Music this Month

    Introduction to Indian Classical Music -5


    Tāla- The Rhythm of Indian Classical Music

    Tania Banerjee

    Continuing our journey with the beautiful Indian Classical music, today we will know something about ‘Tāla’. 

    A Tāla literally means a “clap, tapping one’s hand on one’s arm, a musical measure”. It is the term used in Indian classical music to refer to musical meter, that is, any rhythmic beat or strike that measures musical time.The measure is typically established by hand clapping, waving, touching fingers on thigh or the other hand, verbally, striking of small cymbals, or a percussion instrument in the Indian subcontinental traditions. Along with rāga, which forms the fabric of a melodic structure, the Tāla forms the life cycle and thereby constitutes one of the two foundational elements of Indian music.


    Tāla is an ancient music concept traceable to Vedic era texts of Hinduism, such as the Samaveda and methods for singing the Vedic hymns. The music traditions of the North and South India, particularly the raga and Tāla systems, were not considered as distinct till about the 16th century. There on, during the tumultuous period of Islamic rule of the Indian subcontinent, the traditions separated and evolved into distinct forms. The Tāla system of the north is called Hindustaani, while the south is called Carnaatic. However, the Tāla system between them continues to have more common features than differences.


    Tāla in the Indian tradition embraces the time dimension of music, the means by which musical rhythm and form were guided and expressed. While a Tāla carries the musical meter, it does not necessarily imply a regularly recurring pattern. In the major classical Indian music traditions, the beats are hierarchically arranged based on how the music piece is to be performed. The most widely used Tāla in the South Indian system is Adi Tāla. In the North Indian system, the most common Tāla is Teental.


    The roots of Tāla and music in ancient India are found in the Vedic literature of Hinduism. The earliest Indian thought combined three arts, instrumental music (vadya), vocal music (gita) and dance (nrtta).] As these fields developed, sangita became a distinct genre of art, in a form equivalent to contemporary music. This likely occurred before the time of Yāska (~500 BCE), since he includes these terms in his nirukta studies, one of the six Vedanga of ancient Indian tradition. Some of the ancient texts of Hinduism such as the Samaveda (~10000 BCE) are structured entirely to melodic themes, it is sections of Rigveda set to music.


    The Samaveda is organized into two formats. One part is based on the musical meter, another by the aim of the rituals.[] The text is written with embedded coding, where svaras (octave note) is either shown above or within the text, or the verse is written into parvans (knot or member). These markings identify which units are to be sung in a single breath, each unit based on multiples of one eighth. The hymns of Samaveda contain melodic content, form, rhythm and metric organization.] This structure is, however, not unique or limited to Samaveda. The Rigveda embeds the musical meter too, without the kind of elaboration found in the Samaveda. For example, the Gayatri mantra contains three metric lines of exactly eight syllables, with an embedded ternary rhythm.



    The Vedic texts were orally composed and transmitted, without the use of script, in an unbroken line of transmission from teacher to student that was formalized early on. This ensured an impeccable textual transmission superior to the classical texts of other cultures; it is, in fact, something like a tape-recording..


    The Samaveda also included a system of chirognomy, or hand signals to set the recital speed. These were mudras (finger and palm postures) and jatis (finger counts of the beat), a system at the foundation of Tālas.The chants in the Vedic recital text, associated with rituals, are presented to be measured in matras and its multiples in the invariant ratio of 1:2:3. This system is also the basis of every tāla.


    Some basic terms used in tâla are:


    Tali (accentuated): The pattern of clapping of hands is called Tali. Each tâla has a particular pattern and number of Talis.


    Khali (non accentuated): Wave of the hands is called Khali. Khali has a characteristic relationship to Tali.


    Matra: One beat or one unit of a Taal is called the Matra. It is the unit to measure tāla.


    Anga/ Vibhag: The sub section or bar division of a tāla is called Anga.


    Jati: The class or group of a Taal is called the Jati of the tāla. Taals are generally grouped according to the Angas. The different Jatis of tāla are :      


    (i) Chatusra tāla: groups of 2 or 4 beats


    (ii) Tisra tāla: groups of 3 or 6 beats  


    (iii) Mishra tāla: group of 3 and 4 or 3 plus 2 plus 2 beats


    (iv) Khanda tāla: group of 5 beats  


    (v) Sankirna tāla:  with mixed groups


     Sam: The starting  matra(beat) in a tāla is called the Sam. Sam is always a Tali (clap), except Rupak tāla where Sam is a Khali (wave).


    Tithai: The musical phrase sung or played thrice to arrive at the Sam is called a Tithai.


    Avartan: The basic repeated cycle of a tāla is called the Avartan.


    Theka: The set pattern of Bols and Angas which define a tāla is called the Theka.


    Laya: The speed or tempo at the which the rhythm is played is called the Laya. Laya can be Vilambit (slow), Madhya ( medium) , Drut (fast), Ati Vilambit (very slow) or Ati Drut (very fast).


    Khand:  A tāla typically has Khands (columns) divided by bars. Each interval between the bars is called a Khand.


    “Tāla” or rhythm plays very important role in performing Hindustani Classical Music. Our Classical Music is well known for systematic combination of “Laya” or tempo along with the “tāla” or rhythm and tempo with rhythm is the specialty of Hindustani Classical Music.


    ‘Swar’ and ‘tāla’ are two indispensable Organs of Hindustani Classical Music. They are independent in their own merit but still inseparable and complimentary to each other. A performer is a complete performer when he plays serene Music with apt accompaniment of tāla & Layakari (i.e. Rhythm). In short; there is divine experience of Music when and only when the tune and the rhythm go well together.

    Hence the rhythm keeps a very indispensable position in Music. Music shall always be incomplete without rhythm or tāla.

    The major instruments that provide rhythm or tāla in Hindustani Classical Music are Tabla and Pakhawaj though they are used for different types of singing in Hindustani Classical Music.

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    In the Next part we will talk more about the ‘Laya’. Till then Enjoy this beautiful rejuvenating music:

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    is a musician and a student of the science of music. She has been introducing the inticracies of classical music to Vedanta Vani readers.

    Abhishek Chakraborti

    is the Contributing Editor of the Music Page

    Abhishek lives in Holland and is an excellent musician. He is also devoted to the ideals of Sri Ramakrishna, Mother and Swamiji.