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Rhythm, or taaLam in Carnatic music consists of regular beats to which a composition is set. Usually, each song has its own taaLam, which is carried from the first word of the song to the last.

Introduction to Carnatic
Previous: Raga and Rasa
Next: TaaLa table (soon to come)

Each taaLam cycles through a number of beats, each cycle called an aavartanam. For example, one of the most common taaLam is called aadi. In aadi taaLam, 8 beats (commonly 4 swaras to each beat) make one cycle. Thus, up to 32 swaras may comprise one cycle, lengthened and shortened to accomodate the taaLam. TaaLam is kept by beating the right hand gently against the right thigh while seated with your legs crossed ("Indian style").

Example: Aadi TaaLam
For aadi taaLam, first beat the palm of the hand (1), then tap the fingers pinky (2), ring finger (3), middle finger(4). Then beat palm (5), turn the hand over and tap or wave the back of the hand (6), palm (7), back (8). This is one cycle. This cycle will repeat throughout the song. Although often the number of swaras per beat will change during a carnatic song, the actual beat changes within a song VERY rarely, and even then, it is a fixed change, not a slowing down or speeding up of the beat itself. The madhyaadi taaLam starts aadi taaLam after 1/2 beat, and the deshaadi taaLam starts after 1 1/2 beats, even though these originally were written to be 3 beats and a wave.

There are several basic movements, called angas (limbs), in Carnatic music. 3 of these are most common: drutam, which is a beat with the palm and then with the back of the hand (as in steps 5 & 6 or 7 & 8 of aadi taaLam), anudrutam, which is simply a beat of the hand, laghu, which consists of a beat plus the movements of the fingers of the hand (steps 1-4 of aadi taaLam). Each of these movements of the 3 angas is called a kriyaa and usually signals the beginning of the beat. Other movements (for 4 or more beats each) of the hand are used rarely.

Suladi Sapta TaaLam System
The combination of these 3 types of movements creates different types of taaLam. If we name drutam 0, anudrutam U, and laghu 1, we get the following major taaLam combinations, which are the suladi sapta taaLams:


Laghu, Jaati, and the 35 TaaLams
The number of beats used in the laghu is added to these taaLams to give the jaati. 7 jaatis of beats 3 (tishra), 4 (catushra), 5 (khanDa), 7 (mishra), 9 (sankeerna), create more variations of these so that there are 7 types each of the seven taaLams, giving 35 taaLams. Thus aadi taaLam is actually catusra jaati tripuTa taaLam. Other common taaLams are roopakam (catusra jaati roopaka taaLam) and mishra caapu (tishra jaati tripuTa taaLam).

Other taaLams
The caapu is a beat and a wave. Thus mishra caapu is 3+4 beats (vilOma is 4+3). tishra caapu is 1+2, khaNDa caapu is 2+3, and sankeerna caapu is 4+5.

In addition to the drutam, anudrutam and laghu, there are also guru (symbol 8) which is 8 beats and formed by a beat of 4 and a wave of the hand, plutam (symbol ^8, 12 beats) a beat and 2 waves, and kaakapaadam (symbol +, 16 beats) a beat and wave up then to the left then to the right (forming a + sign). These allow for even more taaLams - one taaLam, called simhananaanam taaLam even has 1008 beats!

The tempo of the rhythm is also important in a song. This is called the kaalam. The same beat can be performed at half the speed simply by counting 2 beats to every one, and it can be speeded up by counting faster. In these cases, the number of swaras to every beat changes. At the basic speed, if 4 swaras form one beat (1st kaalam, madhyama), then at the slower speed there will be 8 swaras of the same length per beat (1/2 kaalam, vilambita), at the faster speed 2 swaras per beat (2nd kaalam, durita), and at an even faster speed 1 swara per beat (3rd kaalam). Thus the performer must perform faster to keep the same number of swaras per beat in the song as the kaalam doubles or triples. Expert performers can also work in other combinations where there are 5, 3 or 1 1/2 swaras per beat. The number of swaras or subdivisions per beat is called the gati or naDai. This is equivalent to gait (waltz would be a gait of 3). Thus our basic aadi taaLam at madhyama kaalam is in chatushra gati or chatushra naDai.

Another term is kaLai, which refers to using multiple beats in one beat. Thus 2nd kaLai of aadi taaLam will use 2 beats for every one beat of the taaLam. This is noticeable in the speed of the song and the length of the aavartanam (cycle of the taaLam).

In some cases, the taaLam doesn't "begin" on the beginning of the first beat (called the samam). It may begin just 1/2 beat before or after, or 1 1/2 beat after, for example. The place where a particular section of a song (anupallavi, pallavi, or caraNam) begins in the taaLam is called the graham or eDuppu. When eduppus begin, for example, 3/4 beat after or before the samam, one can get an effect very much like Western syncopation.

Percussion, Rhythm, and TaaLam
The mridangam artist is an expert at keeping the taaLam correctly and will often indicate the samam of the taaLam or the beginning of a musical phrase by movement in addition to showing the sequence of beats. Carnatic rhythm may be complicated but by practice in keeping taaLam to music correctly and understanding the underlying principles, it can be very satisfying to appreciate the melody as well as the rhythm of the music.

Next: TaaLa table

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updated on 06/01/2012