Finding a Tablā Teacher

Finding a Tablā Teacher

Today, a young man and his father came to my music school. The son wanted to take tabla lessons at our institute because he had been referred to me by a music friend of mine. At Rhythm Riders, we take very few new local students as a measure of quality control. I told him this, yet the father persisted in saying that his son wanted to learn more seriously. His son had been learning from someone else for 4 years, but now, finding a tabla teacher who could take him forward was very important. I could see that the boy was talented and very interested in music, so I conceded and gave him a chance to play.
Once our general class had thinned out, I called the boy to me with a pair of Tablā. On one hand, what happened saddened me, yet on the other hand, invoked no response, as I had seen this so many times over the years.
The boy’s basic hand was incorrect, meaning that his hand placement and movement to play basic bols was incorrect. Four years of carelessness or incompetence on the part of his teacher, and now, the boy had potentially formed bad habits that were irreversible. If I were to have taken this boy as a student at our school, we would first ask him to forget everything he has been taught and start from the absolute basics. But even with that extreme measure, it wouldn’t guarantee the development of a perfectly set hand (like those of students who start their training with us), as it is near impossible to forget what has become ingrained in the hands over the course of 4 years.
This scene is not new to me. I have experienced it time and time again. The lack of effort and research that is put into finding a Tablā teacher both saddens me and angers me.
Indian classical music has the potential to spiritually uplift the musician and the listener. It is a vidyā (art/ knowledge) whose learning is said to carry forth from one birth to the next. It has the ability to heal and empower and do so much more, yet when someone seeks to learn this art, they often spend less time on finding a teacher than they do on buying a shirt.
For example, I have seen people start learning from a particular teacher simply because their neighbour also learns from them. They start without asking any questions and doing any research. When we choose what school to send our child to, we look at the quality of the education, the caliber of its graduates, etc, so why don’t people do the same for training in Indian classical music?
Quality should not be excused for the sake of convenience. I understand that in today’s day and age, time is viewed as an increasingly limited commodity, but does that extra 30 minute drive take precedence over you losing the opportunity to reach a certain level of mastery? (Recall the young boy I mentioned at the start, who now has a very low chance of learning from a genuine Tablā teacher because his hand is damaged).
The caliber and qualifications of a teacher are crucial considerations. One does not necessarily have to begin learning from a maestro. (In fact, most maestros do not take beginner students. They only take on new students once a certain level of competency is displayed). Maestro or no maestro, one has to look at the level of competency the teacher has in their own playing and/or knowledge. The caliber of a teacher can be gauged by the caliber of his students. If a teacher does not have any (or very few) students that play well or have a good grasp of the art, this is clearly a reflection of the teacher’s poor skills.
An often overlooked question – How long have they been learning?
In my years abroad, I have seen countless Tablā players come to me who learnt Tablā? in India (or elsewhere) for a few years (most likely, not seriously but as a hobby) and then migrated abroad. One of the first things they do upon migration is teach Tablā. Why? Because with a few hours of work in the evening, they can cover their basic expenses at the least. To me, this is an absolute crime. They are not necessarily even qualified performers, let alone qualified teachers. But they do it and get away with it because they can find the students – people who did not do their research and decided to learn from the person closest to them.
