A Word on Gharanas

Any discussion of tabla eventually touches on the subject of tabla gharanas which are schools, styles and/or lineages of tabla playing. The concept of a gharana is relevant to all forms of Indian classical music. There are sitar gharanas, vocal gharanas, pakhawaj gharanas … etc. The concept of gharana and the descriptions of the various tabla gharanas have been given extensively on many websites. One quite good summary can be found on the website of Ty Burhoe: http://www.tyburhoe.com/the_tabla/schools_of_tabla/index.html

The following is my perspective on the nature and characteristics of the various gharanas, and some thoughts on the concept as well as relevance of the gharanas today.

The tabla originated out of the pakhawaj, a two-headed drum that pre-dates the tabla by several centuries. The origin of the pakhawaj is shrouded in mystery, however it is closely related to the mridangam used in south Indian music. It seems reasonable to assume that drums of this type have been used in the Indian subcontinent for millenia. I would describe the sound of the pakhawaj as “dramatic”. It has a booming, room-filling sound that I can easily imagine reverberating through the halls of temples and royal courts lending rhythmic accompaniment to dance, drama, songs and music. The type of music favoured in northern India throughout the medieval period was known as “dhrupad”. This vocal form is still around today however, just as the pakhawaj has gradually come to be replaced by the tabla, dhrupad has gradually come to replaced by khayal vocal and, more recently, instrumental music (sitar, sarod etc).

Pakhawaj

It is not widely known what led to the shift from “dhrupad” to “khayal”. I believe that the composition and performance of north Indian music underwent a gradual shift during the late Mughal period as the old Mughal empire gradually crumbled away and led to the growth of the British Raj in India. Musical performance, it seems, gradually shifted towards the houses of courtesans (“tawaif”) who generally provided entertainment to the noble and well-to-do of society. While looked down upon by bourgeois society, it seems it is through the work of predominantly Muslim courtesans that Indian classical music survived (and thrived). The reworking of classical compositions into a system of music sung primarily by women and designed for more intimate settings where emphasis was, perhaps, on the subtlety and intricacy of performance rather than on drama and flourishes, led to the rise of the “khayal” style of singing. In parallel, it seems that the style of percussive accompaniment also underwent a shift during this period and this is what led to the development of the tabla. The tabla therefore evolved, like khayal, to provide a less intrusive, more subtle form of percussive accompaniment.

Anyway, on to the subject of the gharanas. There are 6 generally accepted tabla gharanas:

  1. Delhi
  2. Ajrada
  3. Lucknow
  4. Farrukabad
  5. Punjab
  6. Benares

Delhi has generally been acknowledged as the place where the initial development of the tabla took place. The “two finger” (as opposed to “full hand”) techniques that are associated with the Delhi style of playing reinforce to me the idea that, in the initial stages, the first tabla players were attempting to distance themselves and differentiate themselves from the techniques and sounds of pakhawaj playing as much as possible. They created a style that was geared towards fast, intricate and subtle sounds that could accommodate rapid changes of tempo. The Delhi gharana provides much of the foundational material that most tabla players (even from other gharanas) learn. In particular, kaidas were an invention of the Delhi gharana (I’ll write another blog post soon about the different types of tabla compositions). Incidentally, I believe kaidas were originally created as practice exercises for students, but eventually came to be adopted as the core item of a tabla player’s repertoire particularly when presenting tabla solo. This is because, more than any other form, kaidas allow a tabla player to show off his ability at improvisation. More on this in a future post.

The first break from the Delhi tradition came from the Ajrada gharana. Ajrada is a village located not far from Delhi. Some of the Delhi tabla players settled in Ajrada and introduced several innovations into the traditional Delhi style. For a start, they introduced the use of the third (ring) finger when playing the phrase “Tirakita”. Up to that point, only two fingers had been used to play “Tirakita” which would have restricted the speed at which it could be played which, in turn, may have restricted the scope and complexity of compositions that could be created. Perhaps more famously, the Ajrada players took the traditional Delhi kaidas and played them in “tisra jati”, where one beat is subdivided into three, rather than four as is traditionally the case (this roughly corresponds to the concept of 4/3 time in Western music, as opposed to 4/4 time) which provided additional colour and nuance to the compositions. They also ‘extended’ many of the kaidas by adding a second line to the original kaida, again increasing the scope and range of what could be played. To a large extent, the Ajrada Gharana came to eventually be “subsumed” by the Delhi Gharana. There are few “pure” Ajrada gharana players left. Ustad Akram Khan is perhaps the most well-known exponent of the Ajrada style today. He exhibits a very clean and clear style of tabla playing focused on the “kinar” rather than the “sur” which is a hallmark of the Delhi and Ajrada styles.

