A Primer for Carnatic Talas


As I was writing a post about Suladi Talas, I realized I had the primer that I had already written, that’s available in the Talanome app, and was available on the old version of this website, so I thought I would share that! Hope you enjoy it! 

Introduction

 

“A musician or dancer needs to acquire an ability to maintain an even tempo (kalapramanam) if the finer nuances of rhythm are to be mastered” – From “The Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music” by Ludwig Pesch

The measure of musical time in Carnatic Music is called Tala (or Talam). Tala is to music what meter is to poetry. It acts as the regulating factor in musical compositions. Carnatic Music has extensive and complex classification schemes for all possible patterns of Tala. Similar to meter in poetry, only a handful of Talas are commonly used.

There have been various classification schemes of Tala in Carnatic Music. The ancient 108 anga Talas (which include the 5 Margi and 103 Desi Talas), the 72 Melakartha Tala system (which was designed to fit the 72 Melakartha Raaga classification), and the Suladi Sapta Tala system (which was popularized during the time of Purandara Dasa (1484 – 1564) and has been attributed to him) are some of the classification schemes.

The Suladi Sapta Tala system is most in vogue today, with other classification schemes still studied and performed to, though such performances are limited to Raagam Thaanam Pallavi compositions or special percussion concerts called Laya Vinyasa. (Laya – concept of Rhythm). While we will focus on the Suladi Sapta Tala system, we will highlight important facets of the other classification systems which the Suladi Sapta Tala system borrows from, when necessary.

The sapta Talas form the basis of a series of musical exercises (referred to as Sapta Tala Alankaras) and are ascribed to Purandara Dasa. These exercises provide every Carnatic music student with a comprehensive training in melodic and rhythmic structure.

Tala is a cyclic repetition of a given rhythmic pattern. One complete cycle of a Tala is called an Avartanam, with each cycle consisting of a number of beats called Aksharas.  Aksharas can be further subdivided into Mathras.

Tala Dasapranas

A Tala is characterized by 10 features or essences, called the Tala Dasapranas (Dasa – 10, Prana – essence).  Though not fully elaborated on, in order to understand the concept of Dasapranas, here is a brief description of each:

  • Anga – meaning part or limb, Angas are the constituent parts of a Tala
  • Jati – meaning kind or type, Jati defines the variations in magnitude of the Anga “Laghu”
  • Kriya – denotes the physical action or act of counting time utilizing gestures.
  • Kaala – denoting duration, Kaala is the categorization of the various measures of time
  • Graha – also known as Eduppu in Tamil, Graha represents the point in the Tala where the song commences, which could be shifted and not necessarily correspond with the start of the Tala.
  • Marga – meaning path, Marga denotes the duration of a Kriya, and determines how the Tala is displayed in various songs and the number of swaras used within them
  • Kala – also known as Kalai in Tamil, Kala denotes the number of minor time units (or Mathras) into which each count (Kriya) of a Tala is subdivided
  • Laya – represents the time interval between two successive Kriyas and sets the tempo or Kalapramanam (Kala = tempo; Pramanam = standardized)
  • Yati – a figurative arrangement of rhythmic designs in a composition with particular reference to the angas of a Tala.
  • Prasthara – meaning spreading out, Prasthara denotes the elaboration of a given rhythmic pattern, the splitting up of the angas and presenting all permutations

 

“The continuous (cyclic) operation of the joining and separation of hands, conforming to the principles of Dasapranas is known as Tala” – From “Mrdangam – The King of Percussions” by Dr. T.V.Gopalakrishnan

 

Angas

Angas (meaning limb, or part) define the structure of a Tala, and form its constituent parts. In the ancient classification, there were 6 angas

Anga Duration Notation
Anudhrutham 1 Akshara U
Dhrutham 2 Aksharas O
Laghu In the Suladi Sapta Tala system, the Laghu is of variable duration (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 9 Aksharas) I
Guru 8 Aksharas 8
Pluta or Plutam 12 Aksharas 8’
Kaakapaada 16 Aksharas +

In the Suladi Sapta Tala system, only the first 3 angas are utilized. The Anudhrutham and the Dhrutham are fixed in duration, while the Laghu is variable in duration.  In the 108 anga classification, the Laghu was of a fixed duration of 4 Aksharas.

The three angas are detailed below.