How long have they been teaching? If they don’t have many years of experience, do they have someone who is monitoring their teaching? Teaching Indian classical music is not an innate capability, but one that has to be developed.
Who did they learn from? If they have learned from 5 unrelated teachers in a period of 3 years, a question should arise in terms of the teacher’s grounding in the art as their own learning has been “all over the place”.
Is there a potential for growth? Once you have reached a certain level, can you access a more knowledgeable teacher – for example, the teacher of your teacher? This question is particularly important if you are considering learning Indian classical music seriously. The concept of lineage loyalty, while diluted, still exists to a certain degree.
It is important to note here also that a great performer is not necessarily an equally qualified teacher. Teaching and performing require different qualities to be successful. For example, the smartest student in the class may not be the best tutor. Well-renowned artists also pose a general disadvantage to the student with regards to time.
Time and level of attention or love are also important considerations. How much face to face time will your teacher give you? A frequent performer may not be able to sit with you every week, but when they do sit with you, do they give you their full attention with love and affection? The feelings of love and affection are very important in Gurū- śiśya paramparā, which is the way that Indian classical music is supposed to be taught. Also, if the teacher is not able to give you regular attention, does a senior student of his/her sit with you on a regular basis? Regular contact/supervision is important, as that is the only way to prevent bad habits from developing. I know of many people who took lessons for some time and then practiced on their own for a period of time. That unsupervised practice led to damage in their hands because no one was correcting them.
The level of supervision must also be considered. Even if you sit with a teacher regularly, are you being corrected or simply given more and more material and minimal corrections? By watching videos of maestros, even a beginner, without understanding the complicated patterns, can get a sense of basic practices. You can see how basic notes are played, where hand placement is, etc. For example, in terms of tabla, you can get an idea of how Tīntāl is played, as it is played with similar movements by all maestros, regardless of gharānā. You can make out the difference between tin and tun just by watching videos.
For Tablā students, you can find countless videos of maestros in order to get an understanding of basic bols and hand positioning. I call this “standard playing”. Some names include: Ustad Allarakha (Abbaji), Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Swapan Chauduri, Pandit Anindo Chatterjee, Pandit Sharda Sahai and many more.
There are many other things one can consider, but I have covered the major points here. In short, learning Indian classical music or any vidyā is a lifelong journey that can open up many beautiful worlds. When embarking on this journey, your guide or teacher is of utmost importance, so do take the task of deciding upon a teacher seriously. Please do your research and find a good teacher. A good teacher can unlock the doors to these beautiful worlds. A bad teacher can potentially bar the chances of the doors to these worlds opening. If a good teacher is not available to fit your convenience, I would not suggest learning that instrument or art form at that time from a substandard teacher. At the same time, once you have found a teacher, it is your responsibility as a student to follow their instructions very carefully. Carelessness on the part of the student also leads to poor or slow results.

