The Tabla (and the harmonium or sarangi) accompaniment to a khayal vocal presentation is known as saath. While the harmonium provides the swar accompaniment, generally re-producing the phrases which the singer sings, the tabla provides the frame of awartan. The tanpura in the background is constantly providing the canvas of the shadja and many more sur (the tanpura sound is called as drone by the western world, which I do not really like, as it reduces the tanpura to a mundane boring sound).
What is played on the tabla is the theka of the tala chosen. The term theka is applied only in reference to khayal accompaniment, for singers or those instrumentalists (violin/ sarangi or the flute) who use the khayal form. This is not used when the tabla accompanies instruments playing the alaap/jod/jhala form, or a dancer. The same goes for pakhavaj accompaniment for dhrupad, or the mridangam in the carnatic music.
So what is so special about the khayal form? What are the demands of the khayal when it comes to the laya aspect?
As we saw earlier, a khayal singer looks at the tala as divided into larger sections, the khand, which are comprised of more than one matra, and hence smaller in number than the matras. This gives a gross or macro view of the tala, providing a better platform for creating raga phrases. This suffices for him as the sole purpose of his presentation is to reach the mukhada and thence the sama, beautifully. But this does not mean that he does not see the laya at the micro or subtle level. Whatever he does during the awartan from the last sama to the mukhada happens at the subtlest level, with a beautiful interplay of laya and swara. He does this by dodging, but still showing the individual matra beats during the development, finally arriving at the mukhada in perfect laya and swar. The theka accompaniment on the tabla compliments this beautifully, by stretching certain bols, making maximum use of the aas or sustain of the dagga, and /or filling in more bols at a faster laya within the space of a matra. The singer and the tabla player thus are moving in tandem, going around the actual matra demarcations, following parallel routes, and converging beautifully at the sama. And this continues awartan after awartan, bringing tremendous joy for both the performers and the audience.
I have so far refrained from giving any examples of artists and their music, strictly sticking only to the explanation of the concept. But here, I can not resist giving the example of Pt. Ulhas Kashalkar accompanied by Pt. Suresh Talwalkar, both complimenting each other beyond comparison. Mind you, this may not be compared with the so called jugalbandi between an instrument and the tabla. The patterns there relate and cling more to the matra beats.
All of the above of course becomes more apparent in the vilambit laya, or the slower Madhya laya, rather than the drut laya. This also brings us to the question of how to define what is vilambit and what is not.
We will go on to explore the laya as tempo…