Namaskaram.

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Finding balance with rhythm

Finding balance with rhythm

One misconception that I keep running into is that tala is “innate” or a talent of a select few. We always talk about how complex the Indian tala system (which is true), and how difficult some tala structures or rhythmic phrases are to attain (which is also true).

What is not true, however, is that one must have it “in their blood” to understand and harness rhythm. It is a set of rules to be understood and applied, and by doing so, we create a beautiful art.

I learned that one (in retrospect, pivotal) summer. Most dance classes up to that point, we spent a portion of the time reciting jathis while putting tala. This summer, we had to notate the jathis we were saying. Instructions were, double speed was a single underline, quadruple speed was a double underline, four subsections for each beat, and GO!

That summer, and in the months that followed, I did first and second half jathis. Soon after, I came up with this grand idea of notating the jathis for the items I learned (still a work in progress). I would be up at odd hours of the night in college, and whiling away hours at the airport traveling for my first job, trying to figure out the duration of the gaps in some particularly elusive jathi.

As I went, I learned several things about myself:

  1. I like analysis

  2. I like to sight-read, and I miss it.

  3. It is MUCH easier to sight-read melodies than jathis.

I also learned somethings about rhythm:

  1. We as dancers think of rhythm in units of movement. Purposely slicing the same phrases based on the tala instead of a unit of movement completely changes the perspective through which those sames are understood. For example, we think “the ending is 3 thadiginathas”. But set to tala, it might be “(tha) tha dhi gi / na tha tha di / gi na tha tha / di gi na tha”. The very act of slicing three thadiginathas into four even sections, with gap included, dissects the logical movements. And that, I saw, changed the opportunities that existed for choreography.

  2. Knowing “where to pick up” an odd phrase, and where in the tala a unit of movement (a normal phrase) ends ensures that you can isolate mistakes down the akshara, and know how to recover. Never again would I be the person repeating the same jathi over and over again with minor adjustments, trying to guess how to make it fit the tala!

  3. It provides a different set of tools to approach and understand a complicated jathi, or to help a student who is struggling with rhythm, especially in instances where footwork was syncopated against the run of the song. (Think of how the footwork interacts with the lyrics in Sivashtakam or Kulukaga Nadavaro.) I would isolate the akshara where the footwork aligned with the tala or the song, and use that as a cue.

The major advantage I had, however, was easy access to my mother, who patiently walks me through the tala (especially for her own jathis, which revel in not coming to sama until the very end). But what if you don’t have that? How do you find balance? (Though, honestly, you could have that access.)

I’ve been poring over that for the past few weeks, piecing together where I draw my own understanding from, and the strategies I have taken up over the years. Here’s what I’ve got (focused on adi talam).

Master the basics with a metronome

I’ve mentioned this before, but I had a (terrifying) music conductor who would have us count along while he conducted - that got me super comfortable with the different kaalams, which really helps with command of chaturasram and thrisram in adi talam. Here are some basic exercises to that end. These are the same exercises he had us do, just translated to phrases instead of numbers. Replace him with a metronome, and voila!

  1. Chaturasra gati, chaturasra jaathi in all three speeds

    tha , , , / ka , , , / dhi , , , / mi , , , | tha , , , / ka , , , | jha , , , / nu , , , ||

    tha , ka , / dhi , mi , / tha , ka , / jha , nu , | tha ka dhi mi / tha ka jha nu | tha ka dhi mi / tha ka jha nu ||

  2. Thrisra gathi

tha , , / ka , , / dhi , , / mi , , | tha , , / ka , , | jha , , / mi , , ||

tha ki ta / dhi ki ta / thom ki ta / nam ki ta | tha ki ta / dhi ki ta | thom ki ta / nam ki ta ||

The next thing to approach is mastering syncopation within chaturasra gathi. What that means is, each beat is divided into 4 parts, and there are 8 beats in adi talam. So, there are 32 beats total in an avrutham (which is 2^5, which makes me happy). However, the other jaathis (thrisram, khandam, misram, and sankeernam are all odd numbers. So you want their variations to evenly fit into a full avruthams, you have to do as many avruthams as the jaathi has beats.) This is the first big hurdle to jump, because the temptation is to synchronize the main beat with the jaathi, which defeats the point. Use a metronome here, and train your mind to think in phrases of four, not the proper “full” phrases of trisram, misram, khandam, and sankeernam.

