A great write-up on the intricacies of tabla accompaniment. Good commentary on the nuances of instrumental vs vocal accompaniment. More on this in my next post.
I think the title of this post summarises the life of most tabla players, and Indian classical musicians in general! This art is so demanding, it seems no amount of practice is ever enough. One gradually gets better over time, but perfection – if there is such a thing – is elusive. One hears this from highly advanced players as much as from beginners. I used to find it hard to believe. But now I’m starting to understand. There is no “end point”. Only the journey. This is kind of scary to contemplate, and yet exciting at the same time.
I’m back to practicing a rela I first learned long ago: “Dhina Gena Taga Dhina Gena Dhina Dhara Gena”. It may be the toughest rela I know. It is excruciatingly difficult to play at speed, and yet it only really sounds good when played at high speed. My first guru Kulbhushanji used to play it wonderfully well. All my attempts to play it have usually ended with my giving up 😦
Abhijit Banerjee is currently guiding me through it – he has recommended practicing the phrase “Dhina Dhara Gena” as this is where the difficulty lies. Especially in the “Dhi-NA”. Sounds do-able… it isn’t. All my attempts thus far have felt like a case of one step forward, two steps backward. There are days when it feels like it is starting to come. But then the next day, I can hardly play it at all. Confounding. I am left wondering how on earth it can be so difficult, and how the masters manage to play it so well. Although, Abhijit Banerjee has admitted to me that he hardly ever plays this rela as it is “too much work”!
I’m relatively happy with my progress in other areas. I’ve been trying to focus on solidifying my core material, by practicing in a slower tempo, with only occasional bursts of speed. As opposed to trying to play fast all the time. It is really important to build up an “internal rhythm” which is best done by practicing in slower tempos (it seems), otherwise it is very easy to get off track when you play fast. This feels like a process of “gradual refinement”, which takes patience and time. Like steadily chipping away at a rock to create a sculpture. That’s a good analogy actually. At first you’ll only see the bare outlines of the sculpture. Over time, bit by bit, you’ll refine it until a life-like statue appears. But that takes time, lots of time, and you can’t rush it.
This is a picture of Ustad Ahmed Jaan Thirakwa, a legendary tabla player of the 20th century – widely considered the best tabla player of his time.
I felt inspired to post this photo here as he is one of my all-time favourite tabla players and a towering figure in the world of tabla. I have sometimes wondered what it is about his playing that is so attractive. Many tabla players have excellent technique, excellent knowledge of compositions, speed, clarity, dexterity… when I listen to Thirakwa Khan-sahib’s playing though I get the feeling that he has transcended technique and is simply one with his instrument. His playing seems effortless, as if he is not really trying. There is a mesmerising quality about his solo playing, which is a quality I have heard in almost no other tabla player, with the notable exception of Ustad Latif Ahmed Khan of Delhi, who passed away in the late 1980s and left us with very few recordings.
An excellent recording of Thirakwa Khan-sahib’s tabla solo playing is on the following CD released by Simla House records: Ahmedjaan Thirakwa 1964 Tabla Solo
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).
I wanted to post a YouTube video of a UK-based Pakistani Tabla player called Shabaz Husain giving a TEDx talk about Tabla and Pakhawaj at the University of Manchester. I find this video interesting because Shabaz Husain describes the historic evolution of the Tabla from the Pakhawaj amidst the parallel evolution of Khayal vocal singing from Dhrupad. An evolution I have also described in my earlier post on Tabla Gharanas.
I was fortunate to have a lesson today with the great Abhijit Banerjee. We are restarting lessons after several weeks break due in part to his being in LA for a few months and also due to an ongoing hand injury I had been contending with.
In our last lesson he had given me a Paran that he had learned from his guru, the great Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh. We were discussing the origin of Parans, they are mostly derived from Pakhawaj material. I have always liked Parans. There is a certain lilt, asymmetry and drama in them that I find enjoyable. Following this brief discussion into the origin of Parans, Panditji had given me a Paran to learn. The first line was:
Dha ~ KraDhan DhaDha | KraDhan DhaGhirNagaTigaNaga
(Out of respect for my gurus, I will generally not be posting the full compositions that I learn on this blog. To learn that I would ask that you seek this instruction from the gurus themselves)
The Paran was not too difficult at first glance, but took me quite a while to commit to memory, the second and third line in particular had some intricate bol patterns that took a lot of repetition to get right. So, we went through that Paran and guruji was satisfied that I had learned it correctly. Following that, he took the lesson in an unusual direction: Laggis.
Laggis are short phrases normally associated with light music or bhajans. Repetitive and somewhat “funky” sounding. I would compare them to a “riff” in a rock guitar context, a small musical phrase repeated over and over again for rhythmic effect. Panditji asked if I knew any Laggis – I don’t know many. He said we should go through a few as they are useful phrases that one should have in one’s repertoire. They are also good practice phrases. So we did to through a few, in Keherwa (8 beat) taal. I have enjoyed playing them. I have found that good tabla players do use Laggis to good effect even in a classical context, they can often be interjected to liven things up a bit, and they are also useful to know if one ever needs to play something in a light music context.
Over and out for today.
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).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:
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).
I would like to sincerely acknowledge my gurus who have initiated me into the journey of Indian music and tabla, and who continue to guide and inspire me.
My first guru was Pt Kulbhushan Bhargavaji of Kobe, Japan (originally from Delhi and Simla) who was my very first teacher of tabla and developed my foundational knowledge and abilities in tabla. He is a wonderful musician and tabla player who was a student of the highly-regarded Pandit Prem Vallabh, who was well-known as both a tabla and pakhawaj player. Kulbhushanji resides in Kobe, Japan where he teaches and performs. He identifies primarily with the Delhi and Ajrada gharanas (styles or lineages) of tabla playing and also has significant influence from Ustad Ahmedjan Thirakwa who taught his teacher Pandit Prem Vallabh.
My current guru is Pt Abhijit Banerjee of the Farrukabad Gharana who is based in Kolkata, India. Pt Banerjee is one of the top performers and teachers of tabla in India today and divides his time between India and the USA where he teaches via the Dhwani Academy of Indian Percussion. His official website is: http://www.abhijitbanerjee.com/
I would like to also acknowledge the other teachers whom I have studied with for certain periods of time over the years. Each of them has helped me learn and grow in some way:
- Pt Shailendra Mishra (Delhi, India)
- Glen Kniebiss (Kyoto, Japan)
- Pt Dilip Mukherjee (Kolkata, India)
- Jay Dabgar (Melbourne, Australia)
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.
I am a tabla player and Indian classical music enthusiast based in Melbourne, Australia.
I have started this blog to document and share my journey of learning and performing this wonderful music.