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. 

Different types of tabla

Deviating from the usual themes of gharana, composition and practice – I thought I would write a bit about the various types of tabla I have, how I came to own them, and a bit about the characteristics of different tabla makers.

First off, it’s probably worth pointing out that sourcing a good set of tabla is a difficult task. There are a number of different makers in all of the various cities of India – finding which ones are good, being able to source a quality instrument from them, not getting ripped off; and then finding a tabla that sounds good, looks good, and stays in tune – these are all the challenges a tabla player faces. Particularly for those living outside India.

Finding a quality tabla maker

Although the “style” of tabla (e.g. Bombay vs Calcutta) seems to boil down mainly to a matter of personal preference and habit, there is no doubt that sourcing an instrument from one of the top tabla makers is highly recommended if at all possible. It takes some effort to work out who the good makers are, and even then one is not necessarily guaranteed a good instrument – there is a risk of getting ripped off especially if you are a beginner, from abroad, or both. An introduction by one’s teacher, fellow student or fellow tabla player is usually the best approach.

Tabla, along with all the other instruments used in India, is still very much a hand made, highly specialised craft done on a small scale. Therefore, a good tabla maker who knows what they are doing, uses quality material and – ideally – actually cares about creating a high quality product is ideal. In my experience there are a handful of stand-out tabla makers / craftsmen across India, whom I’ll list below:


  • Narayan Badya Bhandar (Shyamal Das)
  • Rhythm Tabla Shop (Mukta Das)
  • Badya Niketan

Calcutta / Kolkata has produced some of the most outstanding tabla players of the current generation (Anindo Chatterjee, Swapan Chaudhari and many others) and also happens to produce extremely high quality tabla – known for thinner skins and a sweeter sound than Mumbai drums (more on this below). The three makers listed above are the ones I know of that have the best reputation. I have personally been to Shyamal Das’s shop on Rakhal Das Auddy Road and have sourced a number of my drums from him. Shyamal was a very quiet, dignified man who struck me as being the quintessential master craftsman more interested in creating a quality product than in producing for the mass market to make money.

I don’t have direct experience of Mukta Das’s drums but he’s probably the most popular of the Kolkata makers today – I’ve seen his drums used by several big name tabla players, most notably Swapan Chaudhari.

A couple of big name tabla players use Badya Niketan’s drums (most notably Subhankar Banerjee) and he seems to have a reputation for making good bayans in particular. Beyond that I don’t have much knowledge of or first-hand experience of Badya Niketan.

In general, my impression is that the Calcutta makers are fine craftsmen who generally make a quality product. The drums sound great but are reputed to not be as durable as the Mumbai drums – this is the only downside.

Mumbai / Pune

  • Haridas Vhatkar
  • Vishnu Sutar
  • Somnath Kakade / Bharat Kakade

I feel like I am missing a couple of names from this list, however these are the makers that come to mind when thinking of Mumbai / Pune.

Haridas Vhatkar is arguably the most famous tabla maker in the world due to his patronage for nearly half a century by the great Ustad Zakir Hussain, and Ustad Allah Rakha before that. Even Pandit Anindo Chatterjee, despite being from Calcutta, was using Haridas Vhaktar made tabla for a long time. While I have no direct experience of Haridas Vhatkar drums, their reputation precedes them. Clarity of tone, durability, tunefulness (staying consitently and evenly in tune is one of the hallmarks of a well-made tabla, and one of the reasons to buy from a good maker) are all top notch. They are expensive though and there is a long waiting list to get one.

Vishnu Sutar seems to be a hidden gem among the tabla craftsmen of Maharashtra. While not as famous a name as Haridas Vhatkar, I’ve heard rave reviews of his drums from friends who’ve played them, and at least one well-known Mumbai tabla player (Aneesh Pradhan) uses his drums exclusively.

Somnath Kakade is a young and upcoming tabla maker based in Pune who has created a very good name for himself in just a few years. I have personally bought drums and skins from Somnath on a few occasions (for myself as a well as friends and students) and I can recommend him highly. The quality and tone of his bayan (and bayan skins) is particularly noteworthy. After I played one of his bayans I immediately switched all my bayans to Somnath skins. His dayan are probably not quite as good as someone like Haridas Vhatkar’s but still of very high quality and much easier to get hold of. Somnath is also personally very easy to deal with. Pt Anindo Chatterjee and his son Anubrata Chatterjee are mostly playing Somnath Kakade made tabla these days.


