South Indian Rhythmic System

South Indian Rhythmic System
by Jamey Haddad

The purpose of this article is to familiarize a growing number of interested Westerners with the South Indian rhythmic system used in Carnatic music. The ability to hear rhythms at many levels and the knowledge of what rhythms cause a desired effect seem more natural for some and acquired by others. Regardless of where our talents or interests lie, levels of time (rhythm) are infinite. No matter where we’re coming from, we all have felt that some people are more adept at writing or playing rhythmically than others.

The key to learning this or any other system that tests our abilities will be the honesty to face our personal, temporary boundaries. The ability to observe the truth about our personal rhythm will set us free! It’s not necessary to have an extensive musical background in order for this system to take root. Children have fun with this system and learn it quickly. It may seem foreign at first, but if you hang in there for the time it takes to understand this article, you will have another means for sharing and thinking about time.

Not being free rhythmically (or being uptight rhythmically) restricts the flow of ideas. I have always felt that what I played was an option based on my feelings, taste, knowledge, and other assorted factors. But since it’s an option, my creative process should be relaxed enough to do its thing. Handling rhythms better helped build my confidence, so I became more relaxed. For me, the South Indian rhythmic training provided a method for experiencing beauty in rhythms that I didn’t know existed.

It’s difficult to find words for the feelings I’m writing about, but we all have experienced them in one way or another. I’ll do my best to describe some of the qualities that the South Indian rhythmic system exposed me to. The study of South Indian music helps you view a larger picture—an awareness of where you’re at and where you’re going while you’re playing or writing. You start to feel a stronger affinity for any desired cadence point (either written or improvised) from a long way off! You arrive at the point where you can feel your ideas gaining power and clarity. Another thing that happens is that it is easier to feel and understand other players’ rhythms, regardless of their ethnic origin or style, mainly because your confidence is high and you don’t feel that your own beat is being threatened.

To my knowledge, there is no rhythmic system in the world that trains its musicians to handle rhythms as successfully as the system that exists in India, specifically in South India. I make the distinction because the North and South are slightly different systems.

There has been a great need to implement an accessible approach to the South Indian rhythmic system as a way of enriching one’s own musical traditions. I have been taught for the past five years in the traditional Indian manner by Ramnad Raghavan, who is best known in the West for his playing in John McLaughlin’s original group Shakti, and more recently for his concertizing with his nephews, violinists L. Shankar and Dr. L. Subranium. Raghavan also plays on my record, Names.

I would first sing the lessons correctly before playing them on the mrdangam, Raghavan’s principal instrument. The mrdangam is a two-headed drum that is the main percussion instrument used in South Indian (Carnatic) music. Raghavan would write my lessons by hand using the South Indian syllables. He taught according to my progress, his mood, and my curiosity.

From the first, I was totally taken by Raghavan’s playing and the Indian rhythmic system, although it was frustrating at times. After the first few years of lessons with Raghavan, I devoted a portion of all my clinics and seminars to this rhythmic system. My friends in the creative music scene began requesting lessons from me.

Regardless of their instrument, musicians were showing interest. Some of them already had successful musical careers and great reputations. But soon, they too realized that there is really no Western counterpart to the South Indian system of rhythmic training. An example of this is drummer Danny Gottlieb, currently a member of John McLaughlin’s group. At the suggestion of John, Danny called me, and expressed a need to focus and broaden his knowledge of Indian rhythm’s. John understands this system as part of his natural musical vocabulary, and musicians playing with John are immediately confronted with the power of these rhythmic concepts. John puts a tremendous value on the knowledge to be gained by studying this system.

Like Danny, the majority of interested musicians needed a different approach, since they weren’t interested in actually playng South Indian music, but found the material exciting and useful. The problem was compounded by the fact that access to Raghavan or myself was only occasional. For that matter, people possessing any knowledge in this field are few and far between in the Western hemisphere. Consequently, over the past few years, I’ve been developing an approach, by trial and error, which utilizes a sequence of lessons and conveys a clear insight into many of the basic principles at work in this music. There is a more thorough approach to these studies, which I plan to cover in a book to be released this year.

Due to the vast contrast in cultures between India and the West, there has been much difficulty assimilating this system into Western music, despite a continuous 2,000-year history. Classical South Indian music exists without the use of our Western concept of changing harmonic structures. Harmony, if you stop to think about it, really aids in marking time and keeping form. Although harmony does exist between the “Tonic” or “Drone” and the melodies being played, the focus is on melody and rhythmic complexity in the improvisations, which make up a large portion of Indian music.

Before we get into the lessons, I’d like to express my gratitude to Raghavan for always sharing music with the best of intentions and with a genuine concern for my spiritual and musical growth. For Raghavan, music is played with devotion to God, and a part of the Indian training (Raghavan’s in particular) will expose the student’s ulterior motive for playing music. Raghavan also put great ethical value on the knowledge that he shared, as if to pace his teachings to parallel the student’s human/spiritual development.

The Tala
While attending a concert of Carnatic music, the audience doesn’t dance or sing along with the performers. It is more like the Western style of concertizing. Audience participation occurs by keeping track of the song form (cycle), which is called “keeping the Tala.” The Tala is a rhythmic cycle, and when you keep track of the main beats of the Tala, you use a system called kriya (kree-y) based on claps, finger counts, and/or waves (see illustration) that relate to the specific cycles or Talas.

Beginning students are continually asked, “Where is your Tala?” meaning “Where is your visual acknowledgement to the main beats of the Tala?” Much of the beauty in South Indian music comes from the relationship of what you play and how it relates to the specific Tala. Indian audiences are very much aware of this.

