Two things have inspired this post: 1) I have been practicing a famous chalan made popular by Thirakwa Khan Saheb and 2) I am studying lots of Hindi lately. Paired together, I have been thinking about the nature of tabla compositions in terms of genre (if we can really call it that). There are many different types of compositions in tabla, e.g., kaida, rela, laggi, tukra, chalan, etc., and each has its own characteristic, but a character that is sometimes very hard to define uniformly. Some call a particular composition a kaida while other call it a chalan. In fact, I have heard that Thirakwa Khan Saheb himself was not so strict on the names of different types of compositions.
In looking at some descriptions and definitions of tabla compositions on the Internet, it struck me that these attempts were coming close to what Amartya Sen calls the “curatorial” side of colonial scholarship on India. This was the effort of colonial scholars in India to classify and define all aspects of Indian society in order to display them in a book, museum, or some other source with a curator. So with this in mind, the need to classify and strictly define all types of tabla compositions could be viewed as an ideal that originates outside the realm of Indian Classical music, i.e., outside of the very mindset that harbors such a fluid art form. Furthermore, rigid classification might actually go against the fluidity and flexibility inherent to Hindustani music.
When we utilize language as a signifier of what these compositions mean, I think we can come to a better place in understanding tabla compositions without rigidly classifying them. For example: kaida in Hindi/Urdu literally means “rule.” And in this way, a kaida is a compositional form in tabla that establishes rules of how to develop a composition. Laggi, another type of composition in tabla, comes from the word lagatar, meaning continuously. Thus, laggi compositions describe a set of bols (patterns of tabla sounds) that are played in a continuous fashion. This is different from rela however. Of the few stories on how the word and compositional type, rela, came about, one popular idea comes from the notion that it originated from relgari, the Hindi/Urdu word for train. There is another idea though, that rela came from the Urdu expression, rela aya, which signifies a gushing of water, like when a damn breaks and water gushes from the source. The latter, to me, linguistically speaking, helps clarify what rela describes better than any other description. And really, I think that the names of these compositional forms, are just that: descriptions of the sounds and compositions of tabla. In the spirit of Hindustani classical music I do not think these forms are intended to be so rigid that require exact definitions.
Having said all that, I return to my initial inquiry, chalan. Coming from the word chalna, meaning to move, chalan in Hindi/Urdu means movement. In this description then, a chalan is different from a kaida insofar that it does not establish a rule for development, it is rather, a movement. In light of what I wrote above, it seems that chalan is just a way to linguistically describe the sequence of tabla sounds, and not a compositional genre that needs definition and rigid parameters to understand.
Finally, here is the beautiful chalan that inspired this post (performed here by Anindo Ji and his son Anubrata). The chalan actually starts at around minute 2:20, but is recited by Anindo Ji at 2:30.