Pooja Garg: I know you are from Lucknow Gharana. Could you please tell us more about it?
PG: Do you prefer playing solo or accompanying tabla?
Interview by Sandeep Virdee, edited by Kulbir NattHow did you get involved in playing tabla?
I got involved, not out of my own choice but because it was my parent’s wanted me to. Before I started tabla at around the age of five, I loved to sing, but I developed some throat problems and the doctor said I could not continue. I learnt to sing from my mother. Before she got married, she was a classical Kyal singer and she did background singing in many film songs. But after her marriage, she stopped singing in public but continued to sing in our house. My family were upset when they discovered that I could not sing any more. My father then decided that I should learn to play tabla. You see, in those days in India, your parents are the main architects of your life.
Developing a career as a musician was unusual for my family. They were a very orthodox conservative family. Nobody in my family was a full time musician, they were involved in the established professions like law, medicine, and many were medical doctors including my father. Even so, they all loved the arts, drama, writing, painting and music. I think it was mainly my father’s influence that I began learning classical music. He loved music and maybe he had seen something in me. He chose a very close friend of the family, Pandit Santosh Krishna Biswas, to be my teacher. My Guruji was practically a family member, he was always around our house in Calcutta where we lived. He was like a second father and he considered me as a son. I was very fortunate to have that kind of love from my teacher, but he was not a professional tabla player. When my father decided that I should learn tabla, my teacher said that I should not play tabla because my studies were important and these should not be interrupted, but my father said no you have to teach Swapan.Where did your guruji learn his knowledge of tabla?
My Guruji was a very shy person. He never wanted to show other people his deep knowledge of tabla and what he could do on the tabla. At the age of 17, my teacher decided he wanted to play tabla because his father was a tabla player, not professionally but within the family. My Guruji learnt his tabla from a friend of his family called Manmatha Nath Ganguli – he was a registrar at the High Court in Calcutta during the British rule in India. He also learnt by sitting in on tabla lessons given to Manmatha Nath Ganguli’s son, Hirendra Kumar Ganguly, by the great maestro Khan Sahib, Khalifa Ustad Abid Hussain Khan Sahib of the Lucknow gharana. Manmatha Nath Ganguli agreed to teach my Guruji but he also insisted that he mustn’t ever become professional. He told him that the music was himself and his soul. In those days, many people, who used to play instruments, believed that music should be for themselves, something that they enjoyed amongst family and not to show to other people. Music to them was like meditation.
While my Guruji was learning from Manmatha Nath Ganguli, my Dada Guru, (Hirendra Kumar Ganguly) Hiru Babu was learning from the Khalifa Ustad Abid Hussain. Khan Sahib stayed in Calcutta for six months of the year and during those six months he taught Hiru Babu at his house every day and my Guruji was the only person allowed to sit down and watch their teaching.
Hiru Babu was a very learned person and a great player, but he did not take a penny from his tabla playing. In those days he was the only Bengali who used to play with all the great masters like Faiyaz Khan Sahib, Ustad Allauddin Khan Sahib, Inayat Khan Sahib and Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan Sahib. When I started playing people used to say that I was playing like Hiru Babu. They used to say Swapan is not playing the Lucknow gharana. They used to compare me with my Dada Guru but they didn’t compare me with my own Guruji, Pandit Santosh Krishna Biswas, my real teacher. You see, my Guruji saw how Abid Hussain Khan Sahib trained Hiru Babu. My Guruji observed Khan Sahib’s way of playing, his fingering, and my Guruji picked things up very quickly – sometimes after only listening to a composition once.
I once asked my teacher how Abid Hussain Khan Sahib taught Hiru Babu . He told met that Khan Sahib used to give Hiru Babu problems. He gave Hiru Babu a theme, say a tukra, and then asked him to improvise it to make a composition. And then Khan Sahib used to correct it by suggesting other ways he could do the same tukra. This was all happening in front of my teacher. One day Hiru Babu said he did not like my teacher being there and he complained to his father. But his father said my Guruji was not interrupting, he’s just sitting there and he should let him be there. He also told Hiru Babu that one day my Guruji’s presence would be helpful for him. And many years later, Hiru Babu used to say that my Guruji was the only person who he could trust. But in the rest of the country nobody knew my teacher.The fact that Pandit Santosh Krishna Biswas was not well known, was that a problem?
