An instrument with its own compositions, the tabla has a richness and vituosity that have rendered it a favorite with artistes and listensers alike, Improvisations determine the playing and are governed by certain rules, which are in turn peculiar to the gharanas they represent. Certain features of tabla-playing are basic to the art.

In a performance the uthan (rising), also known as the mohra (vanguard), is the opening music. It commences as a slow introduction, carefully omitting the resonant beats of the bayan (left-sided drum of the tabla set or the left-sided head of drum). The improvised bols make this comparable to the alap of vocal music.

As the tempo speeds up, the bayan is brought into play, and the music rises to a crescendo, before closing with atihai (a thrice-repeated phrase) that ends on the sam (emphatic beat).

The theka (a drumming pattern set to a particular t?) is a pointer to the improvisations and repertoire that will follow. It is played before each item, serving to establish the basic tempo (barabar or th?laya).

Peshkar (to present) is a slow section following the uthan. This is a composed piece, with bols that are indicative of the principal bols to come. The theka is played as a base.

Similar to the peshkar but more elaborate, the kayada (rule, norm) consists of variations of the preceding bols (paltas). Thus successive paltas are variations of preceding paltas! This section is usually in a medium tempo, and is a vital improvisation, particularly in the Delhi baj (playing style of the Delhi school/gharana).

Rela (rushing consists of phrases (bols) composed for a very speedy execution. This is, of course, in the fast tempo.

Gat is a complex, pre-composed section of three or four t? cycles (avartans). The bols (phrases) are elaborated into full rhythmic forms that can then be divided into smaller rhythmic sections. This is clearly a complete form as opposed to the rela, peshkar, and kayada which are definitely based on instrumental or vocal styles. Thus gats do not need any improvisation, and different gharanas have their own repertoires.

Brief and usually spontaneous, the tukda (piece) has phrases that can be segmented. Tukdas conclude with a tihai and on the sam. Played three consecutive times, the tukda sequence is called chakradhar. The chakradhar ends on the final tihai of the tukda, the tihai finishing on the sam.

According to accepted rules, a peshkar and kayada are performed before rela, gat tukda or chakradhar. Composites such as kayadarela (of the Lucknow gharana) are rarely heard.

Similar to vocal music, improvisations are specifically variations of established phrases, whether the melodic forma are written or memorized. The elaboration's or otherwise of these are known as vistar (extension). One means of vistar is to explore every item in its entirety before proceeding (always in linear fashion); another way is the successive repetition of a particular bol or the segmenting of it till it almost loses its original form (again, in a linear fashion); a third method is through paltas, i.e. reordering of preceding item or even segmenting them and then varying the sequence. Fourth, alternating the original phrase and its vistar.

Gottlieb discussed playing styles (baj), and classified them into three distinct forms:
the bandh baj (also known as the Delhi baj) characterized by the Delhi gharana and Ajrara gharana the khula baj (also known as the Purab baj) characterized by the Lucknow gharana , Farrukhabad gharana and the Benaras gharana and the pakhwaj style, linked to the khula baj, characterized by both Benaras gharana and Punjab gharana.

Delhi gharana

The first gharana to establish norms for improvisation is also the oldest of the tabla gharanas - Delhi gharana. Founded in the early eighteenth century by Siddhar Khan, the playing style (baj) of this gharana is also known as the bandh baj. This style has a clarity of sound that is a result of the initial role of the tabla as an accompaniment to vocal and instrumental music. This sharpness is achieved by playing on the chati or kinar, and has led to the baj being called the chati-ka-baj. Pakhwaj (the predecessor of the tabla) bols are no longer part of the gharana's repertoire, despite Siddhar Khan having been a pakhawaj player. The tempo most frequently encountered is the barabar (basic) of the ad (fractions and multiples of one-and-a half), while the items are predominantly kayada-rela, peshkar, and the mohra/mukhda. The kayada repertoire of the Delhi gharana is the model for the kayada items of the other gharanas as well.

Renowned artistes of the Delhi gharana: Pandit Chaturlal, Shafat Ahmad Ali.

Lucknow gharana

Founded by Mian Bakshu, Siddhar Khan's grandson, in mid eighteenth century, this gharana is considered an offshoot of the latter's gharana. This school was heavily patronized by the nawabs of Awadh and came to be closely linked with kathak performance. This allowed the emergence of a vast repertoire. The playing style (baj) is classified as the Purab baj, also called the khula baj.

The Lucknow baj uses different parts of the tabla surface to produce a blend of sounds that are more fullsome than those of the Delhi gharana. There is a conscious effort to eliminate sharp sounds. The sur and shyahi parts of the tabla are played, and the kinar avoided. Finger techniques can vary from and economy of movement to all the fingers being used.

