it, please contact Taalim School. Information about this guide to tabla is below.

Tabla Taalim takes a comprehensive look at the rich percussive art of Tabla. From the ancestral lineage of the gharanas to analysis of the rules of tabla compositions, this book covers all facets of Tabla. Tabla Taalim serves as a theoretical and practical guide to tabla, describing the fundamentals behind taal, the role of a tabla player and highlighting the distinctions with tabla playing for solos and different styles of accompaniment, complete with compositions. Written in easy-to-follow language, this tabla textbook serves many purposes and may also be used as a study guide for the Sangeet Visharad (equivalent of Bachelors of Music) exam.

Tabla Taalim Offers:
– 70+ color graphics, including rare photographs and gharana lineage charts
– Biographies of great tabla maestros
– Tabla solos in 15 different taals (Teentaal, Rudra Taal, Dhamaar taal, Brahma taal and more)

“Treatment of all topics are to the point and authentic“
– (late) Pandit Sudhirkumar Saxena, Ajrada Gharana
“Very impressed with the work she has done“
– Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, Lucknow Gharana
“Great source of information for all students of Indian Music“
– (late) Ustad Shafaat Ahmed Khan, Delhi Gharana

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Girishbhai – A tribute to his unwavering support and love …

Girishbhai – A tribute to his unwavering support and love...

To become a great musician requires a lot from the person who wants to become the musician. Patience, dedication, focus are requirements. Success follows if one undertakes intense sadhna. The path becomes easier if you have people who support you, encourage you and challenge you to work even harder or go that extra mile.
They are many such people in my life. People that I am indebted to for their friendship, unwavering support. They truly helped me to reach where I am today. One of these people is (the late) Girishbhai.


Girishbhai understood very little about Indian classical music, but he believed in me and my dream and had one mission: to make me one of the best tabla players around. There was a period of several years in my life where he would continually call me up and say, “Pandit you should practice tonight. Your home or my home. Let’s do this, I’ll pick you up in the evening.” (He called me “Pandit”).

As night approached, he would be at my door. I was not allowed to drive myself anywhere if Girishbhai was in town, he called himself my “sarathi”(charioteer), Guruji travelling on his own was not permitted. He would pick me up and take me to his home, where I would set myself up on my asana. Girishbhai’s seat was right across from me. I would play non-stop for 4 to 5 hours. Generally concluding around 2 or 3 in the morning.

Girishbhai would not move during my practice. He would sit there listening the whole time. When I finished, he would give encouraging comments and proceed to give me a massage, citing that my practice must have made me very tired.

After massaging my shoulders and arms, the next part of the late night was fixed. “Now you must be hungry. Tell me Pandit, what will you eat?” At this time in Ahmedabad, late-night restaurants were virtually non-existent. Only one restaurant was open and that too was a considerable distance away in the old city.

He would ask me what I wanted to eat and set off to the old city. I was not permitted to join, as he would not allow me to do anything after these long practices. He would return with hot food, which we would eat, before Girishbhai dropped me home.

These night practices happened regularly for 4-5 years. For 4-5 years, Girishbhai would pick me up, take me to his home, sit in front of me without moving for the 4 to 5 hours that I practiced, give me a massage, get me dinner and then drop me home. His motivation was one thing: to make Guruji one of the best tabla players around.

He did not understand Indian classical music, but he understood my dream and did everything he could to make it a reality. Whomever he would meet, he would speak to them of his Pandit, Pandit Divyang Vakil and the wonderful tabla he heard. That was his love. If I had any program in Ahmedabad, even if the program was close to his home, he would come to my home, pick me and take me to the venue and drop me home afterwards.

Those years have passed. Girishbhai has passed on. But I will always be indebted to him for his support and am thankful for the love that he had for me. Thank you, Girishbhai. I hope that your example will be an inspiration to others.

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Great Nakkara Player – Ustad Dilawar Khan

Great Nakkara Player – Ustad Dilawar Khan

Some of my friends from Jaipur had called me up. A nakkara player, Ustad Dilawar Khan was coming to Ahmedabad.(At the time, I did not know it, but he is one of the greatest nakkara players I have heard, I highly recommend that you listen to him.)

The tabla has many influences and origins. The nakkara (picture below) has a very strong influence on tabla. It is two drums that are played with sticks. They are not a widely played instrument. It is typically just played with the shehnai. It is a rare to find nakkara soloists of this caliber. Before hearing him, I had never heard the nakkara played with such virtuousity.

The program was held in an old haveli (villa). Almost all the good musicians of the city has congregated to hear the Ustad play. Before going to program, I did not know what to expect, but my Jaipur friend has been adamant that is was not to be missed. I went to the program with a student of mine, Nitin Triparti. As I watched him tune his instrument, I could anticipate the caliber of his playing.

