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This article is only an intoduction.  If you would like more information please check out "Manufacture and Repair of Tabla"


THE TABLA PUDI (page 3 of 4)

by David Courtney working tools

This article previously appeared in the December 1988 issue of Experimental Musical Instruments, Nicasio Ca:EMI pg.12-16



 

The Syahi

It is now time to apply the syahi (the black spot).

A base for the syahi must be established. This is done by boiling a small amount of mucilage (called raal, saresh or sharesh) until it becomes soft and gummy. It is then applied to the exposed surface of the maidan to form a circle of approximately 3 1/2 inches for the dayan or 4 to 4 1/2 inches for the bayan. The circle is then allowed to dry in the sun.

Syahi masala is the key ingredient for the creation of the syahi. This is a commercially available powder reputed to be made of soot, iron dust, and other unidentified vegetable matter. It is said that the best syahi masala comes from Bhawnagar in the Western state of Gujarat.

To prepare the paste for syahi, a little vessel is filled with a small quantity of water and white flour. This is heated and mixed to make a glue (lai). The glue is now mixed with the syahi masala. The whole mixing process is done in a rubber mat made from an old inner tube. After a thorough mixing the paste is finished. The application of a layer involves three steps:

Step 1. The syahi paste must be applied. This is done by using the first finger of the right hand to take up a small quantity of paste. The paste is quickly applied with a circular motion of the finger to the area previously covered by the mucilage. Support is given to the first finger by placing the second finger over the first.

Step 2. Excess paste must be removed. This is done by scraping with a curved metallic strip. The tabla is rotated during this process so that the application is of uniform thickness.

Step 3. Polishing with a stone is the final step. Immediately after the excess paste has been removed, a polished piece of basalt is used to rub the syahi repeatedly. The pressure is very important; it starts gently and builds up to a considerable level. Periodically the stone is rubbed against the cheek to deposit a microscopic amount of sweat. The polishing is very important because it will determine the density of cracks which are visible in the syahi. These cracks will be discussed in greater depth later.

Steps 1, 2, & 3 are repeated for more layers. The diameter of each layer remains full size until four or five layers have been applied (figure 1 at top of page). Then the diameters are reduced until the layers are hardly more than half an inch. A few full size layers are again applied, followed by decreasing sizes. This process continues until the desired thickness and shape is attained. This too will be discuss later.

The finished syahi is the most distinctive part of the tabla. It has a greater impact upon the tone than any other part. For a further understanding it is necessary to understand how membranes resonate.

A membrane stretched over a hoop with uniform tension resonates in a most unmusical manner. It is an inharmonic spectrum with no clearly defined fundamental. Across the world there are two approaches to modifying the drum's tonality. One approach is to further muddle the harmonic structure. The "snare" on a snare drum is a well known example. This has been a common approach for many Western drums for centuries.

A completely opposite philosophy exists in efforts to give the drum a more defined pitch. A classic approach is to attach the membrane to a resonator and use the membrane to excite the resonator. Such an approach is found in the timpani and conga. Of relatively recent origin (in the West) are methods involving the modification of the membrane itself. Stories abound of conga players who take a heavy hide and sand the periphery of the skin so that the finished drumhead is thicker in the middle and thinner at the edge. Another example is the adhesive dots placed at the center of many marching drums. For both cases, the increase in mass in the center serves to make the membrane vibrate in a more harmonic fashion.

This is exactly what the syahi does. It produces a more clearly defined harmonic and therefore a more clearly defined pitch. (Strictly speaking the fundamental is absent in the tabla however this topic is covered in another paper). One of the ramifications is that a change in the tabla can be effected by changing the syahi. Therefore it is quite common to find tablas made of the same thickness skin, on the same size rim, with the same tension yet having very different musical pitches. This is because a thick syahi will naturally resonate at a lower frequency than a thin one.

There is one caveat which must be kept in mind. The shape of the syahi is very important. The syahi will always be thicker in the center than at the edge, but by how much? If the geometry is not correct then many of the resonance modes will not converge in a proper way. The sound will be dissonant with different strokes evoking different pitches. This is unacceptable to Indian music which require a clearly defined tonal base.

There is one more point to keep in mind. We applied the syahi in numerous thin layers. However it no longer behaves in this manner. The key to this lies in the network of cracks which permeate the syahi.

It is clear at a glance that the syahi covers a considerable area of skin. It is also obvious that the ingredients of the syahi harden to the consistency of cement. Such a hard material covering a substantial area of the skin should hamper the vibration. The cracks are the key to the syahi having flexibility, even though it is composed of such a rigid material. What appears to be a monolithic application is in reality a matrix of unconnected particles, bound firmly to the skin but unconnected to each other. Because they are unconnected the syahi exhibits a surprising degree of flexibility.

The next step of construction is to trim the chat. It will be trimmed to a width of approximately 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch in width. The maidan is protected from the blade by the bamboo piece in the same way that was done for trimming the bharti.

The final phase of construction is purely cosmetic. Any excess syahi can be scraped away with a blade. The outer surface of the skin is then lightly sanded with sandpaper. Lastly, chalk is applied to the chat and maidan and again lightly sanded. This chalk is the reason that new pudis look so nice and clean but quickly turn brown after use.

The pudi is now finished.

 

Conclusion

We have endeavored to do two things with this article. We have tried to give the minimum amount of information necessary to allow one to make a tabla pudi. Needless to say the first few attempts will produce crude pudis, but with some practice, you can gain a considerable degree of proficiency. Secondly, we have attempted to briefly describe the function of a few of the parts of the pudi. A considerable amount of work would be necessary to describe the physics in great detail. This shall be left for another article.

 

Anyway one looks at it, the tabla pudi is an interesting object of contemplation.

David constructing tablas
Figure 8. David constructing tablas

Glossary

Included here are the Indian terms which recur in this article.

Bayan: The larger metallic drum.
Bharti: A layer of goatskin, made up of small overlapping trapezoidal pieces (Maidan) for added strength.
Bunad: A goatskin thong which is woven into the gajara.
Chat: An annular skin which lies over the main sounding membrane (maidan).
Dayan: The smaller wooden drum.
Gajara: The woven hoop of the pudi.
Maidan: The main membrane.
Pudi: The drumhead.
Tabla: In common terms both of the drums together; more precisely the smaller wooden drum.
Tasma: Thongs of leather or rawhide.

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© 1998 - 2017 David and Chandrakantha Courtney

For comments, corrections, and suggestions, kindly contact David Courtney at david@chandrakantha.com