Monday, November 1, 2010


Followers of our blogs on the present/previous site, may their tribe increase, have already been informed about an issue that has been exercising our mind for some decades. That again concerns Indian Classical and the antics of Tabalchis, which are getting on our nerves now. The last straw on Amitabh’s back was the projection of a Little Hirsute Zakir at the CWG inaugural. That was mAtra too much haan! The tabalchis have their side, no doubt, and we shall try not to be too harsh. The author is no expert or authority on the tabla, only an old disciple of Pandit Srikrishna Sawner of Indore. But he speaks on the authority many experts like Appa Madkaikar, Sawner Guruji, and Wife’s Dad, doyen of Bhatkhande, Dr. Balaji Pathak[1] (Dada). JyAstach LAdavtAt sAAle, he used to say. Its semi-parliamentary, but untranslatable.

A word of explanation here. Although he was associated with Ratanjankar and Bhatkhande, Dada was quite a dissolute liberal by their standards. The Ratanjankar-B.V.Keskar axis was behind some of the most sordid sagas of Indian Classical. B.V.Keskar was the first I&B Minister of Independent India, and AIR was his fiefdom. And boy! Did he do full justice to his Maharashtrian Brahmin identity! Mhanje agdi PeshwAi phetyAchA mAn rAkhalAAAA!

The influence that the Gwalior Grandees could not wield through musical felicity was sought to be achieved through All India Radio, where Keskar’s writ ran amok. (Ha,ha,ha!!!) That era can be said to be the ‘Emergency’ of Indian Classical. Senior artistes had to submit to auditions on AIR and listen to discourses by the school-masterish Pt. Ratanjankar. Pandit Maniram, Pt. Jasraj’s father, did not submit to the ignominy of auditions, while the then junior Jasraj did. Ergo, the father was graded as ‘C’, and son as ‘B’! Then- no Harmonium on AIR (Harmonium-phobia was a Raj legacy. Logic was that only 12 notes could be played on it, as there were no notes between the cracks, ha,ha!) The ban on the Harmonium had an unexpected windfall for listeners in the form of the sarangi+ Sabri Khan, though. The then Govt. was definitely laissez faire on the arts. Today a bronze in badminton at the Timbuktu Open merits a hug from the PM. He,He,He!

Back to percussion.

Tabalchis were a humble class once. When that frustrated bachelor Ram Manohar Lohia accused frustrator’s father Pt. Nehru of being dressed like a Tabalchi, no one objected, and some were in favour of more so. Tabalchis gladly accepted playing second fiddle, no reconciled-wiconsiled. The pecking order was like that. Like Victorian girls, they were supposed to be seen and not heard, literally. Yielding types, like the ideal Bharatiya naari, all.

An original episode certified as authentic by missus: Pt. Jasraj played tabla before he graduated to ‘vocalism’. At an Allahabad concert by Jasraj, wife’s brother Baba of previous blog ‘Musicians Ahoy’, complimented a very close relative of Jasraj, and a rival of his, if there was one- complimented on the skills of Pt. Jasraj. Arrrre…wo to tabalchi hai bhaiiiyyyyaaa…aap ko pata nahi? Says Close One.

Graaaadually, tabla caught the fancy of the masses. Here we give three URLs of that magnificent natyageeta sung by three greats, with decades in between. You can observe for yourself the paltas, uthans and other gyrations and convolutions on the rise temporally, ceteris paribus.

Marmabandhatali thewa hi by Dinanath Mangeshkar (1931)
Marmabandhatali thewa hi by Prabhakar Karekar (1969)
Marmabandhatali thewa hi by Asha Bhosale (2007)

The tabla in the first one is most simmmple and unobtrusive. It is what is called ‘theka’- marking time. In Karekar’s, it becomes bolder and ventures out into the balcony. In Asha’s its all over the chowpatty. Ashatai was into natyageete, while Latatai did it on rare occasions. No mystery, do you expect a delicate beauty like Aishwarya to believe in wrestling?

Here, in defence of the tabalchis in the latter two versions, it must be said that although the embellishments follow the temper of the times, the tabalchis have done justice, full marks to them. But the trend is clear enough.

