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. 

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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. 

Practice … practice … and more practice 

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. 

Ustad Ahmedjaan Thirakwa

AJT

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).