Discussion of gharanas and tabla demonstration by Ustad Ahmedjan Thirakwa with English translation

There is a set of two videos on YouTube featuring interviews with the legendary Ustad Ahmedjan Thirakwa. For the benefit of non-Hindi speakers I have posted an English translation.

I would put the date of the videos at approximately 1966, due to the mention in the first video of Ustadji being 90 years old (“even at the age of 90, your fingers are still dancing on the tabla”). Given that he passed away in 1976 at which time he was roughly one hundred years old, this video would be from approximately 1966. Despite his age he is as sharp and articulate in these interviews as ever. He does not hesitate for even a moment in answering any of the interviewers’ questions, or in playing excerpts from his vast repertoire.

In both videos, UAT is asked about the various gharanas of tabla and to demonstrate examples of material from each of them, which he does with elan. Notably, he does not really acknowledge the Benares and Punjab gharanas, although in the second video there is a brief demonstration of the Benares style of playing using what appears to be a open, pakhawaj-oriented technique. Evidently, Thirakwa-sahib did not consider either the Benares or Punjab gharanas to be “proper” tabla gharanas, stating for example that Punjab is a pakhawaj gharana rather than a tabla gharana. This prevailing view has obviously changed since, noting that these interviews are from over a half century ago.

Video #1

In this video, ustadji is interviewed by SSS Thakur. Following is a paraphrased translation of the interview:

Interviewer: “Wah ustad. The name of Ahmedjan Thirakwa is known to everyone. <Addressing the camera> He started learning the tabla at the age of 12, and was given the nickname of ‘Thirakwa’ by his grandfather, and from that time on he has been known as ‘Thirakwa’. He is well-known for his mastery over all the various aspects of tabla playing. <Offers various compliments about his highly developed playing style, knowledge and technique>. My salutations to you sir. I would like to ask you a few questions before we begin.

UAT: Absolutely, please go ahead

Interviewer: It has been said that tabla started in Delhi, and from there it went to Lucknow, Benares, Farrukabad and various other places. Is this true or was there already a Farrukabad gharana in existence?

UAT: There are basically only two gharanas: one is ‘Purab’. Lucknow, Farrukabad, all this is basically the “Purab” (Eastern) style. And then there’s Delhi. Benares is something different…. but <hesitantly> I guess … all of them have their place and their good things. But gharanas are basically only these two (Delhi and Purab). There is also a “half gharana” known as Ajrada. They were also very good, their buzurg (ancestors) were wonderful players.

Interviewer: Are the Ajrada bols (repertoire, playing techniques) unique?

UAT: They play in aardh (three beats to one), but the playing style is almost the same as Delhi, it’s basically an offshot of Delhi

Interviewer: The other thing I’ve heard is that tabla has its own unique sounds, but can also be used to mimic the sounds of other drums like naqqara, tasha, dhol

UAT: Yes, some people do this, but I think it’s wrong. If people are playing dhol or tasha on tabla, this is wrong, this is not how it’s supposed to be played.

Interviewer: What about pakhawaj?

UAT: Yes, it can resemble pakhawaj. I will demonstrate it for you.

Interviewer: I notice that you are playing a tabla with a larger head (diameter). Is this to  resemble the sound of pakhawaj?

UAT: No, it has nothing to do with that. I’ve been playing this size of drum all the while. The older generation of tabla players, everyone used to play this size of drum. Nowadays, the smaller size drums have come into fashion.

Interviewer: Right. I guess if you were to try and play like you do on one of the smaller head drums, it wouldn’t really work, would it?

UAT: That’s right, you can’t even get a proper sur out of those smaller drums

Interviewer: I’ve heard that the tirakita of Delhi is different from that of Farrukabad, is that so?

UAT: No, not really, it’s the same tirakita, it’s just played a bit differently <demonstrates the Delhi-style tirakita and then the Purab-style>

Interviewer: Right, so the Purab one is played in a more “open” style. Well, I don’t want to trouble you any further…

<UAT now performs a short tabla solo in Teentaal, from around the 3:57 mark>

Interviewer: (Exclaims around the 8:30 mark) Wah! Even at the age of 90, what virtuosity!

UAT: (At 8:36) Now I will demonstrate the Purab style for you

UAT: (At 10:40) Now, let me demonstrate the pakhawaj style of playing, with a khula haat (open hand)

There is then a brief discussion about the open style of playing being commonly used in Lucknow, in particular for kathak dance accompaniment.

(Following this Thirakwa-sahib starts playing a paran, which I’m proud to say I have learned from my teacher. The first phrase of the composition is given below)

Dha KraDhan DhaDha KraDhan Dha GhirNag TigNag

Following this we move on to Video #2:

UAT ends the paran that was started at the end of the last video, and then moves onto a very popular and exciting composition known as a raon, which has its origins from Lucknow. This can be frequently heard being played by tabla players of all gharanas nowadays.

Interviewer: (Around 2:50) Ustad, what’s the difference between a gat, paran and a tukra?

UAT: Paran is played in pakhawaj. Tukra is a short composition, usually you start and then quickly end on sam. Gat is a long composition, which usually takes two or three cycles to finish.

The first interview and demonstration ends at the 3:50 mark of this second video.

There is then a second interview and demonstration with Uma Vasudev. The translation of this interview is provided below. I am not sure whether it is because of the charms of the female interviewer, or whether Ustadji was in a better mood, but I feel he is on the whole more expressive and more inclined to answer the questions frankly in the second video, whereas in the first video he seems a little more guarded.

Many of the questions and themes are similar to the earlier interview, for completeness I will annotate this interview as well:

Interviewer: Greetings Khan-sahib

UAT: And greetings to you

Interviewer: Please forgive me, I will give you some trouble today (common way to start a polite conversation in Urdu). Many people know a lot about your art and have heard you play, but not many people know much about your life. So, please tell us something about yourself.

UAT: I was born in and am from Moradabad (in Uttar Pradesh). All my ancestors are from this place. That’s where I grew up. My uncle used to teach me classical singing. But my interest was in tabla. They tried to make me a vocalist, but everyone could see that tabla is what I was really interested in, so they decided to let me learn tabla. My ustad used to live in Bombay, in a room on the second floor.

Interviewer: Who was your Ustad?

UAT: Munir Khan. They sent me to him, and I started learning from him. In a few years time, I started playing in gatherings.

Interviewer: So, you mean that from the age of 13 or 14 you were already performing in public?

UAT: That’s right.

Interviewer: And you learned only from Munir Khan?

UAT: Yes, mainly from him. He was happy with my playing, and I gradually got better and better. There came a point when I started to enjoy it myself. And then people started appreciating me. And then … well I just kept learning and playing. I learned for around 30 years.

Interviewer: 30 years? From Munir Khan only?

UAT: Yes, from him, but also from my own family in Moradabad. My chacha (uncle) Sher Khan used to teach me, as well as Faizal mamu, Faiyaz mamu (maternal uncles).

Interviewer: So did you stay in Bombay the whole time?

UAT: I moved to Poona at one point, with Bal Gandharv, the theatre company. I was the house tabla player for 4 years. Many well-known vocalists were there at the same time. But I used to only play on Sundays. There wasn’t much to do on the other days.

Interviewer: And after Poona?

UAT: After Poona, I went to Rampur. The Nawab of Rampur called me and asked me to come. My children were in Poona, and I had lots of students there too. But I had to go to Rampur. Stayed there for 26 years.

Interviewer: Do you remember what year you went to Rampur?

UAT: The year … no I don’t remember what year it was. But I stayed in Rampur for 25 or 26 years. Until the nawab died, that’s when I left.

Interviewer: You must have played with a great many musicians and singers there

UAT: Yes. I played with Bhaskar Rao, Faiyaz Khan, Alladiya Khan …

Interviewer: Do you prefer playing with singers, or with instrumentalists?

