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.
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:
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.
A great write-up on the intricacies of tabla accompaniment. Good commentary on the nuances of instrumental vs vocal accompaniment. More on this in my next post.
I think the title of this post summarises the life of most tabla players, and Indian classical musicians in general! This art is so demanding, it seems no amount of practice is ever enough. One gradually gets better over time, but perfection – if there is such a thing – is elusive. One hears this from highly advanced players as much as from beginners. I used to find it hard to believe. But now I’m starting to understand. There is no “end point”. Only the journey. This is kind of scary to contemplate, and yet exciting at the same time.
I’m back to practicing a rela I first learned long ago: “Dhina Gena Taga Dhina Gena Dhina Dhara Gena”. It may be the toughest rela I know. It is excruciatingly difficult to play at speed, and yet it only really sounds good when played at high speed. My first guru Kulbhushanji used to play it wonderfully well. All my attempts to play it have usually ended with my giving up 😦
Abhijit Banerjee is currently guiding me through it – he has recommended practicing the phrase “Dhina Dhara Gena” as this is where the difficulty lies. Especially in the “Dhi-NA”. Sounds do-able… it isn’t. All my attempts thus far have felt like a case of one step forward, two steps backward. There are days when it feels like it is starting to come. But then the next day, I can hardly play it at all. Confounding. I am left wondering how on earth it can be so difficult, and how the masters manage to play it so well. Although, Abhijit Banerjee has admitted to me that he hardly ever plays this rela as it is “too much work”!
I’m relatively happy with my progress in other areas. I’ve been trying to focus on solidifying my core material, by practicing in a slower tempo, with only occasional bursts of speed. As opposed to trying to play fast all the time. It is really important to build up an “internal rhythm” which is best done by practicing in slower tempos (it seems), otherwise it is very easy to get off track when you play fast. This feels like a process of “gradual refinement”, which takes patience and time. Like steadily chipping away at a rock to create a sculpture. That’s a good analogy actually. At first you’ll only see the bare outlines of the sculpture. Over time, bit by bit, you’ll refine it until a life-like statue appears. But that takes time, lots of time, and you can’t rush it.
This is a picture of Ustad Ahmed Jaan Thirakwa, a legendary tabla player of the 20th century – widely considered the best tabla player of his time.
I felt inspired to post this photo here as he is one of my all-time favourite tabla players and a towering figure in the world of tabla. I have sometimes wondered what it is about his playing that is so attractive. Many tabla players have excellent technique, excellent knowledge of compositions, speed, clarity, dexterity… when I listen to Thirakwa Khan-sahib’s playing though I get the feeling that he has transcended technique and is simply one with his instrument. His playing seems effortless, as if he is not really trying. There is a mesmerising quality about his solo playing, which is a quality I have heard in almost no other tabla player, with the notable exception of Ustad Latif Ahmed Khan of Delhi, who passed away in the late 1980s and left us with very few recordings.
An excellent recording of Thirakwa Khan-sahib’s tabla solo playing is on the following CD released by Simla House records: Ahmedjaan Thirakwa 1964 Tabla Solo
Keen to hear your thoughts and comments – please leave your thoughts in the comments field below, alternatively feel free to send me an email (shivabreathes at gmail dot com).
I wanted to post a YouTube video of a UK-based Pakistani Tabla player called Shabaz Husain giving a TEDx talk about Tabla and Pakhawaj at the University of Manchester. I find this video interesting because Shabaz Husain describes the historic evolution of the Tabla from the Pakhawaj amidst the parallel evolution of Khayal vocal singing from Dhrupad. An evolution I have also described in my earlier post on Tabla Gharanas.