art&cultureThis article is the first in a series which deals with Indian music and art as well as some perspectives by artists who perform and teach them. In this issue, we will start with the tabla – the ubiquitous Indian drumming instrument. My son bangs the one we have with drum sticks whenever he gets a chance. He still does not understand that it is the fingers which do the trick on the tabla. An overview of the tabla follows here, and in another feature of the tabla, we will discuss why fingers are more effective than drum sticks when it comes to the tabla. It is very rare to attend any Hindustani musical concert where the tabla is either absent or plays a minor role. In fact, recently the tabla has also emerged as a solo instrument.

The tabla, as a percussion instrument, forms one of the cornerstones of North Indian Classical music. We see the tabla in this role in traditional instrumental and vocal performances, as well as more contemporary compositions. It is very rare to attend any Hindustani musical concert where the tabla is either absent or plays a minor role. In fact, recently the tabla has also emerged as a solo instrument (popularized by virtuoso artists like Ustad Zakir Hussain), and it is not uncommon to come across concerts with the tabla as a principal instrument, and the sarangi or harmonium giving it support.

The tabla is distinct from the other members of the Indian percussion family by having two drums – one for each hand. The small drum, the treble drum, is called the dayan, while the bigger bulging drum, the bass drum, is called the bayan. Interestingly, these names come from the hands that traditionally play them. Dayan is the Hindi/Urdu word for right, so named since it is generally played with the right hand. Bayan means left. The names have stuck, even though a left-handed player will play the Dayan with the left hand, and the Bayan with the right hand.

The Dayan is normally made of wood, while the resonating sound of the bayan comes from its metal construction. The thick black circle in the center of the head (the pudi), the syahi, plays a crucial role in creating the distinctive tabla sound. This is also normally the first part that eventually needs to be replaced.

The tabla is played sitting down and cross legged, in a relaxed manner. This may initially sound daunting for someone new to this, but it is different from the yogic cross-legged posture (the padmasan). Kids call this the pretzel style position. The fingers and palms of both hands are used in all possible combinations to create a wide repertoire of sounds. Each individual stroke is called a bol which is the founding block of anything that can be played on the tabla. These mnemonic bols are then combined to form short phrases, which are further incorporated into full-fledged rhythmic cycles.

A tabla student practices these rhythmic cycles, called taals, over and over again at various speeds called laya, or tempo. Some of the popular taals are tintaal (16 beats or matras), Keherva Taal (8 matras), Dadra Taal (6 matras), and Rupak Taal (7 matras). The tintaal, for example, is grouped into 4 bars of 4 beats each written as:
dha dhin dhin dha |
dha dhin dhin dha |
dha tin tin naa |
naa dhin dhin dha |
Here, dha, dhin, tin, and naa are the bols that are used in the creation of this taal/rhythm.

The tabla has other siblings in the North Indian musical tradition, like the dhol, dholak, pakhavaj, and cousins in the South Indian Karnataki tradition like the mridangam, ghatam, and the kanjira. Future articles in these series will discus different aspects of Hindustani and Karnataki music (instruments and styles), dance forms, and fine arts of India. We will also view them through the eyes of local accomplished artists. The artist seen above is Sandeep Munshi. Sandeep Munshi is a professional tabla player and teacher based in South Florida. He has accompanied by renowned bhajan, ghazal, and classical music artists. Sandeep Munshi also represents India in many European and Asian countries. He belongs to the Ajarada Gharana, and has taken training from Pandit Divyang Vakil. Read the conversation below to learn more.

AT: You have more than 100 students right now. What kind of interest in the tabla do you see in the Western world? SM: Basically most of them are inspired by other Indian players and students. Also I feel they got into it because they basically like Indian style music. As they say, “It’s different.”

AT: What do you mean by different? SM: Different means different culture. These are American Indians who are more into westernized music, and when they listen to Indian music, they say it is different. Born and raised here, they watch English channels – all westernized beats. Hence for them, it is something different, something more exciting.

AT: Why specifically the tabla in that case? SM: Most of my Indian students go through different cultural programs, watch TV, and most of them have an inbuilt love for music. They are looking for good music, and in the process come across people playing tabla. Sometimes they do not even know the person, or the instrument, but they know they want to learn it. I don’t think even half of my students have ever seen Zakir Hussain.

AT: Does this surprise you that they are attracted to Indian music? SM: Not really. Having heard and performed all kinds of music, I find that Indian music has one of the best styles. It touches the heart. It is based on the theory that has perfect calculation. Plus it’s the only rhythm style which is so detailed, and no other rhythm style in the world is as effective and systematic as Indian style (mainly classical) rhythm.