UAT: It doesn’t matter as long as I have a good rapport with that person. My job is to make sure they can do what they need to do, without disturbing or overshadowing them. When I play solo, that’s a different story, then I can do what I feel like.

Interviewer: Ok. So when you first started learning from Ustad Munir Khan … what gharana was he from?

UAT: He knew all 4 gharanas. He started me off with Delhi …

Interviewer: Could you please describe the 4 gharanas?

UAT: There is Farrukabad. Lucknow. Delhi and Ajrada.

Interviewer: Ok, and which one did you learn from him?

UAT: I learned all four of them

Interviewer: You learned all four?

UAT: Sure did

Interviewer: Do you have a favourite amongst them? Is there one that you specialise in?

UAT: By God’s grace I am able to play all of them, and I like all four of them equally

Interviewer: Could you please give us a demonstration? And could you please explain the difference between the gharanas?

UAT: Lucknow is played with a khula haat (open hand). Farrukabad is basically the same, but in Farrukabad there is no influence of dhol or tasha (other drums), it is pure tabla.

<Khan-sahib starts his demonstration at around 10:14 with a Delhi gharana kaida. Followed by an Ajrada composition, then Farrukabad, and finally Lucknow>

Interviewer: That was Lucknow, but what about Benares? Isn’t there also a Benares gharana?

UAT: In Benares they play tabla in a more pakhawaj-oriented style. Shall I demonstrate? This is the style of Kanthe maharaj… <demonstrates>

Interviewer: Farrukabad, Lucknow and Benares are all part of the “Purab” style, right? So what’s the difference between these 3?

UAT: <Khan-sahib seems a little flustered by this question> Umm… well… why do you want me to say this? It will be captured on film and… it may offend some people… but look … based on my understanding … I really only like these 4 gharanas: Farrukabad, Lucknow, Ajrada and Delhi. That’s it.

Interviewer: Ok, so what do you think about the younger generation of tabla players who are coming up now? Do you think they have a good understanding of these four gharanas? Or is there now a lot of mixing up?

UAT: Those who have learned it properly do understand. Even those who have had even a little bit of proper instruction, and have eyes to see, they do understand. But there are some out there who are making a mess.

Interviewer: Could you please give an example?

<Around 15:06, UAT starts demonstrating an example of something he feels is currently in vogue but is an example of the ‘wrong’ way to play>

UAT: You see, the bol “dhit” should never be played with the first finger. This is a typical bol of Delhi, the Delhi and Ajrada players would only play this with the middle finger. That is the “kaida” (rule) of this bol. <Demonstrates this using a Delhi composition>

Interviewer: Could you please share with us how you got the name “Thirakwa”?

UAT: My ustad’s father gave it to me. He said my fingers used to “dance” on the tabla, so he started calling me “thirakwa”, and the name stuck.

Interviewer: I believe there are some compositions (gats) that you have composed yourself? Could you please play them for us?

UAT: <Demonstrates, around 17:26>

Personal reflections:

To say that Ustad Ahmedjan Thirakwa was a legendary tabla player is an understatement. His absolute command over the instrument, his encyclopedic knowledge of compositions and repertoires of various gharanas is unquestionable. In addition to this, from watching these two interviews, one thing that stood out for me is the importance that he gives to the tabla tradition, and his immense regard for the buzurg (elders) of each of the gharanas. He clearly believes that there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to play tabla. For example, in the second video he demonstrates that the bol “dhit” should only ever be played with the middle finger, rather than the first finger. One may agree or disagree with his views, the point is that the tabla players of that generation were nor merely technically brilliant and highly knowledgeable, they were also immensely seeped in the tradition of tabla, looked up to the forebears who had created and propagated this art form, and had strong views about how the instrument should and should not be played.

I hope you have enjoyed and found this post useful. Do drop me a line in the comments.