Hindustani Rhythm and Dinuk Wijeratne’s “Poetry of Squares”

By Eshantha Peiris

Dinuk Wijeratne (b. 1978) is a Canadian composer of South Asian birth and ancestry. While his compositional vocabulary draws upon a wide range of musical concepts and genres, he claims a special affinity with the language of tabla drumming. As he notes,

“I always say, perhaps only in half-jest, that in my next life I will be a Tabla player. Though I am a South-Asian with an exclusively Western Classical musical training, I grew up with the sounds of Indian Classical music in my ear. […] I was drawn instantly to its unique rhythmic language. Over the years, as I delved deeper, I was awed by the great rhythm virtuosi of the North Indian tradition and developed an obsession for the music associated with the king of Indian percussion instruments: the Tabla.” <1>

Figure 1: Tabla Drums. Photo by Rounik Ghosh, courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tabla_HD.jpg#filelinks

Wijeratne’s compositional output includes several pieces that draw inspiration from North Indian (Hindustani) classical music. These include “Colour Study in Rupaktaal” (2007)—a piece for solo piano inspired by tabla performances in which one musical line accelerates incrementally away from a melodic ostinato, a “Concerto for Tabla and Orchestra” (2014), and the solo piano piece “Poetry of Squares” (2011). In these pieces, Wijeratne’s primary compositional inspiration comes from Hindustani techniques of rhythm (tāla) rather than Hindustani techniques of melody (rāga); as such, they do not immediately evoke “Indian music” on the surface. This contrasts with mainstream western musics that evoke “Indianness” through the use of Indian instruments and techniques of melodic ornamentation (e.g., George Harrison’s use of undulating notes on the sitar in the Beatles’s 1965 song “Norwegian Wood) but has more in common with other western classical and jazz music that draws inspiration from the Indian structural rhythms—for example by composers such as Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) and Vijay Iyer (b. 1971). <2>

In this article, I draw attention to some of the techniques of Hindustani music evident in Wijeratne’s piano piece “Poetry of Squares,” showing how they are typically used in the source musical tradition and how the composer employs them in this piece. The score of “Poetry of Squares” is available at the composer’s website.

Hindustani Music

The music that we know today as “Hindustani classical music” has recognizable roots in the music performed in the feudal palaces of North India during British colonial occupation (1757–1947).<3> With the decline of feudal patronage of music, the advent of recording technology, and the democratization of Indian society in the early twentieth century, many court musicians had to adjust from a secluded, elite lifestyle dedicated to music to one that met the entertainment expectations of a concert-attending general public. With these changes in performance context, amplified performances of shorter duration featuring broader musical variety, more innovation, and virtuosity became the norm, although the music retained a balance between fixed and improvised elements. <4>

In the 1940s, musicians such as Alla Rakha Khan strove to elevate the status of the tabla drums from an accompanying instrument to a solo instrument and expanded the rhythmic techniques of tabla playing to unprecedented levels of complexity. A global demand for Indian music in the 1960s—driven by a western appetite for an exoticized Orient—spurred further changes to the Hindustani music, with the emphasis shifting from sung devotional content to purely instrumental music. The expanding market for “world music” in the 1980s coincided with an increase in self-consciously hybrid musical projects, which lead to further transformations in the performance styles of North Indian instruments. <5>

Hindustani Tāla

Despite these recent influences that account for the current surface appearance of Hindustani music, today’s Hindustani rhythm structures are arguably related to the clapping patterns described in ancient and medieval Sanskrit treatises.<6> The ordering of syllable-based pulses into larger patterns of claps is the basis of tāla, the system of rhythm cycles that provides the framework for both composition and improvisation in Hindustani music (and the related dance genre Kathak).<7> One such cyclic (i.e., repeating) rhythm framework is known as Jhaptāl (shown in Figure 2, and demonstrated on this website).

Figure 2: Characteristic Rhythm Pattern of Jhaptāl. The lower staff line represents the lower of the two tabla drums.

Hindustani tāla cycles are typically defined by a clapping pattern along with a characteristic pattern of drum syllables. <8> As shown in the Figure 1, the clapping pattern for Jhaptāl is “Clap-Clap-Wave-Clap,” where the “wave” is understood to represent an unstressed main beat. The drum syllables (bols) represent the timbres of different strokes on the tabla drums. The bol pattern for Jhaptāl is “Dhi-Na-Dhi-Dhi-Na-Ti-Na-Dhi-Dhi-Na,” where “Dhi” represents a bass stroke, and “Ti” represents a treble stroke. Seen this way, the defining bol pattern of a Hindustani tāla (i.e., cyclic rhythm framework) can be seen as a characteristic pattern of stressed and unstressed pulses, possibly reflecting the Persian influence in Hindustani music. Seen in conjunction with the clapping pattern “Clap-Clap-Wave-Clap,” it is apparent that the higher-pitched drum stroke coincides with the unstressed wave; this lightness of sound is acknowledged with the conceptual label khāli. This contrasts with the first half of the cycle, which begins with a bass/stressed stroke coinciding with a clap and is considered heavier (bhāri) that the second half of the cycle.

Of course, Figure 2 only shows an ideal-type skeletal rhythmic pattern (thēkā) associated with the tāla; in practice, tabla players usually elaborate the basic pattern using patterns known as prākār, while maintaining the heavy-light (bhāri-khāli) stress structure of the rhythm cycle.

Here’s a video of a solo tabla performance in Jhaptāl, performed by Alla Rakha Khan:

Wijeratne’s piano piece “Poetry of Squares” is based on Jhaptāl, and it maintains the heavy-light (bhāri-khāli) structure of the rhythm cycle throughout, with the sixth quarter-note of the cycle remaining unstressed, and the second half of the cycle having fewer accents (shown below in Figure 3).