His solo blew me away. He played all the complex compositions of the tabla using sticks on the nakkara. His solo was set in teentaal. Similar to a tabla solo, he began with a peshkar. He produced amazing meend using thin sticks. You could see his sadhana in his playing. The speed of his kaidas and clarity of his relas. It was a tabla solo, but with sticks. It’s difficult, but try to imagine Tirakit compositions played with sticks. He played La killa (naga naga naga) with tremendous speed and power on one drum.

Everyone in the audience was amazed. Dilawarsaheb took fermaishes from the audience. Pandit Kishen Maharaj was present and requested to hear a laggi. The way he played Dha Te Na Da laggi, with amazing speed and fluidity! The concert was truly a treat for musicians, especially for tabla players.

I had always heard that tabla came from the nakkara. That evening, I could clearly see and hear the relationship between the two.

After that solo, I never heard or saw Dilawar Khabsaheb again. I searched for other nakkara players, but never came across anyone who could play his level of playing and mastery. That evening was one of those rare concerts in my life and even though there was no recording, I can hear it as clearly as I did nearly 30 years ago.

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8 Things Consider when Purchasing Tabla

8 Things Consider when Purchasing Tabla

For any artist, the quality of instrument is very important. There are many factors to consider when purchasing tabla. It is only in recent times that the wide majority purchase ready-made tablas, previously, each piece was bought individually to create a pair of tabla.

Here are 8 things to consider to keep in mind when purchasing tabla:


1) Wood
Good tablas are made from sheesham or biya wood. Sheesam is black in colour. A sheesham shell will have a solid bottom. Biya, on the other hand, is yellowish is colour and is softer than sheesham. When looking at shell, it important to make sure that the shell does not have any fractures in the body and that the top of the shell is even. A good shell will have been seasoned for 3 years (or 3 monsoons) before it is used.

2) Vadhar
The thickness of the vadhar is important to consider. Thin vadhars are more susceptible to breaking, which very thick vadhars are difficult to stretch when tuning. I remember when I used to buy vadhar and soak them in butter (makhan) before using them to make a pair of tabla. This was a common practice to make the vadhar smooth and more easy to stretch. These vadhars never dried out or snapped.

3) Gata
The thickness and length of the gata are two important factors. The thickness of the gata affects how much the pudi is stretched when moving the gata. If they are too thin then the pudi will not be stretched enough, if it too thick then it is difficult to increase the number of vadhars on the gata and when the vadhars are increased, the pudi can become overstretched. Generally, gatas should be 1 – 1.25 inches in diameter. If the gatas are too long then gatas will not stay in line when tuning making it difficult to get that precision in tuning.

4) Ghajara
The ghajara on a new pair of tabla should even all around and in the middle. No house should be higher or lower than another. If any house is higher or lower, then that house is more likely to become imbalanced in tone.

5) Kinar
The width of the kinar determines the amount of resonance that one gets. A wide kinar makes for a less resonant sound (which is sometimes required), but in general, a very wide kinar is not recommended. If the kinar is too thin, then the kinar bols can become metallic in sound as the application of ta ends up more on the on top edge of the shell.

6) Shahi
The shahi gives weight to the pudi. A good shahi will have concentric circles and no loose “beads” or danna. When playing a tete on the shahi, it should result in a very crisp sound. A good shahi gives the best tirakita and tete.

7) Pudi Size
The pitch of the tabla changes with the size of the pudi. For beginners, a 5.5″ diameter is recommended.

7) Bayan
Bayan are generally made from German silver, copper or brass in original color or coated in chrome. I personally, I like brass bayans are they have a deep and round tone. There are two styles of bayans – tall or with a stomach. Those with a stomach have a bit more bass than the tall ones. Bayans come in three sizes – S, M, L. For a beginner, medium size is recommended. Bayans can comes with vadhars or strings. Those with the vadhar keep their stretch for longer, but they are susceptible to weather effects, while stringed bayans are not. Punjab, Delhi, Ajrada, Farukkhabad use bayans with vadhar, Benaras uses bayans with strings.

8) Tone
Tone is the most important factor to consider when purchasing tabla. All the above are factors that influence the tone of a tabla. The tabla tone should be round, have good resonance and be balanced. The bayan tone should be round and not have too much or too little bass.

Its a lot to consider, but a good instrument can greatly improve one’s practice, so take the time and spend the money to buy a good quality tabla, and remember to keep these 8 things in mind when purchasing tabla. Happy tabla shopping!

Looking to purchase tabla in the US? Taalim School sells tabla for beginners and professionals alike.

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