First Meeting with Abbāji (Ustād Allārakhā Khān)

First-Meeting-with-Abbaji

First Meeting with Abbāji (Ustād Allārakhā Khān)

It was 1975 or 1976. I came to know that Ustād Allārakhā khān was coming to Ahmedabad to accompany Panḍit Ravi Shankar. It was a program arranged by Sur Singār, an organization for which I was a young volunteer.
I received news of Ustādji’s arrival and that he had checked into a hotel across from Town Hall (I can’t recall the name). I went to the hotel at 8:30am with a small bouquet of flowers. I knocked on his door. I distinctly remember how he looked when he opened the door. He looked royal and emanated an immense personality. I gave him the bouquet, took his blessings and introduced myself.
He asked me who I was learning from. I gave my Gurū’s name – Panḍit Sudhirkumar Saxenā.
“Yes, I know him. He looks like me,” replied Abbāji.
This all happened at the door of his room. I began to doubt whether or not he would invite me into the room. But with a broad smile, he asked me to come in. He asked me to join him for breakfast. I was very hungry, but was too excited and shy to accept the food he offered. When I said no, he placed the piece of sandwich in my hand and encouraged me to eat. That was the moment when I fell in love with this great maestro.
After breakfast, he asked me to recite some compositions. He listened very seriously as I recited a composition of Ajrāḍā Gharānā. After I spoke the composition, he said, “See, in Punjāb, we do it like this,” and he started speaking some amazing compositions, which sounded like magic to me, but were beyond my comprehension, as I was a junior at that stage.
“I would love to learn this, if you feel that I am competent someday,” I told Abbāji.
“Yes, I will teach you, but the thing is that I don’t spend much time in Mumbai. I spend more of my time abroad.” Then again he started to speak some more compositions.
After an hour and half, I don’t know how, but I asked him, “Can you come to my home for lunch today?”
He started laughing. I was only a young youth. He asked where I lived. I lived only 20 minutes away.
“I would be honored if you would come,” I said
“OK. I don’t disappoint anybody. Let me call Raviji. If he does not have a commitment for me, I’ll come to your house.”
He called up Raviji and said to him,”There is a kid in front of me. He is very sweet and is asking me to come to his house. Do you have something for me?”
Raviji wanted to rest, so Abbāji was free to come to my home.
I called my parents, who were very excited to hear the news and insisted that Abbāji have lunch at our home. When I told Abbāji about lunch, he told me that he would see.
Now as I was only a young teenager, I did not drive a scooter, let alone a car. I asked Abbāji if he would be willing to travel by rickshaw, which he kindly agreed to.
A portion of the drive was along a lonely road next to railway tracks. Our luck was such that the rickshaw stopped working right along this lonely road! There was no one around and the rickshaw driver’s many attempts were futile. I was very embarrassed at this point, but to my surprise, Abbāji turned to me and suggested we find another rickshaw.
We walked about 1 km in the hot sun of Ahmedabad before we found another rickshaw and arrived at my home.
After meeting my parents and formalities, Abbāji asked me to get a pair of Tablā and play for him. After hearing some of my playing, he taught me a Punjāb composition, and this was my first Punjāb composition. I greatly enjoyed our time and it continued as we had our lunch.
After lunch, I had called a neighbour who has a car, so that we could drop Abbāji at the hotel in an appropriate mode of transportation.
The time we spent together that day is something I will always remember. After that day, whenever Abbāji came to Ahmedabad (once or twice annually), I would always be present as his sevak, and he regularly visited my home.
About 15 years later, after the demise of my second guru, Ustād Latif Ahmed Khān, I followed through on my desire to learn Punjāb Gharānā and became a Ganḍābandhit student of Abbāji. I’ll save stories about my Ganḍābandhan ceremony and other experiences with him for another time.

8 Things to consider when purchasing Tablā

8 Things Consider when Purchasing Tabla

For any artist, the quality of the instrument is very important. There are many factors to consider when purchasing Tablā. It is only in recent times that the wide majority of people purchase ready-made Tablā. Previously, each piece was bought individually to create a pair of Tablā.

Here are 8 things to consider to keep in mind when purchasing Tablā:

1) Wood A Good quality Tablā set is made from śīśam (Sheesham) or biyā wood. Śīśam is black in colour. A śīśam shell will have a solid bottom. Biyā, on the other hand, is yellowish in color and softer than śīśam. When looking at the shell, it is important to make sure that the shell does not have any fractures in the body and that the top of the shell is even. A good shell will have been seasoned for 3 years (or 3 monsoons) before it is used.

2) Vādhar The thickness of the vādhar is important to consider. Thin vādhars? are more susceptible to breaking, while very thick vādhars are difficult to stretch when tuning. I remember when I used to buy vādhar and soak them in butter (Makkhan) before using them to make a pair of tablā. This was a common practice to make the vadhar smooth and easier to stretch. These vadhars never dried out or snapped.

3)Gaṭṭā The thickness and length of the gaṭṭā are two important factors. The thickness of the gaṭṭā affects how much the pudi is stretched when moving the gaṭṭā. If they are too thin, then the pudi will not be stretched enough. If it is too thick, then it is difficult to increase the number of vādhars on the gaṭṭā, and when the vādhars are increased, the pudi can become overstretched. Generally, gaṭṭās should be 1 – 1.25 inches in diameter. If the gaṭṭās are too long, then the gaṭṭās will not stay in line when tuning, making precise tuning very difficult.

4) Gajar The Gajarā on a new pair of tablā should be even all around and in the middle. No house should be higher or lower than another. If any house is higher or lower, then that house is more likely to become imbalanced in tone.

5) Kinār The width of the kinār determines the amount of resonance that one gets. A wide kinār makes for a less resonant sound (which is sometimes required), but in general, a very wide kinār is not recommended. If the kinār is too thin, then the kinār bols can become metallic in sound because the application of “Tā” ends up on the top edge of the shell.