While I have no direct experience of the Delhi tabla makers (save a relatively obscure one called Mansoor Khan from whom I bought my first drums), these are the ones that I know of that have the best reputation:

  • Qasim Niyazi Tabla Maker
  • Gullu Tabla Maker

Delhi style tabla are probably mostly similar to Mumbai style, although with slightly softer skins if I’m not mistaken. My initial set of tabla were from Delhi, however over time I’ve come to prefer Calcutta style tabla and for bayan I’m using Somnath’s skins. Although the quality of the instruments from the above makers will be good, an unfortunate reality of the Delhi tabla makers is that dealing with them is often not easy (e.g. price rip-offs) and it’s probably best to go through a trusted third party…


There is one famous tabla maker in Hyderabad known as Akbar Miya. He seems to have a good reputation, or did at one time at any rate, as the original Akbar Miya has long since passed away and the shop is now being run by his sons and grandsons. Although the quality of their instruments is known to be good, I don’t have immediate experience of playing them. I did try and procure a new skin for one of my dayans recently from Akbar Miya – however it was difficult to get them to ship it abroad. Although I was quite keen to try one of their skins, due to logistical difficulties I’ll probably end up sourcing one from Somnath instead, who is much easier to deal with in this respect.


There are a number of quality tabla makers in Benares… however given that I’m not very familiar with the landscape there I won’t attempt to provide a list as I don’t think I will be able to do it justice. The only Benares tabla maker I have any experience with is Anwar tabla maker, who is the supplier for Tabla Wala online tabla store. 

Different types of tabla: Mumbai vs Calcutta

One of the oft-repeated debates amongst tabla players is “what type of tabla is best?”. In my experience, as long as one has a good quality pair of drums from a quality maker, the style of tabla ultimately makes little difference. I think that really just boils down to personal preference, and whatever you are used to. Mumbai or Pune based tabla players tend to use the tabla from their region. Kolkata based players inevitably use Kolkata style tablas – I don’t think it really matters that much, at the end of the day.

Calcutta tabla have a reputation for long sustain, a “sweet” sound and a “bell like” tone – all of which is true. There is a misconception though that, because they have thinner skins, Calcutta tablas are easier to play than Mumbai or Pune style tabla, as less effort is ostensibly required to make a sound. I have to say that I completely disagree with this view. I have found that Calcutta tabla can in fact be harder to play than Mumbai tabla, for the following reason – because of the sweeter tone and the thinner skins, Calcutta tablas can be less forgiving. Even a minor devitation of finger placement can result in an “off” sound, whereas Mumbai drums are more forgiving in this regard. I personally feel that playing Calcutta style tablas ultimately requires an overall better technique based on my experience of having played both types.

Mumbai style drums have thicker skins and, more importantly, a thicker syahi. Although it is true that a slightly harder hit is required to get a sound out of the “chanti” on a Mumbai drum, I don’t think it is really that significant. Also, because of the thicker syahi, I find it slightly easier to get thick and chunky sounding “Ti Te” and “Tirakita” strokes from Mumbai/Pune style skins. I find overall the Mumbai / Pune drums to be slightly more forgiving of bad technique, one can hit pretty much anywhere on the chanti and still get a good, full sound out of it – not so on on the Calcutta drums.

Mumbai drums do have a reputation for being longer-lasting than Calcutta drums, and this is probably true.

Delhi and Benares style tabla are mostly similar to the Mumbai style with thicker skins and thicker “gab” or “syahi”. Benares have quite thin bayan skins to aid sliding motions of the wrist which are common in Benares style of tabla playing. Benares dayans also tend to be highly resonant with a lot of sustain and a somewhat “piercing” tone. 

The style of drum one likes really just boils down to habit and personal preference at the end of the day. Although it is good to get a quality pair of drums if you can, ultimately, the type of tabla you have is much less important than the depth and intensity of your dedication and practice (“riyaaz”)!

My personal collection

This is a 5 1/2 inch dayan from Shyamal Das in Calcutta. Beautiful mahogany wood and a classic Calcutta style skin. It has a beautiful high pitched tone with matchless sustain and a very pleasant tone. Currently tuned to D.