  • An Anudhrutham stroke consists of a downward clap of the open hand with the palm facing down.
  • A Dhrutham is a pattern of 2 beats  and consists of a downward clap with the palm facing down followed by a second downward clap with the palm facing up.
  • A Laghu is a pattern with a variable number of beats, 3, 4, 5, 7 or 9, depending on the Jati chosen, and consists of a downward clap with the palm facing down followed by counting the fingers from little finger to thumb in order and back again after reaching the thumb, as needed.

In the Suladi Sapta Tala system, there are 7 Tala families, each having a specific combination of angas.

Eka Talam Laghu I
Rupaka Talam Dhrutham | Laghu O I
Jhampa Talam Laghu | Anudhrutham | Dhrutham (the only Tala that utilizes the Anudhrutham) I U O
Triputa Talam Laghu | Dhrutham | Dhrutham I O O
Matya Talam Laghu | Dhrutham | Laghu I O I
Ata Talam Laghu | Laghu | Dhrutham | Dhrutham I I O O
Dhruva Talam Laghu | Dhrutham | Laghu | Laghu I O I I

 

Jati

Among the angas of a Tala, the Laghu alone is variable. A particular Laghu variant is called a Jati (meaning kind or type). There are 5 such Jatis, each denoting the duration of the Laghu

Tisra Jati 3 Aksharas
Chatusra Jati 4 Aksharas
Khanda Jati 5 Aksharas
Misra Jati 7 Aksharas
Sankeerna Jati 9 Aksharas

Thus, for each of the 7 Tala families, there are 5 varieties of Jatis, giving us 35 (7 Tala families x 5 Jatis) possible combinations.

Nadai or Gati

Nadai or Gati is the manner in which the intervals between each Akshara is counted or the numerical content of each Akshara. It defines the number of Mathras in each Akshara. There may be 3, 4, 5, 7, or 9 sub-units per Akshara or Kriya.

Tisra Nadai 3 Mathras
Chatusra Nadai 4 Mathras
Khanda Nadai 5 Mathras
Misra Nadai 7 Mathras
Sankeerna Nadai 9 Mathras

Each of the 35 Talas above can be played in a particular Nadai, leading to 175 (35 Talas x 5 Nadais) different combinations, as specified by the Suladi Tala, its Jati, and its Nadai.

“The tāla of a particular musical piece is indicated visually by using a series of rhythmic hand gestures performed against the thigh while in a seated cross-legged position (the traditional sitting position for Indian Classical Music). The hand gestures are called Kriyas and are defined by the angas (or limbs) of the tāla.” – From Wikipedia Tala_(music)

 

An Example

Let us consider an example

Chatusra Nadai Chatusra Jati Triputa Talam is a Tala that has one Laghu followed by two Dhruthams. The Laghu has 4 Aksharas (because the Tala is of Chatusra Jati (or type)). The Dhruthams have 2 Aksharas each, for a total of 8 Aksharas. Because the Tala is of Chatusra Nadai, each Akshara is divided into 4 sub-divisions or Mathras, for a total of 32 (8 Aksharas x 4 subdivisions) Mathras.

Please note that Chatusra Nadai Chatusra Jati Triputa Tala is also commonly known as Adi Talam (Adi also means primordial in Sanskrit), and is the most widely used Tala.

Tala short names

Each Tala family has a default Jati associated with it; the Tala name mentioned without qualification refers to the default Jati. For instance:

  • Dhruva Tala is by default Chatusra Jati Dhruva Tala
  • Matya Tala is Chatusra Jati Matya Tala
  • Rupaka Tala is Chatusra Jati Rupaka Tala
  • Jhampa Tala is Misra Jati Jhampa Tala
  • Triputa Tala is Tisra Jati Triputa Tala
  • Ata Tala is Khanda Jati Ata Tala
  • Eka Tala is Chatusra Jati Eka Tala

If the Nadai is not specified, it defaults to Chatusra Nadai

The Sapta Tala Alankara lessons emphasize these basic Talas to impart a thorough grounding in melodic and rhythmic structure.