It was not my problem for me, because I didn’t think in that way. Other people used to say that Swapan should go to a famous tabla player if he wants to learn tabla. But my father said ‘No’. To me, my Guruji was like the Pacific Ocean. He had so much knowledge and love for tabla. He was a liberal and open-minded person and he did not restrict me to one gharana. Sometimes people try to say you are from one gharana or another, but the old maestros they used to play compositions from every gharana. They had to learn them in order to see the whole thing and see how big the whole area of tabla is. My Guruji learnt tabla very deeply and when he used to explain it to me it was like giving me a glass of water.Did your guruji teach any other tabla players?
In the 1950s and 60s I was the only one. After around 1976, other people used to come to him but by that time he was old and he didn’t have patience like he had with me. He used to say teaching Swapan is a different thing but teaching you guys is a headache.What was your most memorable performance?
This was on the 12th December 1969, in Calcutta, with the great maestro, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan at the Tansen Music Conference. Khan Sahib had returned from California after some time and many famous musicians attended the concert. It was also the night when All India Radio was broadcasting the concert live. After that concert many artists began asking me to play with them to accompany them. It was a kind of a breakthrough after that concert.
Much of the first ten rows were of the hall were full of musicians. Many of them were tabla players including Keramatullah Khan Sahib, Shankar Ghosh, Shyamal Bose, Manik Pal, Gyan Prakash Ghosh, my dada Guruji, and then my Guruji, my parents and other musicians like Nikhil Banarjee.
Not many people knew me at the time. People who were in the music scene probably knew me by my nickname, Bulbul, and they knew I was playing tabla a little bit. Most people were really surprised when they so me on stage. They must have been thinking, “how come this guy is playing with the great Ali Akbar Khan Sahib”? I was not professional at the time and was really nervous at the beginning of the concert. Before going on the stage I had a hard time even tuning my tabla. It was perfectly tuned but in my ear it still sounded out of tune, so I kept tuning, tuning, tuning. But after a short time I just forgot about it and enjoyed the concert.
At that time, I was doing my Masters in Economics and I was thinking I would end up teaching economics, which I enjoyed. I never thought I’d end up as a professional tabla player. It happened almost overnight. Because after that concert all the musicians were asking me to accompany them. I was flying from one place to another place I never dreamt that I would be flying around and doing concerts. People were asking for my autograph. It was big deal for me.
There were two people who really supported me at that concert. One was Nikhil Banarjee. He came to the back of the stage during the break and he encouraged me a lot and then Kanai Dutt. And finally, my mama, Shankar Ghosh encouraged me. Most of his family did not want him to go into tabla they wanted him to do a regular job. But Shankar Ghosh had tremendous love for tabla and after struggling a lot in the 1950s he started doing a lot of concerts and made himself into a great tabla player and also encouraged me.What is the meaning of ganda bandan to you and how did you relate with your teacher?
I tied ganda with my Guruji in 1950. Gandan Bandan is like bondage between the teacher and yourself. It is the truth. It is the love between your teacher and you. It is about trust as well as power, which transmits from teacher to student because the teacher is not only teaching tabla and music but is guiding you towards the right path so that you can reach your goal. Nowadays tying ganda has become a very commercial thing to show other people. One of my students called many press people they took many photographs but then it was a personal, deeply spiritual thing. They used to tie ganda in front of God, in front of the Goddess Saraswati. When my Guruji made the tie, I could feel he was shaking because he was so emotional at that time. He was passing his energy to his student. It was a lot deeper than just teaching tabla.It seems that the whole approach to tabla and living was different in that period?
Yes, life was very simple. I’ve seen the artists from those days. Sometimes, their clothes were not even properly ironed. Many wore dhotis, but when they sat with the tabla, the subject matter was so rich.
My Guruji taught me so much about tabla, but during all this time, he never actually told me “you are playing very well” Now, after many years of playing tabla, I understand his approach. But in the those days, when I was in my 20s and 30s, I desperately wanted to hear from him that I was playing well. It was kind of a challenge and in one way it was good because I was really working hard but he never said I played very well. Maybe, it was out of fear in that he didn’t want me to stop learning. I used to ask my teacher, why he was not commenting on how I was playing. He used to say that my playing OK but that I had a long way and you have to work more. What could I say? I used to get frustrated.
Once, much later in my teacher’s life, I was playing a concert with Ali Akbar Khan Sahib and the doctors had ordered my teacher to take it easy because of two heart attacks. But my teacher wanted to listen to me very badly. So he changed his appearance by putting on a topi and changing his kurta. He bought a ticket and sat in a corner at the back of the hall to listen to me. The next day, I went to see him as I usually did and he looked at me and told me to ‘Sit down’. I became worried by his tone. I sat for five minutes. He said nothing. He kept on pacing across the room. Then he said ‘I listened to you last night’ and kept on pacing.
