Kulhithaalam (Thaalam) is a pair of flattened bell shaped metallic instrument extensively used to accompany classical percussion ensembles where it acts as the keeper of Thaalam (i.e. such as that of a metronome). It is commonly called Thaalam for this reason and always represents the two identical parts (i.e. the pair of bells). Kulhithaalam derives its name from two distinctive Tamil words “Kulhi”, a small ditch which reflects the nature of its shape, and “Thaalam”, a cyclic measure of time consisting of a group of beats.
The Thaalam is also extensively used in temple festivals, religious celebrations folk music, folk dance and many other Saiva ceremonial events. It is an integral part of Pann Issai, classical vocal music, and Nathaswaram and Thavil ensemble where it is responsible for regulating the Thaalam (rhythm or beats) of the song/piece being played.
The bell shaped Thaalam at its flattened base ranges in diameter from 1.5 – 2.5 inches. The Thaalam is made of many metal and metal alloys such as iron, copper, bronze and brass. Each individual unit of the Thaalam has one single hole at its peak where a piece of string is inserted and knotted from the inside so as to make it easier to hold and still allow the vibrations. Usually the piece of string will have one unit of the Thaalam at each end. The Thaalam cannot be tuned but varies in pitch according to the size and shape of the bell and the metal or metal alloy used.
The instrument is played commonly using both hands but can also be played with just one. When playing with two hands the first unit of the Thaalam is held still facing up by the left (or weaker) hand and the second unit, being held facing down by the right (stronger) hand, is involved in striking the first unit. When playing with one hand (usually the strong hand) the first unit of the Thaalam is held still facing down between the thumb and the index finger and the second unit, being held facing up between the ring and small finger or the middle and ring finger, is involved in striking the first unit by an upward movement of the fingers.
Various sounds can be produced by controlling and regulating the vibrations of the Thaalam, each of these individual notes have their own vocabulary and at its basic form denote various Angams (segments) of the Thaalam (cyclic measure of time) in use. The Thaddu (clap of the hand) is represented by a flat note where both units are held tightly to each other when struck. The Veechchu (back hand clap) is represented by an oscillating note where the units are allowed to vibrate immediately after being struck. The count of the fingers for the Laghu generally does not have any associated strikes.
For example, Aathi Thaalam will have the following strokes: