To start with, let's become familiar with some words we will frequently use in this learning guide. A bhajan is a devotional song. A rāga is a tune or melody in which a bhajan is sung. A pair of cymbals is called kānsā or kansārā. Tablā is a pair of single headed drums. A beat or rhythm is called tāl or chāl.
Traditional bhajans of Bhaktas are sung in a variety of rāgas (melodies or tunes) by a bhajan group consisting of a tablā player, lead singer(s) and other members who repeat the lyrics sung by the lead singer(s). The main musical instruments used in the traditional bhajans are tablā and kānsā (or kansārā). One member of the group plays the tablā while each of the remaining members play the kānsās.
A bhajan consists of a number of stanzas and during the singing of each stanza, any member of the group can lead a tāl (beat or rhythm) and the rest of the group including lead singers and the tablā player has to adjust and sing according to that particular tāl and tempo while maintaining the rāga. The four types of tāls played are moti chāl (or bethi chāl), bedoliyu, hansali (or hans), and chotār (or chotāl). Normally, only one tāl is played for each stanza but once in a while after playing one tāl for a stanza, any member of the group may lead another tāl and the group has to sing the stanza according to that tāl again. Still another tāl may be lead for the same stanza. In another words, each stanza can be sung multiple times in different tāls. The element of suspense of different tāls and the fact that any member in the group can lead any tāl makes our traditional bhajan singing much more lively and vibrant for every participant. There is also one more thing – after the lead singers sing a particular line of a stanza, any member can lead to a different rāga! This gets even more interesting because now the lead singer(s) have to adjust and finish the stanza in a rāga lead by another member. This changing of rāga does not occur in every bhajan but does occur once or twice per bhajan session. The lead singers have to be prepared for this moment at any time though!
Now the question is how does a beginner learn our traditional bhajans? The basic starting point that I recommend is learning the tāls and then learning one rāga at a time. It takes time and effort but it is achievable by anyone.
In order to learn to play the tāls properly, a great deal of patience is required keeping in mind that there is always room for improvement. Also note that a pair of cymbals is not a noisemaker but rather a musical instrument. That means rhythmic sound is produced by the cymbals that matches that of rhythms produced by the tablā. The striking of the cymbals is not just banging two pieces of metals but rather one strikes it in such ways that it produces a variety of musical sounds. The sound produced by the cymbals should be clean and rhythmic.
The first tāl to learn is moti chāl (or bethi chāl). This is the default tāl to play if no member leads a tāl. The basic rhythm is 1-2-3…. Say the words “one-two, three”. Repeat “one-two, three”. Repeat “one-two, three”. Play the following audio repeatedly and mentally count “one-two, three” and use your hands (no cymbals) to follow along. Here is the audio of moti chāl:
moti chāl (or bethi chāl)
The second tāl to learn is bedoliyu which is just straight one-two-three cycles whereas moti chāl has a small pause. In the following audio, at first, moti chāl is played but then a member calls out "ho bhalā" which signals the group to transition to bedoliyu tāl.
moti chāl to bedoliyu
For beginners, the following audio will be useful as it demonstrates 1-2-3 from slow to fast to slow.
The third tāl to learn is hansali (or hans). The basic rhythm is 1-2-3 and 4… say “one-two-three and four”. Repeat “one-two-three and four”. In faster speed, it becomes "four, one-two-three and". Play the following audio repeatedly and mentally count “four, one-two-three and” and use your hands (no cymbals) to follow along.
The fourth tāl to learn is chotār (or chautāl cha-u-tāl). This is rather a complex tāl and there will be a long learning curve especially when playing the tāl and singing the lyrics simultaneously. Being patient is the key here and it will take a few months to get the basics rolling. In simple terms, this is a combination of first two tāls and the basic rhythm is 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 and 4. At faster speeds, this really becomes "3, 1-2 .. 3, 1-2 .. 4, 1-2-3 and". Total strikes here are 3+3+5=11 for a full cycle of the rythm.
Begin by listening to the tāls played in the audios. While listening, follow the tāls with hands without using kānsā. Learn the basic rhythms.