For an explanation on technical terms, here is a sample of Uthan which is like prefacing the theka (rhythm).
and of a palta

Here is a sample of domination of the main instrument by the tabla. Of course it happens after the vilambit/ alap part- usually, the tabla is patient initially and demolishes the instrument or gayak in the second half. Therefore we could not furnish the right URL, but you heard them all. Try Hari Bhai’s EMI Pilu with Zakir Bhai on the tabla. It is like a solo by the tabalchi, with lehra by the pandit…Here is Zodun kadhane in Hamsadhwani:

Where Zakir Bhai or Shamsi are concerned, they are big, and the principal player looks upon them indulgently. But we have seen Dr. Amonkar and Sudhir Phadke ‘counsel’ their tabalchis 'suitably'. But then the tabla is a real , slam-bang, honest-to-goodness, three-fisted humdinger. Its a bona fide supraman, to use Yossarin’s words (Catch-22).

Why the tabla scores over swara-instruments in audience appeal is also a conundrum in itself, Sir. It seems tala precedes the swara on the human evolutionary ladder. Tribes which don’t have flutes or strings invariably have drums. Drums were used to drive away wild beasts, they say. So..does regular rhythm provide a feeling of comfort and safety, craving for which is ingrained in the primitive part of our brain-our ‘read only’ memory?- our ‘boot sector’? Not convincing, really. Anyway, it does appeal more than the swara to the animal part residing in your right brain- the baser ‘you’ as in bass ha,ha,ha and that is final. Anybody will love sugar and spice, yaar! What’s so great about appreciating tabla?

Pucca gana has nuances, demanding a trained ear. Not so, the tabla. Dhangad-dhinga has no nuances, beg your pardon. So- survival of the fittest, in music-world? Taking our music to masses was an economic compulsion for the very survival of our music, and the tabla did the trick. Prominence to the tabalchi was the opposite of ‘throwing the baby with the bathwater’, if there is an opposite. ‘Throwing the bathwater with the baby’? Ha,ha,ha!!! Preserving bathwater with the baby? Better.

Tabla had a number of other things going for it. One factor was the revolution in sound engineering. Technical advances in sound engineering which jelled with audience preference are also partly responsible for the sorry state of affairs. We had occasion to chat with Appa Madkaikar, percussionist par excellence, who played for leading music directors of the Bombay filmdom, now retired. According to him, in ancient times, the prominence of one player from the other could be ensured only by varying the distances of the microphones which were one or two, effect of which does not amount to much. Anyway, acoustics was poor. Level playing field. Enter, multi-channel-sound- pressure-enhancing machines. Liberation for the devil. The sound level of individual instruments could be enhanced at the turn of a knob by the backroom boys! Backroom boys are big-big music directors now, but that another day. Of course, of course he remains the greatest, no doubt.

According to our Goanese friend Appa, in the infancy of these machines, the decibel level of sound pressure for the tabalchi as read from the sound meters, was maintained by Appa’s troupes at least 10 dB below the level maintained for the principal performer, and 5 dB below other sangatkars. Tabalchis were simply sangatkars. To familarise readers with dB, at a threshold frequency 1 kHz equals 0 dB (this 1 khZ detail is inserted just for technical compleatness, forget it), the noise of a domestic mixie is 65 dB, jet engine at 100 m is 140 dB, and a regular exposure to 100dB can leave you deaf in a few months, esp. if coming from spouse. Thus, in an auditorium situation, if sitar was @ 70 dB, tabla would be @ 60 dB, and harmonium, say 65 dB. Now- they are kept at similar decibels, and at a Mumbai concert, we have actually seen The Hairy One ask for a rise in dB, if not in his fee. Ha,ha,ha!!!