AT: What difference do you see in the kids learning tabla in India and in the US? SM: Well, back in India, students learn it as an art. Here most of the Indians learn it as they believe it’s our culture. The non-Indians learn as they are interested in learning Indian culture. As far as my training goes, all of my students know that the culture, character, and discipline are more important than Tabla learning. I put maximum emphasis on that. I insist on it as I believe that’s the way Indian art must be taught. If I teach putting the culture and character on a side, just to make money, I would consider myself as a businessman, not a teacher. At one of the places where I teach tabla, I see kids, youngsters born and brought up here, but it is a different culture. The reason they learn is to play for God. For example, at BAPS where I teach every weekend, students starting at the age of four to nineteen would interrupt me and ask what rhythm they can play with a particular devotional song. The goal of people learning is different from kid to kid.

AT: Is there an age before which it is too young to learn, or after which it is too late to start? SM: I started learning Tabla when I was 2 and half years old! I started playing on stage at the age of the 6. I started playing professionally at the age of 11! I also believe I would be able to play until the last moment of my life. Here, in the US, I have an age range of my students starting from 4 years to 67 years. I have school and college students, engineers, doctors, all kinds of male and female students. I don’t think it has any restriction with the age and sex. Yes, it’s better to start after four as the child at least would understand the meaning when you teach and explain to them. There is no limit when any one should stop learning or playing. All our GREAT performers like Pandit Jasrajji, Ustad Bismillah Khan, and Zakir Husainji to name a few, perform better than youngsters! Actually they inspire the young generation. Music goes beyond age.

AT: Why do you think we see this resurgence among the new generation of American Indians to learn the tabla? SM: Basically I believe it’s a culture. If you remember, in old days, we had narrow pants, then the bell-bottoms came and now it’s back to the same. Previous generations of American Indians tried other types of music in their young days. But I believe they finally realized that Indian music is the best. Now, they don’t want their next generation to repeat the same mistakes. They guide them to go for real Indian beats and as Indian rhythm being the best culture, even the new modern generation is accepting it, appreciating it, and enjoying it a lot.

AT: Do you think that tabla can be learned without having some fundamental understanding of Indian music? SM: Yes. Playing the tabla is basically following a beat. It has nothing to do with the sense of music, that’s soor/swara [note: melody/notes]. Any one who can clap in rhythm can learn tabla. Well, if the person has an inborn musical sense, it can be a plus point. I have some students who could initially not even clap in rhythm. I just had to put a little more effort on them and today they are good players! It’s the way you teach and treat them. The job of a teacher is to encourage students, not to discourage. I believe if I teach to those who already have a good sense of rhythm, I am doing my job. But if I could teach to those who are totally out of beat, that’s my success. Who does not like success?

AT: Your students have often performed as a tabla ensemble, where dozens of them play together, and then take turns in playing specific pieces. Since the tabla is predominantly a solo percussion instrument, what is the background of this development? SM: Well, the tabla was originally an instrument to accompany other performers, either vocal or instrumental. The solo style was started by some of the great tabla maestros like Pandit Samta Prasadji, Ustad Allarakha Khan Sahab followed by great players like Zakir Hussainji. Just like when we think about the Shahanai, it was previously only used for weddings occasions and also as an instrument to express sadness. Ustad Bismillah Khan started using the same instrument to perform solo in the traditional classical style! To give you another example, singing is usually considered as a solo performance. But you often hear chorus. I believe rhythm, which fundamentally has beats and a punch, the greater the number playing together generates better punch. Also when students play together in a group, they come close to each other and start sharing their culture and thoughts. You do it in a group, more people get involved. Also when played in a group, my students would know where they stand compared to other. That is one of my goals. I always encourage healthy competition.

AT: Do you see this as a trend that could become popular at a concert level? SM: It’s already very popular. Say for example, on radio and TV, you see lots of performances by students of Zakir Hussain! When you play a solo, you have one artist and the fans or family of one artist get involved.

AT: What are some of your favorite tabla CDs? SM: I don’t listen much to any rhythm CDs or cassettes. I really encourage my students to see live performances on TV or on stage. I believe you learn better my watching than by listening.

AT: What advice do you have for aspiring tabla players? SM: It is not important how much you play, but it is important how good you play. I may play 50 thousand variations, but if I don’t play well, it is not worth it. But if I play just five variations well, people will be pleased. Amit Talati has studied both Indian and Western classical music theory. He believes that all music, dance and art forms have the power to enrich life. He was an active member the Bombay chapter of SPIC-MACAY (Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Among Youth). Amit lives in South Florida.

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