My initial exposures to Indian classical music were through listening to records in my house as a child. My family were not particularly inclined to classical music, being more into film music and ghazals, however we did have some Zakir Hussain, Alla Rakha and Ravi Shankar records that I had the opportunity to listen to on occasion. I was always awe-struck by the grandeur and complexity of our music, even though I had little understanding of it at the time.
My journey of learning the classical art of tabla playing really only began as an adult when I was living in Japan. In 2001 I went to live in Kyoto, Japan having just graduated from university in the United States. I was fortunate to find my first tabla teacher Shri Kulbhushan Bhargava-ji, who continues to be someone that inspires me as a musician and as a person. I had had very little exposure to Indian classical music at all up to this point, so my learning with Kulbhushanji was an education for me not only in tabla, but in Indian music and classical culture in general (Kulbhushanji is also a classically trained vocalist). I studied with Kulbhushanji for nearly 4 years, from 2001 – 2005 when I left Japan. I was living in Kyoto at the time and used to take the train for nearly one and a half hours each way to get to his place in Kobe. I would usually spend several hours at his place having a lesson, enjoying lunch and getting lost in innumerable conversations. Kulbhushanji came from a family of respected scholars and musicians from Simla in India. He had been based in Delhi for several years and had been a teacher at the Gandharva Mahavidhyalaya musical academy. He had been a student of Pandit Prem Vallabh, a highly respected tabla and pakhawaj player.
See below for a link to a YouTube video of Kulbhushanji performing in Kyoto in 2013 with Jimmy Miyashita, a highly respected Japanese Santoor player:
Tabla is a difficult instrument and can be daunting for a beginner. It took me several months before I could even play the basic notes with any degree of clarity. I remember in particular struggling with “tin” also known as “sur ka ta”. Physically, it is a demanding instrument requiring physically powerful yet precise strokes. Almost as soon as one can play the basic strokes and syllables though, one becomes quickly aware that the real challenge of tabla lies in the vast repertoire of compositions and material, many composed by old masters of yesteryear and passed down from teacher to disciple over decades and centuries, that one has to master to develop any degree of proficiency in the instrument. There is SUCH an overwhelmingly large amount of material available, and by the time one factors in the intricacies of different gharanas (styles) of playing, the different taals (rhythm cycles) and not to mention, mastery of the improvisational aspect of the playing … it fairly quickly becomes obvious that mastering such an instrument is the work of a lifetime.
Tabla study almost always starts out with the 16 beat taal known as Teen Taal, and in general the first composition taught to new students is a Kaida with the phrases “Dha Dha Ti Te | Dha Dha Tun Na | Ta Ta Ti Te | Dha Dha Dhin Na”. I started with these and quickly became overwhelmed by a wealth of material and compositions that Kulbhushanji gave me during each of our lessons. He gave me compositions selected to develop particular rhythmic phrases or intricate fingering patterns. For example, the phrase “DhaGe TuNa KeNa” or “DhaGe DhinNa GeNa” is a common phrase used to end Kaidas. One of the phrases most students and connoisseurs of tabla know very well as “TiRaKita”. This phrase when played rapidly and repeatedly at a blistering crescendo sounds really impressive and catchy to a listener. Kulbhushanji used to warn me that many students overemphasise “TiRaKiTa” because it sounds “cool”, whereas phrases like “Ti Te” were actually harder to play (especially at a faster tempo) and were better for developing finger strength. The well known Delhi Kaida “DhaTi TeDha TiTe DhaDha TiTe DhaGe DhiNa GeNa” is an example of a phrase that emphasises “Ti Te”.
I have to say that although it’s been close to 15 years since I first started learning, I often find myself still struggling to play these basic compositions and phrases with speed, volume and clarity. I can still go back to “Dha Dha Ti Te | Dha Dha Tun Na” today and spend hours practicing it. There is almost no end to the refinement one can bring to one’s sound.