Tabla, Tirakita, and avoiding the Indian timepass

Ti ra ki ta
Ti ra ki ta
Ti ra ki ta
Ti ra ki ta

For the past two weeks, three other Rotary students and I have been learning the tabla, an instrument made of two classical, audially diverse Indian drums.

During inbound orientation, all Rotary students were told to choose between the tabla, the Indian flute, and the harmonium. Given my lack of musical talents, tabla seemed easiest. It’s just two drums, right?

Suffice to say, I’ve needed all the practice I can get.

At the moment, I’ve only learned to make five sounds. But when you add the sounds I’ve found on my own, double that. When you add the combinations from those, it makes about 30.

I could do more math, but my teacher, Ravi Satfale, makes quantifying the sounds from the tabla rather useless.

Suddenly, the flute seems kind of easy, doesn’t it?

Except there’s one more thing: playing the tabla is really, really fun.

Ke ke ti ra ki ta
Ke ke ti ra ki ta
Ke ke ti ra ki ta
Ke ke ti ra ki ta

We started with the basics. Tirakita is the foundation for much of the music the tabla makes. As we began, I made many mistakes. I’d hit the wrong note or I’d mix up the order. My fingers would be in the wrong position. My legs would be crossed improperly because I was wearing the wrong pants.

After some time, though, we’ve gotten into a rhythm. Like a train approaching full speed, my fingers move faster across the goatskin. When tirakita no longer gives me trouble, we add ke ke’s and ge ge’s. With enough practice, in come the ta ta‘s. Together, ta ta and ge ge make dhe dhe.

The more I immerse myself in tabla, the easier it is to play. At first, every note made me think – I was self-conscious of every note. My mistakes came when I allowed tabla to become part of my subconscious.

But it is impossible to master the tabla without allowing yourself to use your subconscious. The more you repeat an activity, the less you have to think about it. A few days ago, I noticed I could play tirakita without any thought. Same with an added ke ke. And ge ge.

Tabla had become a part of my subconscious.

Ke ke ti ra ki ta/ Ge ge ti ra ki ta
Ke ke ti ra ki ta/ Ta ta ti ra ki ta
Ke ke ti ra ki ta/ Dha dha ti ra ki ta
Ta ta ti ra ki ta/ Dha dha dhin dhin dha

One month ago, I stepped on a plane in Chicago and stepped off another in India. Having spent over four weeks here, I’ve become accustomed to the customs which once baffled me.

I stare at the cows, goats and dogs in the street about as much as they stare at me. Bathing with soap and a bucket of tepid water has lost its original novelty. The omnipresent honking and orderly meandering of the roads’ cars, bikes and motorbikes no longer makes me flinch.

I keep reading books and articles that say I’m supposed to feel disoriented, depressed and uncomfortable by this point in my exchange. The funny thing is, I’m not. Does that mean something’s wrong with me?


Maybe the time for culture shock is later. Maybe I haven’t yet met enough people to relieve me of my ease. Maybe, a couple months from now, I’ll write something scathing and sad that makes me want to leave my second home for my first.

It’s for times like those that I don’t want to get caught in a timepass. Indians use “timepass” to express that they aren’t doing much – just passing the time.

I want to avoid the timepass. Not that boredom is inherently bad, but with exchange students, there’s a correlation between boredom and homesickness. The less I walk around aimlessly, the less I walk around glum.

Remember this, future-Chris: When you do find yourself in a timepass, at least there’s something fun you can do to pass the time.

Ti ra
Ki ta


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6 Responses to “Tabla, Tirakita, and avoiding the Indian timepass”

  1. cbillin2 Says:

    I love your blog, Chris. Glad you’re still loving India. Have you started school? I’ve only been in classes for a week and a half and it feels like I’ve been here for forever! Love it! 😀

  2. pyoder Says:


  3. Gibson Says:

    I fail to see how-by someone sacrificing preconceptions about culture while in the midst of traveling to a foreign land and instead working very hard to understand his new surroundings in order to accept and enjoy them-there is something “wrong” with that person.

  4. Shawn Says:

    In my experience, you have at least 2 more months before you should start to an unhappy stage. First is novelty, you’re now moving into complacency stage (quite a happy place of safe familiarity for an exchange student) and one tends to rest there awhile before irritation sets in.

    However, as with most things in life, attitude is a choice. If you let the irritations go by as you beat on the tabla, you may move through that stage fairly quickly. Nonetheless, it is guaranteed that it will get more difficult before it gets easier. Happily, I am pretty sure you have the right combination of curiousity and fortitude to get through those inevitable rough spots!

    I’m thoroughly enjoying your posts! Thanks for sharing!


  5. John Says:

    I hope that you don’t enter into the scathing and irritated stage Chris– I agree with Shawn, I don’t think your personality will allow you to sink into that.

    Played any tennis? ^^

  6. boston123 Says:

    Hi Chris,

    Your blog is very interesting and a breath of fresh air… I must commend you on taking the plunge for a year in India, and on a excellent blog.

    Although I am Indian American, my kids were born and grew up in the US( Philly and Boston). However I have never been able to interest them in spending over 3 weeks in India!

    Are you attending high school, or the intermediate stage before college, in India? Just for kicks, I would suggest you register for and take the IIT entrance exam in Spring 2011….. I am curious what a US student might think of the 2 day test!

    Also, are you learning to read and write Hindi? Looking 10 years down the road, this might be a good language to be fluent in.

    And don’t forget to enjoy the famous Mangoes( alphonso, langda, etc..) from Nagpur and central India.

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