Indian classical music is renowned for its rhythmic complexity and when it comes to a dizzying array of talam (rhythmic cycles), the South Indian Carnatic tradition is king. In previous decades in India, and even today, the majority of concertgoers have some rudimentary understanding of the different rhythms that are employed in the music. If not, most will at least try to follow along in the classic way - counting out the beats with their fingers on their leg.
It binds you to the music, helps you to get to grips with the skeleton that is holding the melody together, and is fun challenge, especially with complex rhythms that don’t always fall on an even beat. If the lead performer is a vocalist, they will count the rhythm with their hands almost the whole way through, so you can watch them and follow along once you get the hang of the count. Instrumentalists’ hands are fully occupied, so they don’t provide such easy cues.
A simple understanding of the way to count the talam can help to get even the most novice feeling the beat. Each type of rhythm or talam cycles continuously through a set number of beats. The most common is adi tala. Adi means ‘first’, or ‘original’ in Sanskrit and this cycle of eight beats is certainly the easiest to follow. We’ll use this as an example. Each cycle of eight is called an avartanam and would commonly accommodate up to 32 notes (four per beat).
To count adi tala you would:
• First beat your palm, face down (1)
• Then tap with your fingers - pinky (2), ring finger (3), middle finger (4), then palm again (5)
• Turn your hand over and tap the back (6), palm (7) and back of the hand (8).
This cycle will repeat over and over, and though the music may sound like it’s getting faster, the actual speed of the talam will generally not increase, rather usually the number of notes per beat will increase or decrease to give a change of tempo.
The different movements of the hand when counting are called angas (limbs) and each have a name. Some of the most common are:
• Laghu - a beat of the palm + the counting of the fingers (1)
• Drutam - a beat with the palm and then the back of the hand (0)
• Anudrutam - one beat of the palm (U)
So adi talam would be laghu, drutam, drutam or 1-0-0
The 7 basic talam of Carnatic music are:
• Eka (1)
• Rupaka (0-1)
• Triputa (1-0-0)
• Matya (1-0-1)
• Jhampa (1-U-0)
• Ata (1-1-0-0)
• Dhruva (1-0-1-1)
The laghu (beat and counting of fingers) can have differing numbers of beats. This number is called the jaati. There are five different types of jaati:
• Tisra - 3 beats
• Chatushra - 4 beats
• Khanda - 5 beats
• Mishra - 7 beats
• Sankeerna - 9 beats
Adi talam is the popular name for Chatushra Jaati Triputa talam. To illustrate, the laghu of adi talam has four beats (Chatushra) and the pattern is 1-0-0 (Triputa). This means that each of the seven talam can have five types according to the jaati, giving a total of 35 different talams. Don't worry if this doesn't sink in straight away!
The tempo of a piece is called the kalam. A piece can be performed at a half-tempo slow speed (vilambita) by reducing the number of notes per beat. The standard speed is called madhyama kaalam and an expert musician can rev up the tempo several more notches, increasing the number of notes per beat whilst keeping the basic pulse at the same speed.
The number of notes per beat is called gati or nadai (walk, or gait). For instance, the familiar 1-2-3 lilt of the waltz has a gati of three. Adi talam has a gati of four (chatushra gati).
If in doubt, always watch the artist playing the mridangam drum. They are masters of rhythm and usually give clues to the beginning of the rhythmic cycle with their body language - watch their facial expressions as well as their drum strokes. Once you can understand where the cycle begins and ends, listening to how they fit endless combinations of rhythmic patterns within the repetitive framework is truly exhilarating.
Practice makes perfect, and you’ll be tapping like a pro in no time!