Tablas are the principal rhythmic accompaniment to most North Indian classical and light music. Although construction of the instrument is similar to kettle-drums that were in use for centuries, the first visual images of an instrument similar to the tabla can be traced only to 1808. The instrument in its current form is probably less than a century old. Tablas are arguably the most complex drums in the world. Each head contains three separate skins.
Tablas consist of two upright drums that are played with fingers and palms. Each drum sits on a ringed base of padding. The smaller drum, slightly conical in shape, is called the tabla or dayan (literally right), and is generally played with the right hand. The top of the drum is covered with a stretched, layered leather membrane held in place by leather braces. The wooden pegs between the braces and the drum adjust the tension in the braces, thus controlling the pitch of the instrument. The black spot found in the tabla's center is made from a mixture of carbon black, mucilage, and iron filings gathered from the sides of Indian railway lines. The mixture is rolled up into a sticky ball and applied as many spiral layers until it builds up this unique black spot. The black spot and the tabla skins are very delicate. The dayan is tuned with a metal hammer by lightly striking the periphery of the top membrane or tapping the wooden pegs.
The larger rounded drum is called the duggi or the bayan (literally left), and is generally played with the left hand. Its body consists either of clay or, more commonly in modern tablas, metal (such as nickel-plated brass, brass, copper or aluminum). The top is covered with a leather membrane held with thongs and, like the dayan, is also adorned with a round black patch. The baya has a larger diameter than the daya and provides the bass. The tabla player's index, third, and fourth fingers as well as the palm and heel of the hand strike the surface of both drums to generate the rich treble and low bass tones that make up the tabla bols (percussion notes). Combined, the dayan and bayan, can produce an extraordinary array of sounds and rhythms in the hands of an accomplished player.