Fundamentally, any music is about sound and time. Sound expresses itself through the Swara, and time expresses itself through the Laya. In case of Indian music, Swara and laya are further processed, and elevate themselves to the status of the Raga and the Tala, which then become the basis for presentation. Just like the Raga, the Tala also is a uniquely Indian concept.
While the Raga is a melodic theme for development, the Tala is the rhythmic frame for presentation. Tala provides that platform which is used for creating beautiful and interesting patterns, and at the same time becomes the compound which disciplines the development.
What is unique to the Tala is the concept of awartan, or repetition, which means that the rhythm is maintained in a cyclic form. In the other forms of music, the rhythm progresses linearly, and generally expresses itself as a meter with a few beats. The cyclic nature of the Tala allows much longer and complex cycles, of varying number of beats. The variety of sounds which can be created on the Tabla ( by the use of the Tabla and the Baanya), further provides a distinctive personality to each Tala.
The most significant contribution of the Tala to music is undoubtedly the Sama, which is the starting point of an awartan. During performance, reaching the point of Sama beautifully becomes the goal of the development (so much so that how an artist does this is an indicator of his musical prowess and class). The Sama becomes the emotional and intellectual objective awartan after awartan.
The Tala accompaniment is provided by the Tabla for the khayal, while it is the Pakahwaj which accompanies the Dhrupad.
Other than being the rhythmic component of a bandish (composition), and hence accompaniment, the Tala is also presented by itself during a Tabla solo performance. In this case, a melodic composition is used for accompaniment ( mostly on the harmonium or the sarangi), which is known as the Nagma or Lehera.
We will shortly get down to understanding the concept of Laya, and how it evolves in the Tala.