6) Shahi / ( syāhī , shahī ) The shahī/ syāhī gives weight to the pudi. A good shahī/ syāhī will have concentric circles and no loose “beads” or dānā. When playing a TeṬe on the shahī/ syāhī, it should result in a very crisp sound. A good shahī/ syāhī gives the best Tirakiṭa and TeṬe.

7) Pudi Size The pitch of the tabla changes with the size of the pudi. For beginners, a 5.5″ diameter is recommended.

8) Bayan (bāyāṅ) Bāyāṅ are generally made from German silver, copper or brass in original color or coated in chrome. Personally, I like brass bāyāṅs because they have a deep and round tone. There are two styles of bayans – tall or with a stomach. Those with a stomach have a bit more bass than the tall ones. Bāyāṅ come in three sizes – S, M, L. For a beginner, medium size is recommended. Bāyāṅs can come with vādhars, or strings. Those with the vādhar keep their stretch for longer, but they are susceptible to weather effects, while stringed bāyāṅs are not. Punjāb, Delhi, Ajrāḍā, Farukkhābād use bāyāṅs with vādhar, Benāras uses bāyāṅs with strings.

9) Tone Tone is the most important factor to consider when purchasing tablā. All the above are factors that influence the tone of a tablā. The tablā tone should be round, have good resonance and be balanced. The bāyāṅ tone should be round and not have too much or too little bass.

It’s a lot to consider, but a good instrument can greatly improve one’s practice, so take the time and spend the money to buy a good quality tablā , and remember to keep these 8 things in mind when purchasing tablā . Happy tabla shopping!

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Playing with Panḍit Rasiklāl Andhāriā

Playing with Panḍit Rasiklāl Andhāriā

It was 1979 or 1980. I was working as the youngest tabla teacher in the city at the Gandharva Māhāvidyālaya Manḍal, one of the oldest music institutes in Ahmedabad. Our principal, Mr. Rāvjibhāi Patel, called me and said, “We are doing a national conference of Māhāvidyālaya Manḍal at Valsāḍ for three days. I am very happy with your playing and want you to play one solo and one accompaniment during the conference. We will all go to Valsāḍ the day before the performance in the morning by train, so be prepared for this event.”

At that time in my life, I did not understand the value of being able to travel with some of the greatest musicians of Ahmedābād and Gujarāt. I picked up Jhālāsāheb and Rāvjibhāi in my student’s car, and we arrived at the station at 6 am to catch the 7 am Gujarāt Express. At the station, we met up with Prānlālbhāi Shah (one of the best violin teachers of that time), Lāljibhāi Patel (best harmonium player), Neenā Shah (Rāvjibhāi’s student) and many young musicians.

Once we boarded the train, I was amazed to learn that all these senior musicians took great interest in eating snacks at each station. At the first stop, someone got off to get Fāfḍā and Jalebi; at Naḍiād, it was goṭā; at Baroḍā, yet another snack and the list goes on. Every stop was a new treat.

The accommodations for all the musicians was in a school and that was quite the nourishing experience. In one corner, someone would be singing, while a couple of beds down, another musician would be playing the violin. It was a great energy to be a part of. I was the youngest tabla player. Everyone gave me love and respect, which just increased my confidence.

The next day, the second performance was my solo. I played pretty well and got a lot of applause from the audience. After my solo, I went backstage. There, I found internationally-known singer Panḍit Rasiklāl Andhāriā. He was so impressed with my playing that he made me his accompanying artist for his program the following day. I was not too enthused about the idea, because the Tablā player generally only plays ṭhekā for vocal performances.

I thanked him for the opportunity and told him that I was not in the practice of accompanying vocals. I believe he understood why I said no because he immediately said that he wanted powerful Tablā in his vocal performance and that I had the freedom to play whatever I wished.

Excited by this, we decided to practice in the morning to prepare, and the performance that ensued is what I consider to be one of the best performances I have given.