by David Courtney working tools

If you do not want to do this work yourself, I also do tabla repair.

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

by David Courtney working tools

Note: This article originally appeared in Percussive Notes, October 1993, Vol. 31, No 7, page 29-36


Head Change

One of the most drastic repair jobs is the head change. Any problem of the puddi can be fixed with this procedure. Yet it does require experience to do a good job.

Selection of the replacement puddi is perhaps the most critical section of this entire process. There are numerous points to be considered if the fit is to be good and the sound is to come clear. Here are some suggestions.


The skin should be smooth and even. This may be checked by holding the puddi up to the light to check for inconsistencies. If the skin has fragments of flesh dangling from it then the skin was improperly cleaned. Look to see if there are any scars for this will create problems.


Be certain that the puddi has bharti (inner annular lining). A lack of bharti indicates shoddy workmanship and such a puddi should not even be considered.


The syahi should be rather thick with a reasonable contour (i.e., thicker in the center and thinner towards the edges). It should also have a slight shine to it. It is especially important that it have a tight grain of cracks (figure 8).


Figure 8a. Good Syahi - A good syahi is indicated by small, regular particles and a slight sheen


Figure 8b. Bad Syahi - A bad syahi is indicated by large, irregular particles and an irregular finish

These cracks are so important that it is appropriate to say a few words about it. Syahi is made of a hard material whose stiffness would impede the vibrations of the skin were in not for a simple mechanism. The cracks represent particles which are joined only to the skin below and merely articulate with each other. This is how the syahi is able to be flexible even though it is composed of inflexible material. The density of the cracks represents the degree of flexibility. A high density is very desirable because it indicates a high flexibility. A low density is bad because it indicates a low flexibility. Figure 8a and 8b show typical examples.


The gajara is very important in determining the quality of the puddi (figure 9a and 9b). Here are several things to look for.


Figure 9a. Good Gajara - A good gajara is indicated by the ratio of tasma insertions per membrane penetrations (1-3 shown here, or a total of 48 membrane penetrations). It is also indicated by the presence of a crossbraid (bunad).

Figure 9b. Bad Gajara - A bad gajara is indicated by a low ratio of tasma insertions per membrane penetrations (1-2 shown here, or a total of 32 membrane penetrations). The absence of a crossbraid (bunad) is often an indication of poor quality.

The main consideration is the number of penetrations. If one looks closely at the gajara one will see that it weaves the bharti, maidan and chat all together. In order for this to happen there must be holes to allow the lacing to penetrate. It is this number of penetration which effect how evenly the tension is going to be distributed. If the head is 5' or less, 32 penetrations is usual, otherwise the danya uses 48 penetrations. For a banya, 64 penetrations are the optimum. A lower number is an indication of shoddy workmanship.

There is an easy way to tell the number of penetrations without counting every slit in the head. Simply count the number of slits per insertion of tasma. Tabla always has 16 tasma insertions; therefore, a 2-1 ratio corresponds to 32; 3-1 corresponds to 48; and 4-1 corresponds to 64. The illustrations in figure 9b show a 2-1 relationship for the bad danya and 3-1 for the good danya (figure 9a).

The bunad is sometimes an indicator for quality. Bunad is a light goatskin which is cross woven into the heavier buffalo hide. Many areas of India do not use bunad, therefore the presence or absence is not necessarily significant. However if a puddi without bunad comes from a shop or locale which normally uses them, then it is a hint that the puddi was rushed and may not be of the highest calibre.

Proper size

The size is probably the most importance consideration in selecting the puddi. The banya has a broad tolerance; typically 1/2 inch. In a pinch one can oversize the puddi even more without effecting the sound. However the danya has a tolerance of only 1/4 inch at most. There must also be some room to work. It is easy to forget that the addition of the tasma takes up considerable space. A good rule of thumb is that if you place the danya puddi on the shell you should be able to feel the wooden lip from the
top side (chat) without any effort. Additionally one should be able to slip the little finger in between the bharti and the shell yet still feel a snug fit. This usually gives the proper amount of latitude in which to work.

