It is common knowledge that tala or rhythm adds a vital dimension to music by completing the triad of ragam, taalam and bhavam. Without tala, music would be rudderless. Without rhythm, nature would be monotonous!

It is not often realised that rhythm is a subtle and omnipresent element that goes beyond the realms of music. It impacts us from all sides.

“Life is about rhythm. We vibrate, our hearts are pumping blood, we are a rhythm machine, that’s what we are,” said popular American percussionist and musicologist Mickey Hart.

Rhythm is present in some form or the other in all aspects of our existence. To begin with, let us draw an elaborate analogy between music where rhythm is distinctly cognisable and the environment around us where it is subtle.

The importance of tala cannot be undermined.  It binds music together.  A hundred voices at the Thyagaraja Aradhana vocalise Pancharatna Kritis in unison in a particular raga.  What holds them together and prevents the disparate elements from running helter-skelter?  It is the tala that lends cohesiveness to the rendition.

The legendary percussionists of yore Palghat Mani Iyer and Palni Subramaniam Pillai unequivocally established the fact that rhythm was the sine qua non for an ideal concert.

Ustad Zakir Hussain’s twinkling fingers pirouetting on the twin heads of his tabla often times blurred the lines between music and rhythm! The rhythmic tintinnabulation emanating from the ankles of Kathak maestro Birju Maharaj causes one’s spine to tingle.

If Carnatic music can be traced to the Sama Veda, it also draws upon the esoteric metric values that govern the chanting of the Sama Veda stotrams.

In western classical music too, the various genres are centred round their respective rhythmic patterns, be it decked in movements such as adagio, allegro or vivace! The quest for rhythmic perfection is achieved by a strict adherence to the ubiquitous metronome during practice sessions.

Music moves as does rhythm. It is the ineluctable rhythm underlining the music that unwittingly touches, excites or depresses one.  It can put one in a romantic frame of mind through lilting beats or lull one into a soporific mood through a monotonous beat dulling the senses!

Latin rhythms like samba and rumba shoot up the adrenaline; bolero and beguine create the romantic mood; R and B induce trance and salsa generates a sense of foot-tapping exhilaration.

Rhythm in its subtle form defines poetry in all languages as it does, for example, the sonnets of Shakespeare in the iambic Pentameters. Eminent English Poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, describing The Brook creates an onomatopoeaic effect (read poetic rhythm). with the following lines: “I chatter over stony ways, In little sharps and trebles, I bubble into eddying bays, I babble on the pebbles.”

Rhythms are the very ingredients — sometimes palpable, sometimes too subtle for cognition — that keep us tickling through life. The first signs of rhythmic heartbeat are noticed when the foetus is 40 days old!  

Later in life, it is the heart rate, pulse on the wrist and the rush of blood (BP) calibrated through the veins and arteries that determine whether the rhythms of life are healthy or not! An arrhythmic heart spells danger just as how indifferent rhythm could ruin good music!

Nature has rhythm written all over it. The staccato chirping of birds, the trumpeting of elephants, the “legato” growl of the big cats, the cacophonous chatter of primates, the cadence of waterfalls, the roll of thunder and the tremolo whistling of the zephyr —  all bespeak an infinite variety of rhythms that permeate the environment. And many a musical score has been inspired by them!

At a macrocosmic level, the entire constellation, studded with planets, has its own rhythmic cycle to fashion its movement as in the intricate interior of a wristwatch.

Life appears to be one long symphony to be appreciated in all its rhythmic hues as we keep time on the path to eternity!

(The writer’s email: vkalidas@gmail.com)

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