The transformation form the role of tabla as accompaniment to vocal music to the role of the tabla as accompaniment to a rich dance form required complex items like gat, tukda, chakradhar.

The paran-gat is a particularly characteristic gat of this gharana. The barabar and ad layas are popular in this school as well.

The development of the Lucknow baj was the catalyst for the tabla emerging as a solo instrument in the Farrukhabad and Banaras gharanas.

Renowned artiste of the Lucknow gharana: Ustad Afaque Hussain Khan.

Farrukhabad gharana

This gharana, usually spoken if in connection with the Awadh Court, was founded by Vilayet Ali, in the late eighteenth century. Vilayet Ali was the son-in-law and disciple of Mian Bakshi (founder of the Lucknow gharana). After the deposing of Wajid Ali Shah, many of the gharana's musicians shifted to the Rampur court, among them Ahmedjan Thirakwa. The Nawab of Rampur's death led to another shift this time to Calcutta where Keramatullah Khan and his son, Ghulam Ahmed Sabir Khan based themselves. Keramatullah Khan personally reverted to playing on the kinar section of the tabla to create the sharpness of the Delhi style, but his son remained with the Farrukhabad style.

The playing style of this gharana belongs to the Purab baj (or the khula baj) and has maintained its affinities of the pakhwaj (a predecessor of the tabla) tradition. The richness of the Lucknowi gharana playing is found here as well. The Farrukhabad technique emphasizes playing on the sur and shyahi (when playing the right hand drum, the dayan), avoiding the kinar. Performing in barabar laya (basic tempo) and ad (fractions and multiples of one-and--half) laya are the norm.

Renowned artistes of the Farrukhabad gharana: Amir Hussain Khan (1897-1969), Sabir Khan, Shankar Ghosh, Nayan Ghosh, Anindo Chatterjee, Aness Pradhan.

Ajrara gharana

Categorized as playing in the bandh baj (as is the Delhi gharana), this school was founded in the nineteenth century by Kallu and Miru, both disciples of Sitab Khan of the Delhi gharana. Clarity of sound is the hallmark of the gharana's playing style, made possible by the propensity for using the index and middle fingers in the traditional manner, with no effort to enhance sound differences between the kinar, sur and shyahi. The Ajrara gharana style includes bol-patterns that are rather complicated, much more than does the Delhi gharana, and for the purpose the third fingers is brought into play as well. However, phakhwaj bols are rarely encountered in this gharana (and absent in the Delhi gharana repertoire). Again, barabar and ad laya form the bulk of tempo repertoire.

Punjab gharana

Originally a pakhawaj-playing gharana that has not abandoned its roots, the Punjab school was founded in the nineteenth century by Lala Bhavanidas. The complicated pakhwaj bols and the clear influence of the Punjabi language set this gharana apart. Syllables are elided, as shown in the transformation of 'Dh?te dh?ge n? into 'Dh?dh?gen? and of 'Dh? dhin dhin dh?into 'Dh?te dh?? There is a greater range of tempos - besides ad and barabar, the gharana plays in kuad (fractions and multiples of two-and-a-half), and viad (fractions and multiples of three-and-a-half). This necessitates a rigorous time keeping by the player.

Pakhwaj t?s such as dhamar, shult?, and pancham sawari are popular with the players of this gharana.

Certain authorities believe Kader Baksh the first to be the founder of the gharana, and still others believe Saddu Hussain Baksh to have founded this school. Ustad Alla Rakha was a disciple of Kader Baksh the second.

Renowned artistes of the Punjab gharana : Zakir Hussain and Fazal Qureshi (sons of Ustad Alla Rakha), Yogesh Shamsi and Anuradha Pal.

Benaras gharana

Founded in the nineteenth century by Ram Sahay Mishra, the Benaras gharana follows the khula baj (and the Pakhwaj baj) style of playing, and is regarded as an off-shoot of the Lucknow and Punjab gharanas. The unusual sound-quality of the gharana's playing can be attributed to the practice of playing with the third finger held in a bent position.

Influences as diverse as vocal music and instrumental, pakhwaj playing and dance forms have led to a distinct technique and presentation. Thus, gat, paran, chakradhar, and tukda are regular features in the gharana's playing style, and rare tals such as pancham sawari, dhamar and shult? are performed. There are many similarities with the Punjab gharana, particularly in the repertoire.

Renowned artistes of the Benaras gharana: Kishen Maharaj, Sharda Sahaya, Anand Gopal Bandhoadhyay, and Tanmoy Bose.