Afternoon performance with Dr Sarita McHarg

Sharing some photos of yesterday afternoon’s performance with Dr Sarita McHarg, eminent sitar player and folk singer from Ujjain. My friend Mrs Pratima Shankar was recruited at the eleventh hour to provide harmonium accompaniment. Performance was held at the Open Studio in Northcote, an intimate venue which turned out to be a pretty ideal setting for this type of music. 

Sarita-ji started the performance with a rendition of Raga Charukeshi. Alap, Vilambit and Madhya-laya gat in Teentaal. Following which she switched gears to her folk repertoire and sang a bhajan composed by the medieval saint-poet Kabir. This bhajan was also based on Charukeshi. We then heard an uplifting folk melody known as a Kajri, with myself attempting to provide suitably high energy laggi-style accompaniment in Keherwa taal, unfortunately this is really not my area! Having been more inclined to the classical idiom till date … nevertheless being good at laggi is an important part of a tabla player’s skill set and my guruji has pressed me on this point a few times … 

We followed with a lovely Khayal in Raga Madhuwanti sung by Pratima-ji (I switched to my A# tabla for this). I am a big fan of Khayal vocal and Pratima-ji did a fantastic rendition which left me and I hope the listeners spellbound. When I myself become lost in the music then tabla accompaniment seems to just be happening by itself in the background. This is a lovely feeling. There was a moment when Sarita-ji joined in and the two of them sang the bandish together as a duet, it’s hard to put the resulting feeling into words. 

Sarita-ji concluded the afternoon by performing the same raga Madhuwanti on sitar, giving the listeners a taste of both a vocal and instrumental rendition of the same raga. I really enjoyed this rendition too, especially the drut and jhalla portion which Sarita-ji maintained for a good length of time. That was real “trance music”… ! 

Enjoyed the performance and look forward to more opportunities to perform with such wonderful musicians in future. 

Some photos:

  
  
  
  
  

Tabla injuries

I have been wanting to write a blog post on injuries arising from tabla playing and practice, as this is something I have recently experienced. Playing almost any kind of instrument typically involves many hours of repetitive movements of hands, wrists, fingers as well as shoulders and other such joints. This includes all of the Indian instruments as well as Western instruments such as piano, guitar etc. Many musicians face repetitive strain injury over many hours of practice and some seek professional help to deal with their issues. There have been cases where people have left their injury unattended to the extent that they were no longer able to perform or play and had to quit their instrument. A terrible misfortune for any aspiring musician!

I will devote the rest of this post to focus on tabla players’ injuries specifically, however much of this information is generally relevant to any other instrument as well – both Indian and non-Indian.

First of all, a clear distinction should be made between “strenuous practice” and “pain”. If one goes running, cycling, or indeed plays tabla for a few minutes, one will feel muscle strain which will eventually turn into muscle fatigue over minutes and hours of practice. If running, you would typically stop and walk for a few minutes once you feel out of breath or your legs are starting to hurt, before resuming your run. It should be exactly the same with practicing your instrument – play to your capacity, but when you feel you are starting to strain, return to a more manageable speed. At no point is it normal to feel pain while playing tabla. It is normal to feel some amount of “strain”, but not “pain”. Pain is your body telling you that it is unable to cope with what you are doing and needs to stop. Any advice to “play through pain” is simply wrong and should not be followed under any circumstances. Unfortunately, there are many musicians who have been given this wrong advice. I have a few theories about the reasons behind this. I think part of the problem is that Indian classical music is still largely dominated by people who are from musical families or who, at the very least, have been playing their instrument since early childhood. This is in contrast to many Westerners and non-Indians who would in many cases only have picked up their Indian classical interest and/or instrument later on in life. Those who grew up playing their instrument in India would therefore be accustomed to the postures and movements of playing the instrument. Sitting on the floor, for example, would come naturally to them, whereas it may not for a “non-native”. There is therefore much greater scope for error and  injury, however, the Indian musicians who have been trained since childhood in the traditional manner are often not equipped to understand this. I therefore say again: Do not attempt to “play through pain”. You risk long-term injury and open yourself up to the worst case scenario of having to give up playing your instrument – I have actually seen this happen to a good friend of mine. The good news is that most physical ailments can be corrected through proper posture and/or a proper practice regimen.

One specific observation I wish to share from my personal experience – I have found that for me personally, it’s best not to sit on a cushion while playing or practicing tabla. For the last couple of years, I had been in the habit of sitting on a soft cushion while playing, and I discovered that this was actually causing additional stress on my shoulders and back, which was leading to pain in my forearm. More in-depth explanation follows.

