Durga Krishnan's New England School of Carnatic Music - NESCM
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Tala

Introduction

So far we learned about the ragas and now the major part of Indian music in general and Carnatic Music in particular – the TALAS. Rhythm is every bit important to Carnatic Music as the RAGAS. As a matter of fact rhythm is important to everything we do in life. There is a beat to everything we do. We walk to a certain rhythm, we breathe to a certain rhythm and we talk to a certain rhythm and when the rhythm changes in any of these things we do, it spells trouble. The rhythm is what makes the listner’s body to move, tap his fingers or shuffle his feet. The rhythm is nothing but a sense of timing. In Indian music it is called the Tala or a time measure or rhythm cycle. The sloka “sruti matha layam pitha” –meaning the sruthi or the drone or the base note is the mother of music while the tala or the rhythm is the father.

Basic Talas

The tala in carnatic music is made by clapping and turning the hand and counting the fingers starting with the little finger. There are seven basic talas in carnatic music system. They are called SULADI SAPTA TALA as a group. They are DHRUVA, MATYA, RUPAKA, JAMPA, THRIPUTA, ATA, and EKA. This has been the most famous system in carnatic music since Sri Purandara Dasa’s period (1484-1564). The trinity from the 17th century composed their compositions using these talas. Each of the 7 talas has 5 variations or Jathis. When one claps or strikes the hand and counts the fingers it is called LAGHU. When one strikes and turns the hand it is called DRUTHAM. The laghu or the striking and counting part of the talas determines the jathi. If one strikes and count 2 fingers, the total number in laghu would be 3 and this is called THISRA JATHI. If the laghu has 4 counts then it will be called CHATHUSRA JATHI. So the five jathis are known as THISRA (3), CHATHUSRA (4), KANTA (5), MISRA (7) and SANKEERNA (9). The total number of the talas are 7X5=35. These 35 talas can be further subdivided by GATHIS or NADAIS meaning speed. They are also called by the same names as the jathis – thisra, chathusra, etc. With this idea, now we can get 35X5=175 talas in carnatic music. So when we describe a tala we usually say the name of the tala, it’s jathi and in which gathi it is going to be performed. For example, Sri Lalgudi Jayaraman’s thillana in Behag ragam is set to Chathusra Jathi Thriputa tala in Thisra nadai.