It is often necessary to buy a puddi by mail. Unfortunately the requirements for a correct fit are so stringent that actually placing the head on the shell is the best way to select the proper replacement. Therefore, if you must deal by mail it is best if you disassemble the tabla and send the shell. The appropriate puddi may then be selected and the shell and puddi can be returned to you for further work. Unfortunately this is going to be impractical many times. The next best thing is a very precise measurement. Be certain to measure the diameter of the lip and not the diameter of the entire puddi. In principle, this should always work. In practice, eccentricities of both the shell and puddi, coupled with mismarkings on the puddi mean that you can expect about 50/50 chance of getting things right. Therefore it is not unusual to order a head, check the size; return it for another size and try again. Because of this inherent difficulty most places in this country will allow you to return a puddi if you have not tried to put it on. But if there are indications that you moistened the puddi and attempted to lace it nobody will accept a return.

These previously mentioned points are important but by no means a guarantee for good sound. There are many times that a puddi will appear to be good from the previous criteria, yet may give a disappointing sound. Conversely it is possible that a tabla will be weak in several areas yet produce a decent tone. We are not dealing with a mass-produced commodity but with individual hand crafted items. Furthermore, these items are made of natural materials and thus subject to tremendous variation. Therefore, there is no set of criteria which will guarantee a good quality puddi; however, the previous points greatly increase ones chances.

It is obvious that a new puddi cannot be mounted until the old one has been removed. This removal requires a certain degree of physical effort, but is otherwise quite simple. One first removes the gatta and then unties the tasma at the place where it ends (figure 7). Then one simply unlaces it.

The puddi must then be prepared. Take your finger and carefully moisten the bharti and part of the maidan with water. This is shown for the danya in figure 10. The moistening is especially important for the banya puddi because when it dries it will shrink and provide the necessary tension. This moistening must be done with the greatest of care because even a slight amount of water under the syahi will permanently damage the puddi. One should leave at least 3/4 of an inch between the area where water is applied and the area where the syahi starts. We may now start relacing.


Figure 10. Moistening the Puddi - The puddi should be moistened before being placed on the shell; however, it is important to keep the syahi dry.

We begin the relacing by tying the shell, puddi, and kundal together with a rope. Attach the new tasma to the kundal. The relacing must proceed around the drum so that the tasma passes overt the gajara; under, and then over the kundal. This is shown in figure 11. One should keep in mind that the tasma should not be pulled tight at this time. Wait until the lacing is finished then go back and gently take up the slack.


Figure 11. Relacing the Tabla - The puddi is tied to the shell and the lacing begins.

When the slack is taken up, remove the rope and continue tightening. This should continue slowly and evenly with the same considerations which were mentioned in the section dealing with retightening. (e.g., keep the puddi straight, etc.). This requires a considerable amount of strength and it is helpful if we brace the tabla with our feet (figure 12). This allows both hands to do the strenuous job of tightening.


Figure 12. Tightening the Tabla.

We must now tune the drum. This procedure was amply described earlier. However, we have an additional breaking-in step which is part of the tuning.

The "breaking in" requires a finely polished stone. One should rub the surface of the puddi with the stone. Initially the pressure is light but as we rotate the drum the pressure should increase. This breaking in works by to methods. First, it allows the rawhide to settle into the shell. Finally it acts upon the syahi. Humidity and disuse can cause the particles of the syahi to bind together. The polishing action of the stone separates the particles so that they no longer bind, thus restoring the syahi to its original flexibility.

There remains one finishing touch; cleaning the drumhead. In the course of replacing the puddi it sometimes gets dark and dirty. Although this in no way effects the sound it is good business to give an attractive product to the client. One merely has to use a fine grade sandpaper (approximately #220) and sand the chat and maidan. Optionally, one may work some chalk into the hide during this process.

One optional step is the insertion of string into the puddi. After the head is all finished some repairmen use a coin to insert string, such as kite string, between the maidan and the chat. This slightly raises the chat and reduces the dampening action on the upper partials. This increases the sustain. However it is purely a matter of personal taste because many artists do not like the "bite" that it gives to the sound.


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