I do sometimes find that the tone of this drum can be a bit too “trebley”, which can be one of the downsides of a Calcutta style skin. Mumbai style heads tend to offer a more well rounded tone, which can be good particularly on smaller and higher pitched drums like this one. 

That said, this is a very lovely instrument with a beautiful tone.


One of my two bayans. This one is currently my favourite and one of the best bayans I have ever played!

The shell is a copper/brass alloy which I originally bought from Delhi around ten years ago. I have replaced the original skin with a skin from Somnath Kakade. Interestingly, although this bayan has a 9 1/4 inch diameter, the skin is slightly oversized at 9 1/2 inch. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with it, but either way, the tone and feel of this bayan is absolutely brilliant. Deep, soulful bass tone with great sustain and very responsive to modulation.

This is one of my more recent acquisitions – I got it late last year from Shyamal Das. I had to wait for around 3 months to get it, but the wait was worth it.

It is a slightly larger head (5 3/4″) tuned to C. I had specifically requested one for C pitch (to accompany sarod), as none of my other drums seemed to sound good in C.

Like my other drum from Shyamal this is also made of mahogany wood. The skin on this drum is interesting because both the “chanti” and the “gab” feel slightly thicker than I’m used to for Calcutta drums. It gives a nice, mature tone that is very well-balanced. Nice sustain without being too “trebley”.


This is a recent acquisition of mine from someone selling an old pair on tabla from Gumtree. I was attracted to this tabla as soon as I picked it up – the woody is heavy and thick, which is something I like. The original maker was Akbar Miya from Hyderabad, based on the sticker on the shell, however the skin is a Benares skin (5 1/2″ dayan, tuned to C#).

Although I was attracted to the sweet and high-pitched tone of this drum at first, after playing it for a while I found the tone of his drum to be a bit “hard edged”, compared to the relatively softer tone of the Calcutta drums I’m now used to. Given also that the syahi is starting to look a bit weathered, I’m probably going to replace the skin soon. 

This is one of the awesomest tablas in my collection. It has a larger size head (6+ inches) currently tuned to A# – this pitch is mainly used to accompany female vocals. Every serious tabla player should have at least one larger size tabla like this in their collection. The larger heads are very good to practice on to build hand strength, and the deeper tone is also a nice contrast to the smaller, high pitched drums that we usually hear. Pakhawaj bols like “TiTe Kata Gadi Gana” are very good to play on this drum. I originally bought this years ago from someone who had brought it from Mumbai. It has a very nice, sturdy and thick wooden shell. I had the original skin replaced by Shyamal Das when I visited Calcutta in December 2015. Beautiful drum with wonderful, deep and austere tone, that gives a hint of pakhawaj tone. 

An interesting drum (5 3/4″) with a tone that sounds gorgeous at times and at other times a bit “piercing” which can be a little off-putting. First of all this drum has the heaviest (by far) shell of any dayan I have ever seen! It is an immensely heavy shell of “pure shisham” wood. This type of wood is now no longer available in India as the tree is endangered and commercial sales have been banned.

Unfortunately, due probably to a lack of care by the original maker, the drum’s shell is not perfectly circular, meaning that the skin will never sound quite “right” and will have trouble staying in tune. This too has had the original skin replaced by Shyamal Das. The skin is nice and thick for a Calcutta skin, however I wish the gab were a bit thicker – this drum has almost “too much” sustain, so much so that it rings in the ear a bit. There are times I really enjoy playing this drum though, as it has a unique tone and unique feel. I will probably get the skin replaced eventually, ideally by one of the Mumbai makers, as I think a Mumbai style skin would better suit this drum. 

And last but not least, the second of my two bayans. I bought it from Shyamal Das in December 2015, however I was never a fan of the original skin. There is something about the tone of Calcutta style bayans, they can sometimes sound a bit “shallow” compared to the Mumbai/Pune style bayans. I have replaced the skin with one from Somnath, which sounds much better.

For some reason I’ve had trouble keeping this skin in tune evenly all around the drum, which is unusual as tuning is not normally a problem on bayans.

This is a good bayan with a good sound, but I must say my other bayan sounds particularly good. This is now my “backup” bayan. It’s also slightly smaller than the other one, so if space is an issue I usually carry this.

Hope you have enjoyed reading about the different types of tabla drums, the various makers and the overview of my personal collection. 

Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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 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 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).