  1. Trisram (3)
    tha ki ta dhi / ki ta thom ki / ta nam ki ta / tha ki ta dhi | ki ta thom ki / ta nam ki ta | tha ki ta dhi / ki ta thom ki ||

    ta nam ki ta / tha ki tha dhi / ki ta thom ki / ta nam ki ta | tha ki ta dhi / ki ta thom ki | ta nam ki ta / tha ki ta dhi ||

    ki ta thom ki / ta nam ki ta / tha ki ta dhi / ki ta thom ki | ta nam ki ta / tha ki ta dhi | ki ta thom ki / ta nam ki ta ||

  2. Khandam (5)

    tha ka tha ki / ta dhi mi tha / ki ta jha nu / tha ki ta dhi | mi tha ki ta / tha ka tha ki | ta dhi mi tha / ki ta jha nu ||

    tha ki ta dhi / mi tha ki ta / tha ka tha ki / ta dhi mi tha | ki ta jha nu / tha ki ta dhi | mi tha ki ta / tha ka tha ki ||

    ta dhi mi tha / ki ta jha nu / tha ki ta dhi / mi tha ki ta | tha ka tha ki / ta dhi mi tha | ki ta jha nu / tha ki ta dhi ||

    mi tha ki ta / tha ka tha ki / ta dhi mi tha / ki ta jha nu | tha ki ta dhi / mi tha ki ta | tha ka tha ki / ta dhi mi tha ||

    ki ta jha nu / tha ki ta dhi | mi tha ki ta / tha ka tha ki | ta dhi mi tha / ki ta jha nu | tha ki ta dhi | mi tha ki ta ||

  3. Misram

    tha ka dhi mi / tha ki ta tha / ka jha nu tha / ki ta tha ka | dhi mi tha ki / ta tha ka jha | nu tha ki ta / tha ka dhi mi ||

    tha ki ta tha / ka jha nu tha / ki ta tha ka / dhi mi tha ki | ta tha ka jha / nu tha ki ta | tha ka dhi mi / tha ki ta tha ||

    ka jha nu tha / ki ta tha ka / dhi mi tha ki / ta tha ka jha | nu tha ki ta / tha ka dhi mi | tha ki ta tha / ka jha nu tha ||

    ki ta tha ka / dhi mi tha ki / ta tha ka jha / nu tha ki ta | tha ka dhi mi / tha ki ta tha | ka jha nu tha / ki ta tha ka ||

    dhi mi tha ki / ta tha ka jha / nu tha ki ta / tha ka dhi mi | tha ki ta tha / ka jha nu tha | ki ta tha ka / dhi mi tha ki ||

    ta tha ka jha / nu tha ki ta / tha ka dhi mi / tha ki ta tha | ka jha nu tha / ki ta tha ka | dhi mi tha ki / ta tha ka jha ||

    nu tha ki ta / tha ka dhi mi / tha ki ta tha / ka jha nu tha | ki ta tha ka / dhi mi tha ki | ta tha ka jha / nu tha ki ta ||

  4. Sankeernam

    tha ka dhi mi / tha ka tha ki / ta tha ka jha / nu tha ka tha | ki ta tha ka / dhi mi tha ka | tha ki ta tha / ka jha nu tha ||

    ka tha ki ta / tha ka dhi mi / tha ka tha ki / ta tha ka jha | nu tha ka tha / ki ta tha ka | dhi mi tha ka / tha ki ta tha ||

    ka jha nu tha / ka tha ki ta / tha ka dhi mi / tha ka tha ki | ta tha ka jha / nu tha ka tha | ki ta tha ka / dhi mi tha ka ||

    tha ki ta tha / ka jha nu tha / ka tha ki ta / tha ka dhi mi | tha ka tha ki / ta tha ka jha | nu tha ka tha / ki ta tha ka ||

    dhi mi tha ka / tha ki ta tha / ka jha nu tha / ka tha ki ta | tha ka dhi mi / tha ka tha ki | ta tha ka jha / nu tha ka tha ||

    ki ta tha ka / dhi mi tha ka / tha ki ta tha / ka jha nu tha | ka tha ki ta / tha ka dhi mi | tha ka tha ki / ta tha ka jha ||

    nu tha ka tha / ki ta tha ka / dhi mi tha ka / tha ki ta tha | ka jha nu tha / ka tha ki ta | tha ka dhi mi / tha ka tha ki ||

    ta tha ka jha / nu tha ka tha / ki ta tha ka / dhi mi tha ka | tha ki ta tha / ka jha nu tha | ka tha ki ta / tha ka dhi mi ||

    tha ka tha ki / ta tha ka jha / nu tha ka tha / ki ta tha ka | dhi mi tha ka / tha ki ta tha | ka jha nu tha / ka tha ki ta ||

