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last updated May 6, 2011
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  Understand tal
Play vilambit gat

Gat is a composition in a rag and set in a tal which you use as the basis for improvisation. Vilambit means slow tempo. There are many traditional compositions which have been passed down orally from generation to generation. In actual performance the gat is varied and developed, but its structure and how it fits into the tal is kept constant. In the library section you will find notated version of some compositions.

Practicing gat helps you put together all the elements of technique you have already learned, strengthens your understanding of tal because the composition fits exactly into the tal, and strengthens your understanding of rag because these traditional compositions bring out the key phrases and notes of the rag.

Practice each line of the gat with tabla round and round many times until you have assimilated it completely.

Here is an example in rag yaman set in tintal:


Play short composed tans

A tan is an improvised passage usually in faster notes than the tal which fits into the gat, decorating or elaborating a section of the composition. Tans usually finish either just before or to dovetail into the composition, or to finish on sam, the first beat of the tal.

To start with learn composed tans and practice them as part of your practice of the gat. Practicing composed tans helps develop your technique and gives you models for inventing your own tans. In the library section you will find notated version of some tans for each of the compositions.

Here are some simple examples of tans, for the yaman gat shown above. These start on Sam and finish to join the begining of the gat (which is called the mukhda):


Play concluding tihai

Tihai means something played three times. It is a very common aspect of indian music, used to conclude a section of a performance, an improvisation or the whole piece. The structure of Masitkhani gat means that the first part of the composition, played three times usually forms a satisfying tihai. When you first begin learning gat, learn this type of tihai to conclude your performance.

Here is an example for the yaman vilambit gat - the begining of the gat played three times (slightly adapted at the end) fits perfectly to finish on sam:


Understand structure of Masitkhani gat


Masitkhani gat - named after the 18th century sitarist Masit Khan, who composed many gats following fixed mizrab patterns - typically has four lines, is played at vilambit (slow) speed, is set in tintal, and starts on the 12th beat of the cycle. The four lines are:



Gat (or mukhda)


The gat or mukhda is the core, and the most important part of the gat, representing the element of the raag that its composer wishes to emphasize. Confusingly this is sometimes just called Sthayi.
Manjha The manjha is the second line of the gat and generally covers the region below the middle of the middle octave.
Antara Antara The antara ascends from the mid-octave region to high Sa
Amad (Urdu for arrival) The amad is the second melodic line of the antara. It usually picks up the melody from the higher-octave after the antara, and descends to Sa, through melodic phrases. The amad descent may, or may not, be preceded by a further ascent up to the mid-octave region in the higher octave.


The terminology is confusing, as you can see from the above, with different parts of the gat called the same name - this is just the way that things have evolved and in practice is not a problem.


Play drut gat and composed tans

Drut means fast. So a drut gat is a fast composition. It is very common in performance for the gat section to consist first of an improvisation on a vilambit gat, followed by one on a drut gat in the same rag.

Practice the drut gat and composed tans in exactly the same way as the vilambit gat until the gat is completely automatic and you know where you are in the tal all the time. A good way to do this is to practice whilst counting out loud or better saying the theka for the tal out loud. This is very good preparation for improvisation.


Play longer composed tans

Once you have gained confidence playing short tans, you should learn longer tans of 2 or more cycles. Again practicing these helps develop your technique and gives you ideas for inventing tans of your own.

It is a good idea when practicing this kind of tan to alternate playing the tan and saying/singing the note names - this helps to establish the tan in your mind and to build the connection between thinking of the notes and the physical action to play them.


Improvise 4 and 8 beat tans in 2x speed

This is a first step towards confident improvisation. This exercise is easiest done at medium speed to start with. Start as an exercise, improvising without a composition or subject, with each of your tans ending on sam.

Set your tabla machine on medium speed say 80 beats per minute. Start counting the tal and just playing chikari strings with the beat. On the last 4 beats play a short tan at 1x or 2x speed finishing on sam. Here is an example in yaman using mostly 1x speed or repeated notes.

Once you are confident with this introduce more 2x speed. Here are some examples:

Then try 8 beat tans. If you get stuck with this remember that an 8 beat tan could be just two 4 beat tans put together. The first one is an example where the first four beat tan above is used to finish off the longer tan. If you run out of ideas just use one of the alenkar we have practised.