Chapu Talas

Chapu Talas are used in conjunction with the Talas of the Suladi Sapta Tala system in present day Carnatic music. They do not fit into the Suladi Sapta Tala classification. They represent syncopated time measures, where the beat falls on a normally unaccented place. There are 4 varieties of Chapu Talas:

  • Misra Chapu  – It has 7 Aksharas, split into 2 beats of 3 and 4 Aksharas respectively. Viloma Chapu is a variation of Misra Chapu where the pattern is reversed into 4 and 3 Aksharas respectively.
  • Khanda Chapu – Also known as “Ara Jhumpa” (half Jhumpa), it has 5 Aksharas split into 2 beats of 2 and 3 Aksharas respectively.
  • Tisra Chapu – A straightforward Chapu that consists of 3 Aksharas
  • Sankeerna Chapu – A rare Tala which usually occurs only within the realm of Ragam Thanam Pallavi, it consists of 9 Aksharas split into 2 beats of 4 and 5 Aksharas respectively.

 

Commonly used Talas

In practice, only a few Talas have compositions set to them. The most common Tala is Chatusra-Nadai Chatusra-Jati Triputa Tala, also called Adi Tala (Adi meaning primordial in Sanskrit). Many kritis and around half of all varnams are set to this Tala. Other common Talas include:

  • Rupaka Tala (Chatusra-Nadai Chatusra-Jati Rupaka Tala). A large body of kritis is set to this Tala.
  • Khanda Chapu (a 10-count) and Misra Chapu (a 14-count), both of which do not fit very well into the Suladi Sapta Tala scheme. Many padams are set to Misra Chapu, and there are also many kritis set to both of the above Talas.
  • Ata Talam (Chatusra-Nadai Khanda-Jati Ata Tala). Around half of all varnams are set to this Tala.
  • Tisra-Nadai Chatusra-Jati Triputa Tala (also known as Adi Tala Tisra-Nadai): A few fast-paced kritis are set to this Tala. Note that, as this Tala is a twenty-four beat cycle, compositions in this Tala theoretically can, and sometimes are, sung in Rupaka Tala.

 

Reference

Pesch, Ludwig (2000). “The Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music”. India. Oxford University Press

Dr. Gopalakrishnan, T.V. “Mrdangam – The King of Percussions”. India.

Menon, Raghava R(1997). “Indian Classical Music – An Initiation”. India. Vision Books.

Iyer, Panchapakesa A.S. (2003). “Ganamrutha Bodhini (Sangeetha Bala Padam)”. India. Ganamrutha Prachuram

Dr. Subramaniam, L. & Subramaniam, Viji (1999). “Euphony: Indian Classical Music”. India. East West Books (Madras) Pvt. Ltd.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tala_(music)

http://www.angelfire.com/mb/mridhangam/

Carnatic Thalum Lessons – http://petelockett.com/

Acknowledgement

Hope you enjoyed this primer to Carnatic Talas. My heartfelt gratitude to the various vidwans, gurus and resources that are listed in the reference section, from whom I’ve borrowed heavily. This is my attempt at presenting the contents in a manner that seemed easiest for me to assimilate, and for you, the reader, to digest! I hope enough bonus material has been presented to whet the appetite of you, the reader, to delve deeper into the above and myriad other resources available to enrich your musical experience and education … ENJOY!

I would also like to thank my guru Sri Ravindra Bharathy Sridharan, who has stoked the fire of Laya in me, and continues to inspire me to explore Carnatic Mridangam to the best of my abilities. He also offered invaluable advice on the product and its features and helped test it out.

My warm thanks to Pete Lockett (http://www.petelockett.com/) for his vital feedback and suggestions for the improvement of Talanome, and for his generous permission for use of the “open” and “closed” Nattuvangam sounds, which have enriched the sound options of Talanome. Check out his website, which is chock-full of useful information and resources!

Big thanks to Arvind Venkatraman for his articulate feedback and help with beta-testing Talanome, and for his fabulous suggestions for features and improvements.

A big shout out is in order for the users of Talanome who reached out to me with bouquets and great suggestions. Thanks to Sriram, Prema, Kalyan and others! Keep them coming! I have a big favor to ask of you, the user – please do take a few moments, and review the product, be it a bouquet or a brickbat. It gives me great feedback, positive or negative, and gives potential buyers more information to base their decision on. Much obliged! 🙂

Last but not least, I would like to thank my lovely wife and partner in crime, Archana, for her loving help and critical eye which helped in the design of the Talanome and the readability of this primer, and without whose love and support the Talanome would not be a reality!

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