Khartal, also known as kartal or khar taal, is an idiophone percussion instrument originating in Rajasthan, India. It is classified as an idiophone because the entire instrument vibrates to produce a sound on it’s own. Still incredibly popular throughout India, particularly in the North, they’re sometimes called ‘Rajasthani bones.’ A common accompaniment to folk and devotional music, the khartal is one of the smallest, and oldest, percussion instruments in the world. Khartal is also a popular rhythm accompaniment to tabla and harmonium.
The khartal instrument consists of two flat, rectangular, wooden sheets held in one hand. The planks typically measure between 20 and 30 cm in length and 5 and 7 cm in width. They aren't meant to be identical. One sheet is slightly bigger than the other, which enhances the percussive sound produced. Various hand movements bring the two planks together to create a wide range of complex rhythmic sounds.
Playing one set of khartal is called playing single and playing with a set in each hand is double. These wooden ‘clappers’ were originally made from rosewood and ebony trees, but today are made from many different hardwoods, like maple, black locust, teak, or paduak. The khartal is hailed as one of the most portable percussion instruments in existence. Although the Indian khartal has been around for hundreds of years, it hasn’t seen as much popularity as other percussion instruments. This is changing recently as more khartal exponents introduce the complexity and depth of rhythm this instrument is capable of.
Khartal instruments are now being made all over the world and many drummers are seeking out khartal lessons online or in person. In additional to devotional and popular music accompaniment, khartal is an emerging solo instrument, as well. Learning how to play khartal can be fun but also complex, as it takes balance and dexterity to play rhythms.
The word “khartal” comes from the Hindi word ‘kara’ meaning hand, and ‘tala’ meaning rhythm. Ancient Indian drumming In Telugu, the instrument is called karatala Dhvani, meaning the sound produced from clapping hands. Thought to be around 500 years old, khartal can be seen in 16th century depictions of Meera Bai, a famous devotee of Lord Krishna from Pali, Rajasthan. The earliest use of khartal was in bhajan, harinam, and kirtan devotional music. The rhythms used in bhajan devotionals were derived from the Samaveda samhita dated around 1000 BCE.
Around the same time, khartal and other percussion rhythms were used in kirtan devotionals from the Nama-kirtana. These texts extolled the elemental sounds of music and provided the foundation for modern Indian percussion and melody. It’s also likely that khartal was a prominent accompaniment to Rajasthani folk dance. Khartal has changed very little over the last several hundred years. The same basic designs and compositions that are used in modern devotional, folk, classical, and popular music are the same ones used centuries ago. Recently, efforts have been made to create electronic khartal sheets using sensitivity sensors through hardware and software. These electrokhartals are not currently manufactured for consumer use but popularity and use may increase in the future.
Wooden sheets: These flat wooden sets are the most popular and widely played. This is also the khartal that originated in Rajasthan. They can be personalized with designs and carried practically anywhere. They can usually be bought in sets of two or four. Most playing techniques are meant for this type of khartal. These are considered concussion idiophones because it’s two objects being struck together.
Shaken khartal: The oldest type of khartal that we know of and still popular in devotional music. Also called a manjeera or manjira, it consists of a carved wooden stick that is 20-to-30 cm in length and has 1-to-2 rows of thin, round metal cymbals attached along the side. The cymbals, or zingles, can be made of brass, tin, or steel. They are attached to a metal rod that is set into the wooden frame. When shaken or tapped against the hand, the sound is similar to that of a tambourine.
Two manjira may be played at once by tapping them together. These types of khartal instruments are considered shaken idiophones. Some khartals may be carved to fit the fingers and thumbs to play while clapping, while others are formed into blocks that are struck together. The identifying characteristic of this diverse class of percussion instruments is the movement of clapping two wooden pieces together to create rhythm.
There are other variations of this instrument from many different regions. This type of struck, wooden idiophone likely pre-dates even the drum. It’s likely that multiple versions were developed simultaneously on different continents. Castanets from Spain, paiban from China, and claves from Cuba all consist of striking two pieces of wood together to create rhythm. Although they are all similar, the different materials, designs, and techniques create distinct sounds from each instrument.
Learning how to properly hold and manipulate khartal sheets is essential to learning to produce the rhythms this instrument is known for. Standard devotional rhythms vary by genre, with bhajan and kirtan rhythms derived from eight beat cycles, or taals. With the shaken cymbal khartals, a popular rhythm is a four-beat cycle with three beat strikes. The shaken khartal is very similar to a tambourine and is played in much the same way. Khartal follows the style of all other Indian percussion instruments with rhythms based on taals.
While these rhythms are standardized, the techniques for achieving the necessary sounds are highly individualized, especially as the instrument grows in popularity and is incorporated in new genres. New khartal players should start off with one set of khartal sheets held in one hand before moving onto double khartals. Percussion students can learn the various ways to manipulate the sheets to produce a wide range of sounds and rhythms from one-on-one instruction. The intricate muscle movements in the hand necessary to produce synchronous, complex rhythms require practice and engagement with a master.
Khartals are solid wooden instruments that cannot be tuned. The thickness and type of wood an instrument is made from can vary the pitch slightly but these are traditionally unpitched instruments. The cymbals or zingles attached to a shaken khartal may have a higher or lower pitch depending on the type and thickness of the metal but these are also considered unpitched. Khartals are primarily considered rhythm instruments so pitch is irrelevant.
This is another reason the khartal is highly portable and simple to pick up and play. Thinner and lighter construction of the wooden and metal components create a higher pitch, while thicker and heavier materials produce a lower sound. To achieve the traditional khartal sound, a hard wood treated with oil is the standard. Additional alterations to the traditional khartal would only be a consideration in a percussion ensemble, where the khartal player would want to remain distinctive from other wooden idiophones and drums.
There are many world-renowned percussionists who play khartal. Below are some of the most talented from around the world today:
• Barkat Khan
• Bhungar Khan Manganiyar
• Mahabub Khan
• Sattar Khan
• Siddhartha J. Mehta