I could not believe my ears. I became upset and got angry, as I knew he should not have been going out. He said he just wanted to see what I was doing. He became quiet again and again I thought a storm is about to come. He said: “My days were getting numbered. I have to go very soon. I wanted to see whether my teaching was right or wrong.” Then he said: “You are in the right direction. Don’t look back, you just keep doing it. Don’t change your direction and you’ll reach to your goal.” That’s it. He didn’t say that I played good, but what he said was so touching that I felt like I got so much power from him that day and that his blessing was with me. You see, to him it’s not about being famous or anything like that. It’s about reaching towards a goal about where you want to go and you want to see what music is all about. Once you get there who cares about what others are telling you.So discipline and respect were fundamental traits of that era. How important was it, do you think to have that kind of influence?
It was very important, you see, it was more than just playing the different notes on the tabla or sarod. It was about disciplining yourself in how to treat your instrument, how to treat elderly people like touching their feet, asking their blessing, or receiving advice from them. Respecting the older generation was part of growing up. Even a person who is from a different or lower caste, if he is great musician, you have to put aside these differences and divisions. After this, they taught you to discipline your time, to set aside time to practice. This process helps you to control yourself. It may be spending half an hour in the day and half an hour at night and slowly once you discipline yourself, the time for tabla increases. And this discipline helps you in all aspects of life.
Also, in those days you didn’t argue or ask questions to your teacher. You just followed his instructions. At one stage I couldn’t contain my self and I did ask why is it like this and not like this. He said: “You are not supposed to ask any question. Don’t ask any questions but if you practice this way you will get your answer. You don’t have to ask me.” You see their main goal towards the student was not to tell them the answer right away. They wanted the student to work hard to obtain the answer not be told the answer. The relationship with the Guru is not just about music but also to direct you in your whole life.What was your practice schedule in the early years?
After a few years, at high school, my practice started at 4 in the morning till 7. Then breakfast, then homework and then school by about 9.30. After school at around 5.30, I rested and did my homework till around 7.30 and then played tabla till about 11. Later the routine changed and I played whenever I got time. During the summer vacation, I used to practice more. Also as you mature, your practice is also different. For example you practiced to polish your compositions and when you have the final format, you used to show it to your Guru and then he used to make changes.
The reason for practicing so many hours is that your concentration goes up and the more you concentrate the deeper you get. Ultimately you become attached to the music and become part of it.
Once you reach that deep level, you begin to feel different and you have a different feeling in your fingers. Sometimes, you feel the instrument is very close to you, and you feel like hugging it and not letting go. Other days you feel it is a little distant. Sometimes the feeling is deep inside, other times the feeling is not there and you feel irritated with yourself.What is the relevance of gharanas today in an era when information and travel have no boundaries?
There is no gharana concept today. People talk about it but it’s not there like it was in the past. Gharanas were very strict when the whole music scene was confined to the courts because at that time there was a reason for it. The musicians needed to show your own individual court, in front of the King, new things from time to time. But even then it did not mean that they didn’t used to exchange ideas.
Later, when the courts disappeared and music became more open, every body was listening to different types of music they were not paying too much attention to gharana styles.
I think it is not right to have the strictness of gharanas. It is better that it is open. But at the same time it is very important to keep the original compositions. It’s not a question of changing the original compositions but developing them. I think every gharana was great and that was the reason why the gharana was created. It was unique in its own way and has its value. Also suppose you are playing something that I don’t know, how can I criticize that without knowing the background and basis of the music.
For example, in the Lucknow gharana they are famous for their kayda rela. Now a lot of people say how you can you “bring another element from somewhere else into the kayda rela” so I say why is it wrong? The important thing is how the different parts come together, not where the elements come. Bringing in different elements breaks the mood and introduces excitement.What do you say to young players who say they don’t belong to any gharana?
They don’t have to belong to a gharana. But they have to learn certain gharanas for a while to teach themselves about tabla. You need to learn the original compositions because those compositions will provide a basis from which to open your eyes and your creative mind. But most of the time we are not learning properly. We are learning through tape machines or from records.
