Understanding Tala – Internalizing Talas and Thekas

A thread on rec.music.indian.classical (USENET) attracted my attention today.

It started with a request:

“I am learning ICM at my own and also attending community school once in a week. I have following question when I tried to practice at home.”

1) In Teen Taal (16 Beats) From which beat the composition/bandish/alaap etc. starts ? i.e. should I start from Taali or Khali which beat #. ( I am using Radel DigiTaalmala)

2)Is there any book available to teach me the basic concept of starting composition with any Taala ? (means which will show me that in “xyz” taal – the composition will start from taali or khali or 3
or 4th beat etc.)

Your advice/response will be highly appreciated.

With Kind Regards

I responded as follows, in what strikes me as a pretty good summary of the advice I am frequently giving my students about working with theka:

There are two different issues at play here.

One is to understand the internal structure of the tala.

To do this it is very useful for a vocalist to practice theka
recitation. Note the relationships of the tabla bols to the tongue
and laryngeal position.

All important right hand strokes use unvoiced dental “t” sounds: ta,
tin, tun tet. Na is the anusvar of that tongue position. Recite “ta
tin tin ta” over and over; experience the difference in overtone
structure between the “a” vowel and the “in” phoneme as each is
triggered by the “t” tongue attack.

All important left hand strokes use the velar consonants. Ge and
Kat. Ge is a voiced velar that is sustained on an “e” vowel, Kat
begins with an unvoiced velar and ends with a retroflex “T” stop.

Recite “Ge Ge Ge Ge Kat Kat Kat Kat” over and over, experiencing the difference between the voiced sustained and the unvoiced stopped velars.

But what of strokes that use both hands? Discover for yourself that
it is impossible to say “Ta” and “Ge” simultaneously. Try it; your
tongue won’t be able to do it.

So how to speak the syllables for these strokes? Simple. Change the unvoiced dentals of the right hand to voiced dentals: ta + ge = dha; tin + ge = dhin, etc. Recite “Dha Dhin Dhin Dha” and feel that there is sonic activity taking place in two places in your vocal mechanism. Your vocal chords are making a steady stream of impulses (basically “uh uh uh uh uh uh” since shaping vowels is done by the mouth), and your tongue is articulating lightly between your teeth (“ta tin tin ta” etc.). The front of your mouth is the high drum, your throat is
the low drum.

Now recite theka for a long time, and experience the rise and fall of impulses in your throat and mouth as you move through the cycle. Pay particular attention to the return of your vocal chords on the 14th matra, emphasize “dhin dhin Dha DHA” — that’s the sam.

In order to understand the relationship between the bandish and the theka, it is very useful to recite theka while listening to vocal recordings. In this you want to have standard professional accompanists; attempting to recite theka while Zakir is embellishing is much more difficult. On many older recordings, tabla is very low in the mix. I often tell my students to listen to someone like Veena Sahasrabuddhe as her recordings are generally mixed very well and the tabla players are people like Omkar Gulwady, who keep beautifully flowing theka without much finger-chatter.

Listen to many different bandishes while you recite. Observe the many different ways they have of coming to the sam and maintaining a relationship with it.

A useful exercise is (once you know where the sam is located on a
particular bandish) to sing one line of the chiz, then recite theka
*from the point in the cycle where the song begins*. Thus, an 8-beat mukhda would start on khali; one would sing the song text once, then recite, starting at khali: “Jabse tumhi sanga LAagali / Dha tin tin ta ta dhin dhin dha DHA dhin dhin dha dha dhin dhin dha / Jabse tumhi sanga laagali / Dha tin tin ta ta dhin dhin dha DHA, etc., etc.” A five-beat mukhda, on the other hand, might yield something like “Bolana LAAgi koyaliyaa / ta ta dhin dhin dha DHA dhin dhin dha dha dhin dhin dha dha tin tin / bolana LAAgi koyaliya / ta ta dhin dhin dha DHA, etc., etc.”

Practice these approaches assiduously and enthusiastically and you will gain many interesting rhythmic insights.