Practise this kind of exercise whilst:

- counting out loud
- counting in your head
- saying the tal out loud
- saying the tal in your head
- with a friend saying the tal for you
- saying/singing a short tan then playing it
- saying/singing at the same time as playing etc

All these different ways will strengthen your sense of tal and imagination. Don't worry that these are just short tans - most longer tans can be broken up into smaller tans.

Beautify or vary the gat

In performance the gat is rarely played exactly in its basic form. The sitarist will vary it and decorate it whilst keeping the basic structure the same and keeping in tal. This process may use:

- meend, and murki to vary the notes and to add inflections
- shifts of rhythm or repetitions of notes
- short deviations from the outline of the gat

This process can build and build with the gat becoming more and more elaborated - however, the fundamental shape of the gat should keep appearing and the listener must still be able to hear your performance returning to the sam absolutely in tal with your tabla player. This style of playing is most obvious in vilambit gat (similar processes apply to drut gat, but because of the speed tends to sound more like improvising tans).

To practice this pick short sections of the gat for elaboration and then return to the straight version of the rest of the gat. It is crucial in doing this to pick up the straight gat in tal. Help yourself by being clear about which beat of the tal you are to return to and counting out loud or saying the tal whilst elaborating. To start with this almost certainly inhibit the quality of your elaboration. But it is very useful to establish in your mind the length of time for your elaboration.

To get your imagination going, elaborate a section without worrying about the tal but keeping the section roughly the same length. This frees you from worrying about timing.

Then put these two things together to achieve maximum freedom in your elaborations and at the same time remaining strictly within the tal. As with tans use vaious techniques to strengthen your sense of tal, counting out loud or saying the tal whilst you play.

Once you have achieved this, pick another section of the gat and do the same thing. To start with keep the sections you work on quite short - 4 beats or so - and only gradually develop this.


Improvise tans of any length in 2x, 3x, 4x speed

Build on previous work to play 2x speed tans to practice longer more elaborate tans. The most crucial skill is the ability to stay in tal and either return accurately to the gat or to finish your tan on Sam. Practise which will help with this is:

- Keep your tans simple whilst focusing on staying in tal
- Count or say the theka out loud whilst improvising - to start with this will inhibit your improvisation, but keep working on it!
- Say the theka in your head whilst improvising - this is in reality what performers do, but it has become so instinctive that they just automatically know where they are in the tal all the time
- Get a friend to help you by counting or saying the theka for you and clapping on the main beats

In addition to this, you can set yourself challenges - set out in advance to include certain elements in your tan. For example:

- the speed of your tan 2x, 3x or 4x speed
- that it should be based on a certain alenkar
- that it should finish on a certain note
- that it should start at 2x speed and finish with 3x speed

Practice saying/singing tans too. Ultimately you should be able to:

- say/sing a tan in tal and then play the same tan exactly straight afterwards or
- say/sing and play the tan at the same time.

Create different types of tan

There are many different types of tan. It is useful to think of these types to add variety to your performance. Here are some examples of types or images that you could use to develop your skills:

- tans based on an alenkar. Pick an alenkar, start your tan with this and then finish off with an improvised pattern or scale passage
- tans based on scales. Make your tan mostly out of scale passages (obeying the rag rules)
- tans using jumps. Play a short pattern emphasising a key note of the rag then repeat this pattern on a different note in a different register, then jump again. Complete your tan with an alenkar or a scale.
- tans returning to a couple of notes. Make a series of phrases which always end with the same two notes.
- tans which start high and then descend
- tans which start low and then ascend
- tans which start low, ascend and then descend

Use these ideas to set your self tasks for practicing tans so that you can consciously produce more and more varied tans.


Improvise on a subject

This is very commonly used to structure longer improvisations after you have finished beautifying the gat.

You start by picking a note or a short phrase of two or three notes. Usually this phrase will finish on an important note in the rag. You then play four or five phrases finishing with that phrase or note. After each phrase you can allow a little time perhaps playing chikari.