  5. All the jaathis in a phrase

    tha ka dhi mi / tha ka jha nu / tha ki ta tha / ki ta tha ka | tha ki ta dhi / mi tha ki ta | tha ka dhi mi / tha ki ta tha ||

    ka jha nu tha / ki ta tha ka / dhi mi tha ka / tha ki ta tha | ka jha nu tha / ki ta dhidhi thai / dhidhi thai dhidhi thai ||

I learned an approach to introduce balance for gaps during a guest lecture in my tala class this semester, in this order:

  1. Replace the phrases with “thaagas” and theegis:

    • Thakita dhikita = tha a ga thee ee gi

    • Thaka thakitha dhimi thakita = tha a ga a ga thee ee gee ee gee

    • Thadhimi thakita thakajhanu thakita = tha a ga a ga a ga thee ee gee ee gee ee gee

    • Thakadhimi thaka thakita thakajhanu thaka thakita = tha a ga a ga a ga a ga thee ee gee ee gee ee gee ee gee

  2. Only enunciate the first “tha” of the phrase:

    • Thakita dhikita = tha ; tha ;

    • Thaka thakitha dhimi thakita = tha ; ; tha ; ;

    • Thadhimi thakita thakajhanu thakita = tha ; ; ; tha ; ; ;

    • Thakadhimi thaka thakita thakajhanu thaka thakita = tha ; ; ; ;tha ; ; ; ;

Master Notation

The next thing I did was learn how to notate. That way, I would go off the beat “on paper” if I got something wrong, and clearly see how to course correct, as opposed to doing trial and error verbally and not keep track as well.

And, on the flip side, if I could notate perfectly, I can pinpoint where what was (incorrectly) saying was deviating from the notation.

You can do the same thing, too. I’ve touched on the notation system here. Try notating the additional two exercises in the previous section, and then saying them.

The thing to keep in mind is, the notation is like training wheels on a bicycle - if you’re running off or at the risk of running off balance, it warns you. You don’t need training wheels to learn how to ride a bike, and you don’t need to notate to learn balance. Plenty of people have managed just fine with metronome and patience, or just patience alone.

What I find, however, is it gives you precise feedback if things go wrong (depending on how good your notation is).

Good news is, you don’t have to be great at tala to notate well, because you’re essentially counting aksharas and drawing lines separating them. Four aksharas per kriya, eight kriyas in one avrutham (4 to the laghu, and 2 each for the drithams). The way to determine whether a phrase is double speed and quadruple speed is determine equivalencies. Kita thaka thari kita = tha ka dhi mi. Dhi dhi thai = Tha ka. There’s more, go find them. It’s fun!

Use Your Breath

The climactic scene of “Be a Man” from Disney’s Mulan shows Mulan wielding weights as an asset to propel her up the massive pillar, not weigh her down.

When mastering tala, we must use breath the same way. It needs to help us reach the goal, not get in the way.

Often, I see beginning students try to make their way through entire jathis without planning their breathes. The result: an untimely gasp that throws off the tala.

At some point, I had the epiphany that if I strategically plan my breathes, not only will I make sure I don’t run out of breath, but I can also harness the breathe to take the right length of a gap.

For example, a common jathi ending is three “thadiginathas”, which comes out to (3x5=) 15 aksharas. In aditalam, if the ending is set to the last two angas (the two drithams), we have an additional one akshara. (2 drithams x 2 = 4 beats x 4 = 16 aksharas). That extra akshara normally heads off the theermanam:

(tha) tha di gi / na tha tha dhi / gi na tha tha / dhi gi na tha || OR

, tha dhi gi / na tha tha dhi / gi na tha tha / dhi gi na tha ||

Now, if you practice your breath control so that you take a quick sharp breath that’s the duration of one akshara, to power you through the end of the jathi, you’re in business!

There you go! A road map to get better with tala. Let me know if you’ve got any other strategies, or if any of these work for you.

P.S. The cover photo is from the summer camp we spent down time focused on tala (c. 2006?). Good times…




The Power of Ritual

The Power of Ritual

Kamakshim Kalayami

Kamakshim Kalayami