The next evolution of tabla came with the advent of the Lucknow gharana. This is where the biggest shift or evolution of tabla took place. I believe that in Lucknow, which was a very famous centre of music and dance at the time, the tabla players started to use the tabla in places where they might formerly have used pakhawaj. For example, to accompany kathak dance. I also suspect that many former pakhawaj players would have switched to playing tabla around this time, however many would have retained their traditional knowledge and approach to pakhawaj i.e. use of the “full hand” to make sounds on the drum, creating dramatic flourises and playing often quite complex and syncopated compositions. These factors gave rise to the development of the “purab” (Eastern) school of tabla playing which also became associated with a “khula baj” (open sound) rather than the formerly “band baj” (closed sound) of the Delhi and Ajrada styles. Tabla during this period would have overtaken the pakhawaj as the dominant percussion instrument of northern India. A number of great Lucknow-based ustads developed tabla playing to new heights, creating several new compositions and approaches, many out of pakhawaj compositions but in many cases also creating their own unique compositions for tabla. Gats, Parans, Tukras … all became part of the tabla’s repertoire.

At some point, the Lucknow gharana branched off into the Farrukabad gharana. I do not have a specific and clear idea in my mind of the major differences between the two. I think the Farrukabad gharana players further evolved the compositions of the Lucknow gharana and created their own unique blend of tabla compositions and material. When I listen to the playing of a Lucknow gharana player (such as Swapan Chaudhari in this YouTube video) I am struck by the force and strength of the compositions. If I compare it to the playing of well-known Farrukabad players (such as Anindo Chatterjee, Abhijit Banerjee and others), Farrukabad seems (to my ears) less ‘forceful’ and a little more ‘lyrical’ in its compositional content. I should speak to my teacher Pt Abhijit Banerjee about this and get his view on the difference between Farrukabad and Lucknow. To my mind the differences between the two are ultimately subtle rather than profound. It would be an interesting side project to post some recordings showing ‘typical’ compositions of each of the gharanas. Perhaps another feature of Farrukabad worth mentioning is that compositions are no longer restricted to being played on sur only, as is largely the case with Lucknow, but have re-introduced playing on the kinar if deemed aesthetically appropriate. This trend was particularly evident in the playing of the great Farrukabad player Ustad Keramatullah Khan. 

For probably at least a century or more, these 4 gharanas listed above were the only recognised schools of tabla playing. Up to about 50 years ago, Benares and Punjab were not yet recognised as separate gharanas in their own right. Refer to the YouTube clip of Pt Nayan Ghosh below where he states this in an interview. I have heard the same from an old audio interview of Ustad Ahmedjan Thirakwa.

Punjab gharana was originally a pakhawaj gharana, that ultimately evolved into a tabla gharana as several players switched to playing tabla. For a long time the focus of this gharana was, essentially, playing pakhawaj compositions on the tabla, utilising an “open” or “full hand” approach like the purab styles of tabla playing. However in more recent times, I believe it was primarily through the work of Ustad Alla Rakha and other stalwarts of this gharana that its style and compositional range expanded to include forms common to other gharanas such as peshkar. Ustad Zakir Hussain, probably the most well-known tabla player in the world today, is associated with this gharana. Between him and Alla Rakha that probably means Punjab is arguably the best known or most popular gharana in the world today. Yogesh Samsi is another excellent and well-known player from this gharana.

Benares gharana started out as an off-shoot of the Lucknow gharana. Like the other “purab” or Eastern gharanas the emphasis is on open, dramatic sounding compositions with a significant influence from kathak dance. It is unique in being the only gharana to date that consists predominantly of Hindu rather than Muslim tabla players. In terms of compositions, I believe Benares like Farrukabad represents an evolution of the Lucknow compositions. Perhaps what sets this school apart is the ‘dramatic’ nature of their tabla performance. Use of the full palm and flat of the hand to play most strokes, very strong emphasis on ‘meend’ or bending of the wrist to product inflections on the bayan (left hand or bass drum). While I often cannot tell just by listening whether a tabla performer is from Lucknow, Farrukabad or another gharana, I can almost always pick a Benares player based on their volume and intonation alone.

The following document by Dr Renu Johri of Allahabad University provides some additional insights into the differences between the various tabla gharanas: Gharanas of Tabla and their Signature Patterns

Another excellent insight into the gharanas and a bit about the later life of the famous Ustad Ahmedjan Thirakwa is provided in the following YouTube video of Pandit Nayan Ghosh. Incidentally this is one of my favourite clips on YouTube. I relish hearing about the life of Ustad Ahmedjan Thirakwa and about the recent past history of Indian classical music:             Nayan Ghosh sharing memories of Ustad Ahmedjan Thirakwa

Keen to hear your thoughts and comments – please leave your thoughts in the comments field below, alternatively feel free to send me an email (shivabreathes at gmail dot com). 

4 thoughts on “A Word on Gharanas

  1. Pingback: Shabaz Husain TEDx talk | Tabla Abhi

  2. I recently ran across a very interesting drum – marked Sur Niketan, aluminum ? steel ? and rawhide, I’d like to show you a picture and get / share some info. We have several OLD folk art instruments that I use with my special needs adult son. Can you email me at oddly2002@yahoo.com.

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