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.

The Importance of Sound Production on Tabla

Rahul Bhattacharya (also known as Saby Bhattacharya) is an accomplished sarod player living  in Melbourne. He blogs about sarod at sarod.com.au. One of his posts concerns the importance of ‘sound production’ on the sarod:

Sound Production on the Sarod: Some Perspectives

Saby and I have discussed this topic in person on several occasions. I thought it would it be interesting to share some of my thoughts on this subject in relation to tabla.

Sound production (the art of producing sound) on Indian instruments is a life-long journey. Be it tabla, sitar, sarod or any other instrument, the structure of the instruments is such that they are highly sensitive to the touch of an individual, creating great possibilities for musical expression. Just to get a basic sound “na” out of a tabla, for example, can take a beginner months to get right. It is not an instrument that one can pick up and immediately start banging away on. Much time and effort is needed even to produce the basic sounds. And it is then a never ending process to constantly refine one’s sound – playing articulately, with clarity, adequate volume, accentuating certain phrases and so on and so forth.

As one matures as a tabla player, the basic sounds such as “na”, “tite” or “tirakita” ought to be consistently improved and refined. One does not need to listen to a long tabla solo to distinguish a great tabla player from a lesser one, even the “na” or “dha” of a great tabla player can be distinguished from that of a less experienced player. Saby’s post mentions the concept of a “musician’s touch”. This can perhaps also be referred to as a “master’s touch”.

Sound production on the baya (bass drum) by itself has significant potential for exploration by a tabla player. Whereas on the dayan (treble drum) one is in general producing ‘discrete’ or individual sounds, on the bayan one is producing ‘continuous’ sounds. There is therefore a lot of potential to explore modulations of the bayan sound, usually using pressure from the heel of the palm, occasionally by sliding the hand across the face of the drum, or a combination of both. Some players (e.g. Zakir Hussain) have even been known to produce actual melodies from the bayan. There is a tendency amongst some players to go a little “overboard” with their bayan playing to a point where it can become a little distracting, care should be taken not to play loudly or aggressively just for the sake of doing so.

It may be worth mentioning that the bayan is a differentiating factor for the tabla, not only from other global percussion instruments but even from other Indian percussion instruments such as pakhawaj, mridangam etc. None of these instruments features a separate bass drum whose sound can be modulated. It is therefore well worth reflecting on and developing this aspect of one’s tabla playing.

Obviously there is a matter of personal taste involved and also some stylistic differences between individuals and gharana lineages, however in general, the ideal is a balanced sound that is as close a reflection as possible of spoken tabla bols. With an excellent balance between the right and left hands.

Very few artists reach this vaunted goal. Like any other aspect of one’s tabla playing, sound production is something that one needs to work on deliberately and consciously. Taking care to ensure clarity is maintained even at higher speed.

Nayan Ghosh

While many have heard of Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pt Anindo Chatterjee, Swapan Chaudhari, perhaps not that many people are familiar with the name Nayan Ghosh. While revered amongst the Indian classical music fraternity, lay people are less likely to be aware of him. This is a tragedy, as Pt Nayan Ghosh is an absolutely outstanding musician. 

The first and foremost thing to note about PNG is that he is adept at both tabla and sitar. While this is in itself quite remarkable, what is also remarkable is that he is a tabla player of the highest order, having been trained not only by his father Pt Nikhil Ghosh (himself an outstanding and multi-faceted musician, as well as a scholar and teacher of music) but also having directly received taleem from none other than Ustad Ahmedjan Thirakwa himself. 

His virtuosity is on display in this excerpt of a tabla solo where he plays a dazzling Tisra Jati Rela featuring extensive use of the bol Dhir Dhir, a composition of Ustad Amir Hussain Khan:

We may then observe that he is equally at home on the sitar:

Last but not least, in a clip well worth watching, Nayan-ji recalls the backstory of how his father came under the tutelage of Ustads Amir Hussain Khan and Ahmedjan Thirakwa:

Having learned directly from these great masters, Nayan-ji is in possession of many rare and old compositions, and is somebody that is well-worth further investigation by any serious connoisseur of Indian classical music. 

Pt Nayan-ji is the director of the Sangit Mahabharati music academy in Mumbai. 

Tabla gharanas, revisited

I came across a series of articles on tabla gharanas published on scroll.in by the incomparable Dr Aneesh Pradhan, who is renowned for being both an accomplished tabla player as well as an academic and scholar. Links to the articles are below:

  1. Delhi Gharana – where it all began
  2. Ajrada Gharana – Habibuddin Khan displays his mastery, and wit
  3. Lucknow Gharana – Doyens of Lucknow gharana display the khulaa baaj
  4. Farrukabad Gharana – Maestros of the Farrukhabad gharana seamlessly blend styles
  5. Benares Gharana – The resonant Benaras style of tabla
  6. Punjab Gharana – The versatility of the Punjab gharana

An interesting classification of the six gharanas by Robert Gottlieb (author of The Major Tradition of North Indian Tabla) is as follows:

1) Delhi, Ajrada – Paschim 

2) Lucknow, Farrukabad – Purab

3) Benares, Punjab – Pakhawaj

Paschim means “west” and refers to the western, relatively speaking, parts of the subcontinent where these gharanas side. We could equally refer to this subset as the kinar gharanas, referring to their focus of playing on the edge of the tabla with an emphasis on finger based rather than hand based movements. 

Purab means “east” and has generally come to refer to the style most exemplified by Lucknow, utilizing full hand and “open” styles of playing with emphasis on the sur or inner edge of the tabla skin rather than the outer, which gives these styles a more resonant aesthetic. 

Finally the pakhawaj gharanas are noted as such due to the heavy influence of pakhawaj techniques and compositions used in these gharanas. 

These classifications are all of course relative and not meant to be taken as the final word, merely an observation. It can also be noted that there has been a lot more mixing of styles in the last few decades. Punjab players have adopted styles and compositions from other gharanas, and vice versa, making the influence of pakhawaj much less obvious these days. 

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). 

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: 

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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.