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Tablas are 18th century Indian hand drums used today in popular, classical, and artistic music. They consist of two short drum of different sizes, one played with each hand. Often played during religious ceremonies, tablas are an important part of Indian culture and music, and are the primary drums for popular and classical music north of India.
Tablas are typical non-frame drums. The tabla is a set of two drums, of different shapes, played at different timbres. They are often played sitting down, with the drum across the lap or in front of it. They can be played with the fingers, thumbs, palms, and knuckles, and produce different sounds based on the size of the drum. Tablas feature a perfect tunable pitch and because of its acoustical properties, the tabla is capable of many different notes.
Tablas are made of many materials. Unlike many ancient Middle Eastern drums, a tabla shell is generally made fromĀ brass aluminum, or metal, though it can be made from cheaper materials. Like most of its predecessors, though, the drum head is generally made by stretching goat skin over the face of the drum.
Tablas consist of a right hand drum, called the dayan, and a left hand drum, called the bayan. The dayan is a cylindrical shell made of hard wood, as most Indian drums are. The dayan drum is slightly larger at the base than it is at the top. The bayan drum, made most effectively from polished brass, has a semi-circular shape, rounded on the bottom and flat on top. Both drums stand less than 1 ft (30 cm) high, while the dayan is 5.5 in (14 cm) wide at the head and the bayan is 8.6 (22 cm) across.
Tablas are descended from a long line of Middle Eastern and Indian instruments from ancient times. They are directly descended from the Indian mrdangm and puskara, which were seen in pictographs as early as the sixth and seventh centuries. Tablas were developed from these lap-drums in the 1700s. The name, from the Arabic word tabla for drum, comes from the Arabic invaders of India who played an integral role in the Indian music of the period.
The playing of tablas typically follows six different styles of Indian classical music, called gharanas. The teachings were developed in order, and include many styles. Among these styles are different styles of improvisation, special notes, continuous playing, powerful strokes, and delicate and sensitive playing with a curved ring finger.
From: http://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-tablas.htm