Then pick another note or phrase and repeat the process. Continue this until you feel you have finished and then play a tan perhaps with tihai at the end which leads back into the gat or finishes on sam.

A good way to structure this type of improvisation is to follow the same process as is done for alap with starting around Sa, then exploring lower notes then the middle range and finishing with the higher notes.

Create simple tihai

Tihai means something played three times. Improvisations often end with a tihai.  Tihai is a very, very common rhythmic/melodic device used by Indian musicians. The tihai should end on sam, or on the beat before the gat, or dovetail neatly into the first notes of the gat. The end of a performance will almost always conclude with some form of tihai - often in the form of a chakradhar.

The tihai builder below shows a way to grow simple tihais in rag yaman to fill any number of beats simply by adjusting the length of the phrase and the number of gaps between:

  • A phrase of 3 notes is used with 0,1 or 2 half beat gaps to create three tihais.
  • The phrase is then extended by adding two notes at the beginning to create three more tihais again by adding gaps.
  • Then more notes and gaps are added, until we finish with an 11 note phrase with no gap, which perfectly fits in one cycle of teental to finish on sam.

Practice this until you get the feel for how long the phrase should be and ideally can improvise a tihai starting on any beat and finishing on sam. It is probably a good idea to master the shorter tihais first. Then maybe master tihais starting on 13, 10, 7, 4, and 1 - the ones which don't have gaps. This will help get a mental map of how long tihais starting on different beats need to be.

In performance a sitarist will invent tihais on the spur of the moment, but this type of exercises is useful to get the idea.

Leaving spaces in your improvisation

You don't need to be playing all the time to create an interesting performance. Both you and your audience need gaps to reflect on what you have just played and for you to think what you are going to play next. Think about how singers break up their longer improvisations to take a breath.

It is very common for sitarists to fill up gaps in their improvisations with playing chikari strings - listen out for this in performances to see how sitarists use this and to note how the tabla player will tend to decorate the tal slightly more elaborately during these pauses.


Call and response

A common feature of sitar and tabla recital in some schools is a section of 'call and response' where the sitarist plays a melodic pattern and the tabla player copies. The pattern gets more exciting as the length of the melodic phrases shortens and therefore the game of tag between the two soloists speeds up. The excitement of this form is heightened by the rhythmic inventiveness of the phrases used - with off beat and irregular patterns - but still within a disciplined and clear underlying pulse.

Ask your tabla player to play at about 50 beats per minute to start with. This makes it easy for you to improvise phrases with 4 strokes to each beat. To start with improvise simple phrases covering just two beats - such as:

Your tabla player will answer with something like:

Continue your practice alternating short phrases like this. Take care to stick strictly to two exact beats at this stage - later on you can extend yourself but you need to discipline your practice first. Take care to pick up your next phrase after exactly two beats from the tabla. You have to think quickly. Take care for both of you to keep a steady pulse.

When you and your tabla player are confident about playing tag with two beat phrases, extend to four beats. You might find it helpful to count four beats out loud as we have done for other improvisation practices. Here is an example:

And here is a simple response:

In performance, common practice is to start with longer phrases and play several exchanges of these and then gradually shorten them. For this to work, you and your tabla player need to be very expert and alert to pick up what each is going to do next.

As you get more experience, try to make it more difficult for your tabla player by playing unexpected rhythms - but remember you have to stick to the correct phrase lenght. Also, you should also use your tabla players response to make your improvisations even more inventive.


Accompanying tabla

Leave sections of your performance for the tabla player to play a solo - he or she will play a tabla composition finishing with tihai. Whilst he or she is playing you should play the gat in outline to accompany the tabla and keep the tal exact. It is common for the sitarist to play quietly to emphasise the fact that you are accompanying. You must make sure that you keep your playing very steady and clear - the tabla player is relying on you to stay in tal.



Rag Bhairavi

Follow the links for:

Drut gat set in tintal


Rag Bagesrhri

Follow the links for:

Vilambit gat set in tintal
Drut gat set in ektal
Drut gat set in rupaktal


Rag Gujri Todi

Follow the links for:

Drut gat set in tintal


Rag Jhinjhoti
Rag Madhuvanti
Rag Yaman