Tabla playing requires careful and coordinated use of the shoulders, back, forearms, wrists and ultimately fingers to make the intricate and complex movements required to bring out the exquisite tonal qualities of this unique percussion instrument. Beginner tabla players will tend to focus their movements on hands and wrists. However, as one gains more experience as a tabla player and starts to increase their speed and volume, they will typically (or at least should be) start using more of their shoulders and eventually their back to generate force and power. This shift is gradual. However, if done properly, this means that most of the tension in the body of an advanced tabla player is in their shoulders and back, which is ideal because these muscles and joints are much stronger than those of the arm and wrist, and therefore much better suited to long and hard practice.

In order to properly engage these muscles, one needs to be sitting on a strong and stable foundation. My experience suggests that sitting on the floor is the best way to obtain this stable foundation. Sitting on a carpet, a rug or a very thin cushion may be OK, as long as it doesn’t compromise the stability of your posture. I had got into the habit of sitting on a large, soft cushion, thinking that it would be better to be slightly more elevated when playing the instrument. What I found was that this was actually detrimental to my posture, and led to pain in my forearm. The reason for this is that sitting on the cushion was, I believe, compromising the stability of my posture. This ultimate would have led to greater tension in my upper back and shoulders, as they were having to compensate for the lack of a stable foundation. I was experiencing pain in my right forearm for the last 1 – 2 years and could not work out what the problem was. I tried to change my posture … practice more/less … but could not work out the root cause. After several visits to therapists without much change, one day I developed a hunch that using the cushion may be contributing to the problem. So, I started to practice without the and voila the pain in my forearm was gone and has not since returned! I was rather amazed that this simple change could have so profound an effect, hence I thought to share this information via this blog post in case it is relevant to anyone else out there.

If you are experiencing pain or discomfort (beyond what can be considered acceptable limits of any strenuous activity) please feel free to contact me to share your experience.

I would like to also share a couple of online resources that I found useful during my personal research into this topic:

The Body Mechanics of Playing Tabla

Tabla Players and Ulnar Nerve Injuries

Arm Pain from Playing Tabla

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). 

Ati Vilambit Ektaal Theka

I have been teaching myself to play the Theka of the Ati Vilambit Ektaal (12 beat cycle) in preparation for accompanying the Bada Khayal style of vocal singing.

Ati Vilambit means “extremely slow”. The Bada Khayal movement is an extremely slow, meditative movement which provides the singer the opportunity to explore the raga in an alaap-like fashion, yet provides the structure of a composition.

It is an extremely challenging movement for a tabla player to accompany, due to the very slow speed at which the theka is played. The other challenge stems from the fact that the bols of Ektaal are not as symmetrical as Teentaal. For reference the Ektaal Theka is:

Dhin Dhin DhaGe Tirakita Tun Na | Ka Ta DhaGe Tirakita Dhin Na

Although Ek Taal has 12 beats, in practice, in the Ati Vilambit Theka sub-divides each beat into 4 beats, resulting in a Theka that resembles the following:

Dhin _ _ _ | Dhin _ _ _ | Dha _ Dha _ | Ti Ra Ki Ta | Tin _ _ _ | Na _ _ _

Kat _ _ _ | Tin _ _ _ | Dha _ Dha _ | Ti Ra Ki Ta | Dhin _ _ _ | Dha _ _ _

Keeping a mental count “1 2 3 4” as one is going through the cycle of the theka can help to keep on track. One may notice that the bol Ti Ra Ki Ta corresponds to the count of “1 2 3 4”. Hence the speed at which one plays Ti Ra Ki Ta can be a useful checkpoint for the overall tempo. 

Usually a number of additional bols are added to ornament the Theka, which I have not given above, as they are up to the taste and creativity of the individual tabla artist. I recommend listening to recordings of professional tabla players providing accompaniment during a Bada Khayal performance to get ideas on suitable theka ornamentations. After some practice The ornamentations start to become second nature. 

Here is a video demonstration by me of how to play Ati Vilambit Ektaal:

A few observations about the Ati Vilambit Ektaal Theka:

  • It is much easier to get “lost” within the Ati Vilambit Theka than in Teentaal. First of all, Teentaal is rarely played in as slow a speed as Ati Vilambit Ektaal. Moreover, the structure and bols of Teentaal are much more regular and repetitive than Ektaal.
  • A few of the bols of the Theka are changed to suit the slower tempo – in particular the final “Na” is played as “Dha”, in order to make it clear whether we are on the 12th beat and not the 6th beat. Also “DhaGe” is generally played as “Dha _ Dha _”.
  • To elaborate on the above point, vocalists can themselves get “lost” in the Ati Vilambit Theka, and rely on cues from the tabla player to keep their place in the cycle. The key seems to be the two “Ti Ra Ki Ta” that appear on beats 4 and 10. If “Ti Ra Ki Ta” is followed by “Tin” this is a cue that we are entering the khali portion of the cycle, whereas if it is followed by “Dhin”, this is a cue that the sam is approaching
  • The degree of ornamentation of the Theka appears to be a matter of personal preference. I have heard recordings where tabla players perform a significant amount of ornamentation, sometimes to the extent that one can barely recognize the theka as such! Others perform a more minimal style of ornamentation – which is my personal preference. Aesthetically it seems to better suit the slow and meditative mood of Bada Khayal.

