Sunday, 13 October 2013


The Dhol is a large drum which is used not only in the North Indian tradition, but also in the music of Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as other regions in the Punjab region. Its use can be seen as far west as parts of Afganistan. It is one of the more well-recognised Indian instruments in Western culture due to its use in much popular music. It plays the rhythm section in Indian songs and is a membranophone; it uses a membrane to produce sound.

(Image from A typical dhol.

The word "dhol" is quite versatile and can refer to any drum with a barrel shape and two ends. Naturally due to this it has many names in the numerous Indian languages; the name "dhol" comes from Hindi, the most widely spoken and recognised tongue of the Indian subcontinent. A player of the dhol is referred to a a dholi. There are even different words to distinguish certain types of dhol from another; some of the types will be explained later in this post.

The predecessor of the dhol was the dohol, a very similar instrument which originated in Persia (now Iran) and which is still popular there, especially amongst the Kurdish minority. It was used to accompany Persian flute music. The dhol first achieved widespread use in India in the 15th century, although it was used to keep farmers working and during war rather than as a musical instrument at first. It is known that the dhol was used at court to entertain Mughal emperor Akbar by at least the 16th century, although the word does not appear in print until 1800. The dhol's history is confused, and it is unlikely that there was one major "moment of creation".

(Picture from Akbar the Great (1542-1605), who ruled much of the Indian subcontinent. His orchestra was known for its early use of dhols.

Today dhol music is used in heterogeneous contexts. Its most prominant use to Westerners is in bhangra, a style of Punjabi popular music. Although Indian immigrants first introduced the dhol to Britain as early as the 60s, it was in the 80s that the movement really reached its zenith as Indian instrumentation began to merge with British rock styles. The new genre quickly began popular amognst British Asian youths with some cassettes selling at rates of more than 30,000 a week. Some of the notable groups of this area include Sahotas (a fusion rock boy band) and Alaap, founded by Channi Singh, known as the "Godfather" of bhangra music. Despite a lull in popularity in the 90s bhangra music is alive and well, having combined with other genres such as hip hop and reggae, guided by produces such as Bally Sagoo (1964-) It typically uses Western instruments such as the synthesizer and electric guitar for the melody and Indian instruments such as the dhol and tabla for the rhythm. Lyrical themes center around topics such as love, relationships, money and happiness.

(Picture from Cover art of Mundian To Bach Ke, a single by Panjabi MC in 1998. It charted highly in many European countries and has been remixed my American rapper Jay-Z.

The dhol is also used within the Sufi or "mystical" denomination within Islam, particularly in West Punjab. They are used to induce religious fervour. In many other areas within the Indian subcontinent they have traditionally been used in festivals, although this practice is in decline.

There are two main types of dhol: the Punjabi bhangra dhol and the Bangladeshi kanthi dhol. The two are fairly similar, but there are many important differences. The Punjabi dhol tends to be smaller than the Bangladeshi dhol and indeed most other dhols; it measures in at a mere 13 inches for the head and 15 inches for the shell; Bangladeshi dhols are much larger, measuring two feet long with the circumference of the shells being three foot. Punjabi dhols use unique tassels for decoration. Bangladeshi dhol players are called dhulis and are remarkable for their long hair. The kanthi dhol features a large cloth known as gamcha used for decoration, and many players use a strap allowing them more freedom of movement as they play.

(Picture from A Pakistani Sufi dholi.

The construction of the dhol is a meticulous matter and differs from region to region. A piece of wood or other material is used for the barrel; this can be anything from Indian rosewood or Shisham to less conventional media such as steel or even plastic! The two openings are traditionally covered with goat skin, although in recent years plastic has been used, especially for Punjabi dhols. A sequence of ropes is used to tune the pitch and tightness of the sound. The left side is thicker than that on the right, thus producing a deeper sound.

Dhols are also used in other areas of the Indian subcontinent. In Gujarat they are used in the traditional dance forms of raas (a pair dance with sticks) and garba (a solo dance). It is also used in Indian tribal music. In Pakistan the instrument has had a notable presence, but its association with Sufism has led to its ghettoisation by Sunni fundamentalism.

(Picture from A depiction of a Gujarati raas dance.

The dhol produces a loud timbre due to its immense size. Each side of the dhol makes a different sound; one produces a regular drum noise, the other a metallic sound. The dhol's timbre is regular and rhythmic. I like its sound. An example of British dhol playing can be seen here:

How the dhol is played once again depends on region and tradition. The kanthi dhol uses a small drumstick on one side and hands on the other, although two drumsticks are occasionally used. Some dhulis use metal implements on their fingers to alter the sound. The Pakistani bhangra dhol uses two sticks; one, called the dagga, to play the lower section, and one, called the tihil, to play the higher section, The dagga, at 10mm in diameter, is far thicker than the tihil. Dhol players have many rhythms to choose from, although many rhythm used prior to the 1947 partition have been lost. One of the most notable of these rhythms (or "tala") is keherwa, with uses eight beats in two divisions of four with equal distance between said beats.

There are many instruments related to the dhol. Of these the most notable is the small Dholak, used in folk music and qawwali (from Arabic qual 'to speak'); Sufi devotional poetry played over music. Qawwali dates back to the 13th century Persian-Indian poet Amir Krosrow, its inventor. In recent years qawwali has been incorporated into world and fusion music.

(Picture from A dholak.)


Encyclopaedia Britannia
BBC Asian Network
and others.

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