Another development that worked wunnnnders for the tabla was band-width extension. That is the technical term for stretching the spectrum of the desired frequencies. This is what you manually do while setting the ‘equaliser’- bass, treble enhancements. Three types of speakers also came into existence, the Woofer for lower frequencies, Mid-rangers for middle frequencies, and the Tweeters for the higher ones. To give you an idea of high and low frequency, the frequency of maximum amplitude in cycles/sec. for Veena is around 250, for the Sitar, 315, for a Violin, 500, for Shehnai, 1250, and for Tabla, only 110. For a man’s voice, it is 315, and for a woman, 400. Now you know why the Sitar is a she and a tabla, a he. A word about wave-length, frequency and amplitude. Kindly see the picture here. Wavelength and frequency are two sides of the same coin. Amplitude has to do with loudness- higher ‘sound pressure’. As depicted, a higher amplitude of the same swara (more-or-less meaning frequency) implies that the swara is the same, but coming louder.

For a scholarly research paper by S.G.Ranade, from which the data is taken, dial :// upload/insa/INSA_1/20005ab9_55.pdf

Manipulation of the baser frequencies is funnn, isn’t it? Recall Zakir bhai’s train sequence in the Hamsadhwani by Pt. Hari Prasad? It sort of churns your stomach and produces that roller-coaster effect, whole rooms and window panes reverberate, and this cannot be bloody achieved by a sitar. But the things the sitar does to the cognoscenti ear is ethereal. Daroooon. It is witch craft! It takes you to the other world, while the tabla is busy jiving with window panes! It is musical hedonism, and we are not amused, Sir.

In the end, the loser is our music. Advancement in percussion isn’t the whole story. Should we be left with only our ancient drums on qayamat day? You find it difficult to behold the shy and reclusive notes of the sitar, or a delicate caress on the violin in all that din, boss. You miss a lot in those nettlesome intrusions. They detract from the sum and substance of Classical. Okay only up to alap. We need to give a serious thought to this issue. And mind you, this is not at all a purist’s view of today’s music. Surely, we are quite eclectic and catholic. This is just the plaint of a humble listener who feels strongly about it and would like to ‘flag’ the issue for other listeners- listeners who believe that there is still a lot of steam left in our music, it has not reached the end of its tether, nor is it fit to be flogged like a dying gold-mine, flogged by gold-diggers. Ustad Vilayat Khan was a purist who challenged the virtuosity of Robida, who paid no heed, for he was usually abroad with a broad, ha,ha,ha!!!. We believe that the innovations and improvisations of Ravi Shankar and Kumar Gandharva have enriched and given new vitality to our music – given it a jeene ki tamanna- urge to live on. We are not talking in the vein of Shivshankar Shastri of Sur Sangam (Hindi Sankarabharanam) who gets wild with his daughter’s use of rishabh in Kalawati (maika piya bulaye). As dabblers will recall, this was a throwback on Ravi Shankar discovered Raga Janasmmohini formed by throwing in a rishabh into Kalawati Aroha (Ja ja ke ritu from Anuradha). In an imaginary match between Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan with yours truly as referee, we’ll certainly raise Ravi Shankar’s gloved (plectrumed?) fist, on points, not a knock-out.

So……..…in the words of Chattopadhyay K., our conscience-keeper, thisss kind of tabla-playing is sheer claptrap, bondhu. AmAke shoonte dao, dada!

But then what? ‘Future is What’? Hope for the storm to pass, he,he,he? Turning of tables on the tabla? We agree with Vivekananda: This too shall pass. This contribution, file under ‘Opinion’.

To get over our Mayoosi, or disappointment with our tabla greats, let us try to imagine what-if Dr. B.V Keskar was allowed to have the last word on the issue. First of all- he would set up IMRA- Indian Music Regulatory Authority, like IRDA or TRAI. No more than so many paltas or tihais per so and so…Penalties?.. Yellow Card. Benching, …may be a Death Sentence also- only rarest of the rare case, ok? There would be a Central Music Authority and it will naturally be headquartered at AIR Bhawan, Sansad Marg, New Delhi 110001, venue of the Last Battle by pro-changers in Rang dè Basanti!
[Note: as far as possible, we have put 'em stupid allusions in smaller letters]

Tailpiece: used in Label : what would be the name of the Bhojpuri remake of ‘Ghajini’ ?- Takla Bhari Padal!
[1] click to see their relationship

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