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In Indian classical music, Tala (tāl (Hindi), tāla (anglicised from talam; in Sanskrit), literally a "clap", is a rhythmical pattern that determines the rhythmical structure of a composition. Each composition is set to a tala, and as a composition is rendered by the main artist(s), the percussion artist(s) play the pattern repeatedly, marking time as well as enhancing the appeal of the performance.

The most common instrument for keeping rhythm in Hindustani music is the tabla. In Carnatic music, the Mridangam is a stock feature in vocal, violin, Veena and flute concerts, with the Ghatam, the Khanjira and the Morsing also featuring at times. In Nadhaswaram concerts, the Thavil takes the place of the Mridangam.

While Indian classical music has a complete and complex system for the execution and transcription of rhythms and beats, a few talas are very common while most others are rare. The most common Tala in Hindustani classical music is Tintal. This tala has a cycle of 16 beats divided in 4 bars. Bars 1,2 and 4 are accented while bar 3 is light. Most talas can be played at different speeds, but no tala is generally slowed down as much as Ektal, with its 12 beats sometimes taking more than a minute.

Talam in Carnatic music

Traditionally, Carnatic music vocalists mark the talam by tapping their laps with their palm. Instrumentalists such as violinists and flutists that use both hands mark the talam by tapping their feet on the ground inconspicuously.

Talam varieties

In Carnatic music, each repeated cycle is called an Aavartanam, while each "tap" is called an aksharam or a kriyā. A talam thus describes the number and arrangement of aksharam-s inside an Aavartanam. Note that the intervals between the aksharam-s are all equally long. The aksharam-s are subdivided into maatraa-s or svaras.

There are three patterns of beats that recur in all talam-s - these are the laghu, the dhrutam and the anudhrutam.

  • A dhrutam is a pattern of 2 aksharam-s, with the first aksharam marked with the palm face down, and the second with the face up. This is notated 'O'.(ie., Tapping once with your palm facing down and once with it facing up.) 
  • An anudhrutam is a single aksharam, marked with the palm face down and notated 'U'.(ie., Tapping once with your palm facing down) 
  • A laghu is a pattern with the first aksharam marked with the palm face down, followed by a variable number of aksharam-s marked with successive fingers starting with the little finger. This is notated '1'  The number of aksharam-s in the laghu is one of 3, 4, 5, 7 or 9, and this characterises the variety (jaathi) of the talam. 

The five varieties are:

# aksharam-s in laghu Jāti
3 Tisram
4 Chatusram
5 Khandam
7 Misram
9 Sankeernam

Talam families Modern day Carnatic music uses a comprehensive system for the specification of talam-s, called the sulaadi sapta taala system. According to this system, there are seven families of talam-s differing on the way an Aavartanam is constructed from the laghu, dhrutam and anudhrutam.

These are respectively:

talam Description of Aavartanam Default length of laghu
Dhruva 1O11 4
Matya 1O1 4
Rupaka O1 4
Jhampa 1OU 7
Triputa 1OO 3
Ata 11OO 5
Eka 1 4

For instance, one Aavartanam of Khanda-jaati Rupaka talam comprises a 2-long dhrutam followed by a 5-long laghu. An Aavartanam is thus 7 aksharam-s long.

Thus, there are 5 x 7 = 35 talam-s, with lengths ranging from 3 (Tisra-jaati Eka) to 29 (Sankeerna-jaati Dhruva) aksharam-s.

Nadai or gati

The duration of an aksharam, usually fixed (though there are exections)within a rendition of a composition in its talam, varies across talam-s. The fundamental unit of time used is called a maatraa or a svaram, and each talam is also characterised by the number of maatraa-s in an aksharam. This count, which corresponds to the length of an aksharam is called the nadai or gati of the talam. The default nadai is Chatusram. But the nadai can be one of 3, 4, 5, 7 or 9, and these are respectively called Tisra, Chatusra, Khanda, Misra and Sankeerna, as above. This provides further variation from the 35 talam-s specified above.

As in the example above, Chatusra-gati Khanda-jaati Rupaka talam has 7 aksharam, each of which is 4 maatraa-s long; each Aavartanam of the talam is 4 x 7 = 28 maatraa-s long. For Misra-gati Khanda-jaati Rupaka talam, it would be 7 x 7 = 49 maatraa-s

Eduppu or Start point Compositions do not always start at the start of the tala. It is offset by a certain number of maatraas or aksharas or combination of both. This is to better suit the words of the composition in the construct of the talam. 

The following are some of the common Eduppu handled in talas:

1 - Thalli - where 1 maatraas are ignored from the start of the talam before the composition starts.  
2 - Thalli - where 2 maatraas are ignored from the start of the talam before the composition starts.  
3 - Thalli - where 3 maatraas are ignored from the start of the talam before the composition starts.  
4 - Thalli (one akshara offset) - where 4 maatraas are ignored from the start of the talam before the composition starts.  
6 - Thalli (one akshara and 2 maatras)- where 6 maatraas are ignored from the start of the talam before the composition starts.  

There is another variation where the composition starts in the last few maatraas of the previous Aavartanam. This is called Atheetha Eduppu. 

The following are the common Atheetha eduppu-s

2 - Thalli - where 2 maatraas are carried over from the end of the previous Aavardhanam.  
3 - Thalli - where 2 maatraas are carried over from the end of the previous Aavardhanam. 


In practice, only a few talam-s have compositions set to them. As in the table above, each variety of talam has a default family associated with it; the variety mentioned without qualification refers to the default. For instance, Jhampa talam is Misra-jaati Jhampa talam In addition, the default nadai is Chatusra.

The most common talam is Chatusra-nadai Chatusra-jaati Triputa talam, also called Adi talam (Adi meaning primordial in Sanskrit). From the above tables, this talam has 8 aksharam-s, each being 4 svaram-s long. Most krtis and around half of the varnams are set to this talam.

Other common talam-s include the following:

Chatusra-nadai Chatusra-jaati Rupaka talam, or simply Rupaka talam). A large body of krtis is set to this talam.  Khanda Chapu (a 10-count) and Misra Chapu (a 14-count), both of which do not fit very well into the sulaadi sapta taala scheme. Many padams are set to Misra Chapu, while there are also krtis set to both the above talam-s.  Chatusra-nadai Khanda-jaati Ata talam, or simply Ata talam). Around half of the varnams are set to this talam.  Tisra-nadai Chatusra-jaati Triputa talam - A few fast-paced krtis are set to this talam.  Sometimes, pallavis are sung as part of an RTP in some of the rarer, more complicated talam-s; such pallavis, if sung in a non-Chatusra-nadai talam, are called nadai pallavis.

A close equivalent to tala in the theory of Ottoman/Turkish music is the notion of usul.

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