The 3 types of Tabla players, according to Utd Ahmedjan Thirakwa

Some time ago I came across a video on YouTube of a Professor Sudhir Varma and a few of his companions reminiscing about Ustad Ahmedjan Thirakwa. The video contains several interesting and amusing anecdotes about the life and character of Thirakwa-saheb, unfortunately it is all in Hindi and there are no sub-titles. 

However, one of the interesting tidbits from this video is the description of 3 types of tabla players by Ustad Ahmedjan Thirakwa. To paraphrase the quote: 

“When I was a young man, there used to be tabla players. However, nowadays there seem to be three types: Tabliya (tabla players), Hatheliya and Hisabiya!” 

This is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek observation by Ustadji. What he means by this is that in the modern era, in addition to Tabliya (tabla players), there are also: 

  • Hatheliya (“hard hitters”) – those who hit the tabla extremely hard, play at excessive volume and/or at excessive speed 
  • Hisabiya (“calculators”) – those who are obsessed with mathematical calculation, complex tihais and the like 

What is interesting about this is that Ustadji feels that the latter two categories are detrimental developments in the art of tabla playing. Playing with excessive force and volume is frowned upon by him, as is overzealous mathematical calculation. 

I was personally quite surprised to learn that the older generation of tabla players were, apparently, not enamoured with mathematical complexity, as this is nowadays a commonplace feature of tabla playing, perhaps most notably exemplified by Ustad Alla Rakha and his sons and disciples. 

Reflecting on this, my conclusion is that Thirakwa-saheb and his contemporaries felt that the “effect” of good tabla playing upon the listener is ultimately subtle, which is more important than dazzling listeners with ear-splitting volume or mind-boggling mathematical calculation. It can be noted that one doesn’t hear long and complex tihais, which are often pre-rehearsed, in Thirakwa-saheb’s tabla. 

I think there is probably a useful parallel to be drawn with Hindustani vocal or instrumental music. Here also we see many performers attempting to dazzle audiences with long and drawn out taans, arriving at the sam in spectacular fashion, or in some cases singing at excessively loud volume etc. Yet the important thing is (or should be) the effect on the listener, which is generally achieved through gradual and careful elaboration of the raga, staying in sur etc. 

Thirakwa-saheb was well-known to be steeped in not only tabla but also in vocal music, one can often hear him singing along to the lehra in his tabla solo recordings. Therefore one can expect that he brought the ethos of raga and vocal music into his tabla playing: gradual and careful elaboration, staying in sur and creating a subtly enchanting effect upon the listener, rather than attempting to overpower them with forceful playing. 

That said, it’s perhaps also worth pointing out the flip side: in the modern, commercial era without the benefit of state or royal sponsorship, musicians (including classical musicians) have had to cater to the tastes of the mass audience out of necessity. No one has done this better than Zakir Hussain, who greatly popularised tabla playing and brought it to the attention of the masses. So we must give credit where credit is due. 

For those of us (I include myself in this category) who are interested in looking beyond just mass appeal, however, it can be helpful to look to the stalwarts of the older generation such as Thirakwa-saheb for inspiration and guidance on the traditional form and essence of classical tabla playing. 

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