Figure 3: The bhāri-khāli structure of Jhaptāl at the start of “Poetry of Squares.”

Kaida Form

        “Poetry of Squares” is inspired by the form of a Hindustani piece-type known as kaida, which is usually performed on tabla.<9>As tabla player Ed Hanley notes“When a rhythmic ‘theme’ is constructed and variations (palta) are improvised based on a system of rules (including techniques such as repetition, permutation, and substitution) this is known as kaida.”<10> A performance of kaida typically begin with a phrase that is played a few times in succession at progressively faster speeds within the same tempo. In other words, the same phrase is superimposed over the rhythm framework in consecutively faster proportions that correspond perfectly with the length of the cycle. This technique is illustrated at the start of “Poetry of Squares.” The first phrase, subdivided in eighth notes and played twice, fits over twenty beats (i.e., two cycles of Jhaptāl). The phrase is then played using a triplet subdivision; this needs to be played three times to fit over the twenty beats. Then the phrase is played using a sixteenth note subdivision (i.e., twice as first as the beginning), and needs to be played four times to fit over the twenty beats. (Figure 4 shows the main phrase in boxes.)   

Figure 4: The opening phrase of “Poetry of Squares” played at progressively faster speeds within the same tempo.

The piece continues using a sixteenth note subdivision until the end; the composer develops the piece by systematically varying placements of the accents and incrementally changing the notes (and thus the resultant harmony) from cycle to cycle. <11>

Cadential Rhythm Patterns

In addition to cyclic rhythm patterns, Hindustani music also features cadential rhythm patterns. Kaidas typically end with the cadential formula known as tihai. Tihai is a short rhythmic phrase that is designed to end on the first beat (sam) of a cycle when played three times consecutively. “Poetry of Squares” concludes with the same formula. <12> Figure 5 highlights the repeated phrase in three different colors, showing how the same phrase is played three times (superimposed against the counts of the ten-count metric framework) and how the last note of the third phrase ends on the downbeat.

Figure 5: A tihai at the end of “Poetry of Squares.”

By drawing on techniques of rhythm associated with Hindustani music and using them as the basis of a piece reminiscent of a Western Classical concert etude, Dinuk Wijeratne fashions a musical language that can sound both familiar and unfamiliar. Although the melodic content of “Poetry of Squares” may not necessarily evoke “Indian music” on the surface, by explicitly identifying the source of his rhythmic inspiration, the composer also makes a statement about the value of the many musical heritages of the world that are often underappreciated by aficionados of Western Art Music.

Listen to the whole piece here, performed by the author of this article:


<1> Wijeratne, Dinuk. Program note for “Colour Study in Rupaktaal.” 2007.

<2> Messiaen’s “Turangalila Symphony” draws on rhythm patterns listed in thirteenth century Sanksrit treatise Saṅgīta-ratnākara, while Iyer’s compositions draw on techniques of rhythm development from South Indian Karnatak classical music.

<3> A fictional depiction of music performed in North Indian feudal palaces appears in Satyajit Ray’s film “Jalsaghar” https://youtu.be/HsOApwYgzLo.

<4> Ruckert, George. Music in North India. 2004.

<5> Nuttall, Denise. “Tracking the Intercultural Borders, Fusions, Traditions and the Global Art of Tabla.” 2011.

<6> Kippen, James. “Hindustani Tala.” 1998.

<7> For a comprehensive discussion of tāla, see Clayton, Martin. Time in Indian Music. 2008.

<8> The term tāla can refer to the system of rhythm as a whole, or to a specific metric cycle.

<9> Kippen, James. “Mapping a Rhythmic Revolution through Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Sources on Rhythm and Drumming in North India.” 2019.

<10> Hanley, Ed. “What Is a Kaida?” http://52kaidas.blogspot.ca/2009/12/what-is-kaida.html. 2009. More detail on the structure of kaida can be found on the following websiteby David Courtney: https://chandrakantha.com/tablasite/articles/cyclic.htm#KAIDA

<11> This technique of incrementally changing notes from cycle iteration to cycle iteration is reminiscent of processes of gradual transformation employed by American minimalist composers (such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass) starting in the 1960s.

<12> Wijeratne’s fascination with tihais is evident in his own blog post exploring the concept: http://blog.dinukwijeratne.com/2014/04/10/tihai-the-psychology-of-threes/


Clayton, Martin. Time in Indian Music: Rhythm, Metre, and Form in North Indian Rāg Performance. New York: Oxford University Press. 2008.

Kippen, James. “Hindustani Tala.” In Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Vol. 5: South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent, edited by Alison Arnold, 110-137. New York: Routledge. 1998.

Kippen, James. Gurudev’s Drumming Legacy: Music, Theory, and Nationalism in the Mr̥daṅg Aur Tablā Vādanpaddhati of Gurudev Patwardhan. School of Oriental and African Studies Musicology Series. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing. 2016.

Kippen, James. Mapping a Rhythmic Revolution Through Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Sources on Rhythm and Drumming in North India.” In Thought and Play in Musical Rhythm, edited by Richard Wolf, Stephen Blum, and Christopher Hasty, 253-72. New York: Oxford University Press. 2019.

Nuttall, Denise. “Tracking the Intercultural Borders, Fusions, Traditions and the Global Art of Tabla.” Journal of the Indian Musicological Society. 2011.

Ruckert, George E. Music in North India: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Eshantha Peiris (he/him) is a lecturer at Vancouver Community College (Canada) and the University of Peradeniya (Sri Lanka). His writings have been published in the journals Analytical Approaches to World Music and Studia Instrumentorum Musicae Popularis.