Veteran tabla player Pandit Sankha Chatterjee has commented that it is more difficult to accompany vocals than to accompany instrumental. This is an interesting observation. At first glance, tabla players are typically doing more “interesting” things when they accompany instrumentalists, playing multiple solos, and usually ending with a fast “jhalla” that requires quite a bit of physical dexterity to play well. Whereas with vocal accompaniment they are usually just playing theka most of the time. So Pandit Chatterjee’s observation is interesting, and somewhat non-intuitive.

The reason he offers for this opinion is that even a not-so-good tabla player can accompany an instrumentalist and can still sound good. But to accompany a vocalist you have to have a very crisp, clear theka and to be able to keep a very solid, unwavering tempo. This is harder to do than it may appear. My personal experience somewhat corroborates this, although I think it would also be fair to say that it can be challenging to accompany an instrumentalist as well – one needs a certain depth of material, simply playing theka is not enough – but that being said, I think a tabla player needs to have a certain maturity and emotional depth to properly accompany a classical vocalist.

All this is perhaps brought to a head when accompanying a Bada Khayal performance. The tabla player needs to have a very strong command of the rhythmic cycle in order to keep the Theka. They have to have the sense of how to ornament the Theka, but restrain themselves from over-doing it lest they interfere with the vocal singer’s performance.

 Here is an example of a Bada Kheyal in Ati Vilambit Ektaal, tabla accompaniment superbly performed by Pt Swapan Chaudhari: 

If you have enjoyed this post, please drop me a line in the comments. 

Video of recent performance

This is a video of a recent performance in which I accompanied David Balaban on the sitar. David was performing Raga Miyan Ki Malhar, as part of the Jala art exhibition held in Docklands, Melbourne by local artist Malcolm Berry. This video is of the last part of the performance in Drut Teentaal.

Trip to Calcutta 

I had a wonderful trip to Calcutta over December 2015. Sitar player David Balaban and I travelled there together for a two week stay. It was an extremely successful trip. I was able to spend time with Pt Abhijit Banerjee at his home getting really good instruction in tabla. It was also extremely wonderful to finally meet him in person, as up to now I have only seen him “online”.

A key learning from the trip for me was the importance of good sound production in tabla, and how difficult it is to do this really well. There are many small tips and tricks, many of which are centred on the bayan (bass drum) to produce a fuller and more pleasing sound.

One thing I really enjoy (and miss) is the wonderful experience of sitting and learning in front of the guru. Many small interactions and chats take place which are not possible in the online medium.

I really look forward to the next opportunity to visit Abhijit Banerjee in person, in Calcutta or elsewhere.

Some photos from the trip:

  

Khayal vocal performance at Sur Sanjh with Pratima Shankar

I had the opportunity this past Sunday to provide tabla accompaniment to Smt Pratima Shankar, who is an accomplished classical vocalist from Delhi. The performance was a part of Sur Sanjh, which is a musical event held every two months or so in the western suburbs of Melbourne. The organiser is a good friend of ours and a very accomplished musician named Bikram Malhar. He can be seen providing harmonium accompaniment in the picture below with Pratimaji and myself. 

  

Pratimaji sang two compositions in Raga Gaud Sarang which I believe is an afternoon raga in the Sarang family, which includes ragas such as Brindavani Sarang. It was a “chhota khayal” which is usually the latter part of a traditional khayal performance featuring mid-tempo or fast-tempo rhythmic accompaniment. There was not enough time allotted to perform a “bada khayal” which is a much slower tempo part of the performance. 

For me, it was my first time to accompany a classical vocalist. Although Pratima and I had done a couple of practices beforehand, I still found it a bit challenging on the stage. Getting a feel for the underlying rhythm in khayal vocal is more difficult than with sitar or sarod, I find, as there is no underlying strumming of chikari strings to indicate the tempo. It is in general a more subtle and nuanced art form compared to the instrumentals, which is probably why vocal has traditionally been considered the highest form of musical expression in Indian classical music. 

Paying close attention to the “sur” or tuning of the tabla is also of paramount importance in a vocal performance as an out of tune tabla can throw off the singer. Despite the lack of opportunity to perform much (if any) solo material in a vocal performance, it is still quite challenging as you as the tabla player have to pay close attention to what is going on at all times. 

I’m looking forward to doing more practice with Pratimaji in the future to sharpen my abilities to provide tabla accompaniment for khayal vocal, and hope there will be more opportunities to perform with her in the future.