Most lessons are in an eight-beat cycle called Adi Tala, and the Tala should be kept at all times. In the beginning, students sometimes find it easier just to clap a steady pulse, rather than using the kriya. It’s okay to do that in the beginning, but know that true beauty is derived from relating to the specific Tala.

Adi Tala is kept like this:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Ta – – – Ka – – – Di – – – Mi – – – Ta – – – Ka – – – Di – – – Mi – – –
clap little ring middle clap wave clap wave
finger linger finger


Before you go on, you should know how to keep Adi Tala by heart. The concept of keeping the Tala is a must. It’s extremely useful in any music, and crucial to this system.

Perspectives on how you feel and how you view levels of time play a big part in this system. It’s difficult to have a perspective on how fast you’re going when flying in a clear sky. In the same manner, Indian rhythms could appear to be unattached or esoterically flying about. But know that the contrary is true. Once the time starts, there’s always a constant perspective—the Tala. Sometimes the only hint of where the Tala is comes from being able to hear and see a member of the group keeping it. That’s not always easy to do if you’re listening to a recording and someone is not audibly slapping the Tala loud enough. Even keeping the Tala for a master soloist could cause what I call rhythmic vertigo. South Indian music isn’t polyrhythmic like African, Brazilian, or Afro-Cuban musics with different players playing different parts simultaneously. The South Indians use melodic and rhythmic unisons more than the polyrhythmic or call-and-response concepts, and their rhythms are polyrhythmic to the Tala. So if you don’t hear or can’t feel the Tala, you’ll be missing a vital perspective.

Raghavan would stop teaching you if you told him that you knew how to sing the lessons without keeping the Tala. You see, many musicians are smart enough to remember what to play by the mere mathematics or sequence of notes. You will be missing the point of the lessons if you skate around the Tala. The things you’ll remember the most will be the feelings you get by playing the rhythms correctly and in time, rather than the specific thing you play. These feelings will translate into your own music in a natural and uncontrived manner. The lessons are not “things to play.” Just learn them as the lessons they are. You must trust that the creative process will make everything you know available at the right time, if you let it do its thing. Things you learn well, will remember you!

Never adjust your beat or pulse to accommodate a weak execution of a lesson, and only use a metronome if you must. Your inner beat must be nailed down, and your rhythms should be floating. It’s good to remember that these lessons are part of a time-tested, evolving tradition, composed and developed to challenge your’ ability to keep a steady, even beat while playing or singing metric doublings of odd phrases, phrase reductions, extended deceptive cadences, and much more. I know it sounds like a lot of words and mathematics, but I detest mathematical sounding music. When you hear Indian masters play, do you hear mathematics or flowing music? They have swing, too!

In this system of South Indian rhythmic notation, underlining the rhythms is the way you indicate the number of subdivisions per beat. A single underline is called the first speed, and first speed has four 1/4-beat subdivisions in each beat. One cycle of Adi Tala (eight beats) has 32, 1/4-beat subdivisions.

Equations for one cycle of Adi Tala with single underline:
4 = number of 1/4 subdivisions per beat
x 8 = beats in one cycle of Adi Tala
32 = 1/4-beat subdivisions in one cycle of Adi Tala

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Ta – – – Ka – – – Di – – – Mi – – – Ta – – – Ka – – – Di – – – Mi – – –
4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4

You could equate one cycle of Adi Tala to two bars of a 16th-note pulse in 4/4. But when you get into the more advanced concepts and greater subdivisions, you’ll find that Western equivalents become less useful.

Each 1/4-beat subdivision must be accounted for by either a syllable or a gap (or rest).
1 2 3 4
Ta — — — Ka — — — Di — — — Mi — — —etc.
syllable three 1/4-beat gaps
(or 3/4’s of a beat gap)

Learning the names of the basic rhythms is a must, and it is extremely useful even if you never go any further than that. Committing the names of the rhythms (syllables) to memory makes starting any rhythm from any portion of any beat easier. While practicing to sing the basic rhythmic phrase, you’ll find it easier to relax and enunciate the words slowly, until you really know what they sound like, so when the speed is doubled, you will have something to compare it to.

The names of the rhythms can best be learned by using a system of metric doublings. When learning four, use a cycle of four beats. When learning three, use a cycle of three beats.

When learning five, use a cycle of five beats.

When learning seven, use a cycle of seven beats.

For the purpose of learning the names, we won’t play exclusively in the eight-beat cycle of Adi Tala, because any rhythm will fit perfectly inside itself when doubled, no matter how many times you double it. As we go on, you’ll see my point.

To begin with, take each number individually, learn its syllables well, and repeat the line until you have it memorized with a good, strong Tala or beat. Next, go down to the next doubling or speed, and do the same thing until you’ve completed all the lines in each lesson. Then, go back to the top and sing each line one time. Work your way down the lesson, without stopping, keeping the correct Tala all the way down, and repeat that until you have it memorized. Then, go on to the next lesson, and do the same thing. The tempo for all the lessons should be around quarter note = 60.

A double underline indicates that you now have eight Vs subdivisions per beat, or a 32nd-note feel. You could equate this method of keeping the Tala and singing the rhythms to the Western concept of solfege and conducting for yourself. Remember to repeat each line until you can keep the Tala and say the syllables in time and by heart. If you’re having a hard time saying the syllables in time while keeping the Tala, simplify the syllables and focus on the correct rhythmic value. Also, you’re doubling the rhythms, not the Tala.

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