Rhythm is an integral part of nature. Our breathing, pulse rate, swaying of a pendulum are all governed by a certain rhythmic structure. As such it is only natural that rhythm is part of music, be it folk or classical music. Indian Classical music has a sophisticated rhythmic system which has developed over centuries as the music itself progressed.
There are two aspects to Indian Rhythmic system, kala meaning time or interval and tala meaning cycle of beats. The word tala probably originates from its meaning of clapping hands together in the Indian vernacular. Now, you may have noticed many Indian Classical musicians keeping track of the rhythmic cycle, through hand gestures and clapping of palms. The loud gesture of either through clapping of two palms, or a palm on a thigh is called Sasabda. Sabda literally means a sound. So Sasabda means keeping beats with an audible sound. The gesture of keeping beats by counting fingers is called Nissabda which literally means keeping beats without an audible sound. Often, a combination of Sasabda and Nissabda divisions are used to track the progress of a Tala.
So what does all this mean in an actual example of a Tala in Indian Classical Music?
Well, every Tala or rhythmic cycle has a starting point (Sama), a half way point (Aradhi), beats of emphasis (Sasabda beats) and beats of silence (Nissabda beats).
Let us take a common Tala and understand its structure. The Tala is called Chautala, a 12 beat cycle whose rhythmic solfas go as follows:
Dha Dha Dhin Ta | Kita Dha Dhin Ta | ThiTa KatTa | GaDhi GaNa
As you can see, it is divided into four (Chau) parts seperated by a vertical bar | for your reference. Hence, it has the name Chautala (four claps or accent points). The division of this Tala is 4 + 4 + 2 + 2. The beats of emphasis or Sasabda are 1, 5, 9 and 11, while the other beats are Nissabda.
Here is an example of Chautala. Watch this short snippet from the Pallavi section of a Veena-Vani duet in Raga Bhimpalasi.
Sample 1. An example of Chautala
Did you notice the vocalist keeping beats by clapping palm on the thigh and by waving her arm? As mentioned earlier, a clap typically indicates the start of a division which is an accent point. The other beats of the division are typically counted either by fingers or by waving, basically indicating non-accent beats. Why is this important? This is so because all the artists concerned need to be in sync with the Tala. This also helps listeners to follow the progress of a composition, and the rhythmic variations that are created.
There are many more Talas like Aditala (8 beats), Jhaptala (10 beats), Mishra Chapu (7 beats), etc. But fundamentally, they will have a structure similar to what was described above with Sasabda beats and Nissabda beats dividing the Tala.
Let us look at Chautala or any Tala for that matter, in the context of a Pallavi. It may be useful to read my post on Pallavi, first. In Chautala, many Pallavis start on the 9th beat, and arrive at the first beat (Sama) with an emphasis, and continue till the 8th beat.
In general, the way in which a Pallavi is set to beats is based on the following considerations:
Sometimes, to create an inter-play with the Tala, Pallavis can need not start or end at a beat of emphasis. Instead, they can start or end either before or after a beat of emphasis. Such Pallavis are referred to as Anagat (starting or ending before) and Agat (starting or ending after). Usually, the gap is one beat earlier or after. To make this more exciting and technically challenging, some compositions are designed to start or end half a beat before or after.
Why is this relevant and interesting? Well, now every rhythmic or musical improvisation has to follow this rhythmic signature. For example, in Chautala, one could start a Pallavi at 8-1/2 or 9-1/2. Then the challenge is in ensuring that every improvisation ends in a way so the main lines of the Pallavi can start again at 8-1/2 or 9-1/2.
You can revisit Sample 1 and observe how the Pallavi starts on beat 1. This makes the Uthao and Sama to be the same point, which is beat 1. Watch the snippet again, and see if you can observe the considerations 1, 2 and 3 mentioned above.
Rhythmic improvisations are an important part of Indian Classical music. This can be done by creating multiple extempore rhythmic phrases. This differs slightly between vocal and instrumental music. Vocal improvisations are often bound by the proper usage of the lyrics of the composition. Instrumental improvisations that are based on non-lyrical compositions have more freedom.
One common concept used is what is called a Tihai. A Tihai means repeating a musical or rhythmic phrase three times to conclude right at the ending point of the composition. Now consider that this phrase has to end half a beat before or after the point of emphasis. You can imagine the mathematical complexity that an artist has to reckon with to match the timing, not to mention the musical and lyrical characteristics of the Raga and Pallavi which need to be maintained.
Rhythmic improvisations can also be done by creating patterns by grouping beats together, or by subdividing the time between beats into groups of 3, 4, 5, etc. Such divisions of the kala or time interval between beats are called Jatis.
There are five recognized types of Jatis or rhythmic divisions, namely, Tisra, Chatursra, Khanda, Misra and Sankeerna which respectively mean musical phrases created in groups of 3, 4, 5, 7 and 9 notes. An artist can create many different rhythmic musical phrases by using these Jatis.
These can be then doubled or halved in speed. So you can see how quickly the rhythmic complexity can get compounded with all these variations and aspects available.
Listen to the following snippet for an example of rhythmic improvisation. This is a clipping from the same Pallavi in Raga Bhimpalasi in Chautala, featured in Sample 1.
Sample 2. An example of Rhythmic Improvisation
As you can hear from the example above, once the basic outline of the Pallavi is performed, the artists then start rhythmic improvisations. Note how the improvisations stay within the framework established by the Raga and the Tala, and the lyrics.
This is just a glimpse into the sophisticated rhythmic system of Indian Classical music. An expert artist is not only expected to have a command over Lakshana and Lakshya of a Raga, but also needs to combine all these rhythmic aspects into an aesthetically pleasing musical performance.
I hope this post gives you an extra bit of reference to further enjoy the music.
All Chandraveena recordings have clear notes on the Tala being used and its solfas. Based on this article, try and see if you can track the Tala, and feel the inter-play between rhythmic improvisations and the Tala.