It’s important to pay attention to the details. For example in the tirikita taka , the ta could be played on sur or the kinar . If you don’t know where to play it you are killing the composition. Now if we keep doing that, ultimately the composition will be destroyed in the coming generations, and that will lead to Indian music being destroyed. And these days, I am worried about that because I am hearing this lack of attention a lot, and that worries me.What can be done to safeguard that?
To discipline this generation, the younger people. There are lots of good gurus but I guess things are getting very easy especially with the tabla. Many feel they can earn quite a bit by playing tabla. In the past it wasn’t like that. We used to get, perhaps, 50 rupees for a concert in those days. There were a lot of sufferings. Nowadays learning tabla for two years seems to be enough and then they go on the market and sell themselves.But is it not true that tabla players don’t get the recognition and reward they deserve when they are accompanying musicians?
It’s because tabla players are accompanying other musicians that there is this attitude. It’s a complex thing. What other musicians are thinking inside is very different to what they are showing. Inside they know the importance of the tabla player to their music. Outside sometimes they have a bad habit of showing that they are more important. But I think it is changing and I’m glad that a lot of tabla players have a lot of respect. In most cases, it is still true that the tabla players get paid much less than other musicians like vocal, sarod or sitar.But tabla players do have a lot of power to take control of a concert with their egos. On the other hand, our faith teaches us to control the ego. How do you reconcile the drive, perhaps, to be carried away and keeping to a spiritual path?
The ego part comes when you are insecure and ignorant. The ego comes in when you start thinking about yourself and you become self-orientated. It comes in when you think only of yourself, your peers. Now if you think about those things then what happens is that, because the ego is so strong and powerful it starts to control you and push you towards destruction. But ultimately you get killed because your music gets killed. However, if you love your music how can you kill your music, how can you play? You cannot kill the music. Ego is an evil spirit that pushes you towards destruction but to avoid this, you must surrender yourself to the music.I remember at the Ustad Vilayat Khan concert in London recently, you showed this ability to surrender yourself and not play. I think you were given one chance to play for yourself. What goes through your mind at that time?
When I’m playing all my focus is on the music. Whether that person plays a wrong note or wrong beat does not matter because my focus is on the cycle of the music. I am deeply into the cycle and you are not trying to prove something. You are showing patience and putting aside your ego, you are proving yourself with how much love and regard you have for your music.When accompanying, what is the role of the tabla player?
Your role is like a helper to the main player, to build up what he’s trying to create. You may see that he is going in one direction and your aim is to help him continue along that direction. If you try to change the direction towards somewhere else the main player will become distracted and the whole piece will become distracted and loose shape.Which of the great masters do aspire towards? Who’s qualities do you most admire?
I am not a great tabla player yet. Because what I have heard is still inside me. I am some 50,000 miles away from that. But I’m still trying hard. Also once you start thinking that you are already there and reached your goal, you cannot go further. But to me, music is never ending, its like the sky, it is not what people says that matters, it is for yourself. It’s your soul that matters. You may even play wrong things and the whole audience may still applaud but you know what you did. You cannot cheat yourself. In terms of tabla players, I listen to Pandit Kante Maharaji, he used to talk very lovingly with his instruments, like somebody else was there, Amir Hussein Khan Sahib, Ustad Alla Rakha Khan Sahib, Pandit Kishen Maharajji, Pandit Anokelal, my Dada Guru, Hiru Babu, my Guru.
I also have a lot of respect for my mama, Shankar Ghosh, because he was such a great tabla player because of his tenacity, his discipline and sufferings, and he was a fantastic tabla player. Also his sound quality, his clarity, his combinations with both right and left hand and he was playing very simple stuff but that’s how it got into you. But at same time it has so much melody and so much power. Kanai Dutt, he was so melodic, every time you hear him something appears new and different. I also listen to Pandit Bishwanath Bose (Kumar Bose’s father), he was so much into his tabla and completely enjoying himself. Finally, there was Thirakwa Khan Sahib. He was a very spiritual person. I’ve heard a recording he did for three minutes many thousands of times. And each time you hear it you hear something new, some new depth. His tabla playing always used to touch my heart. I was blessed to hear these great playersPandit Anokelalji was renowned for his Dhire dhire? Did that have an influence on the way you play your dhire dhire?
Yes, I used to think about how a person could play it like that. Pandit Anokelalji was very unassuming person. He was so simple; unless you tell him to play he will never play. But his dhire dhire, his dha tu na na and his dhin na ghi na was what he was famous for. But definitely his dhire dhire influenced me a lot. I worked on that. But I’m not even close to him at all because what he used to do was unthinkable, just with that dhire dhire phrase.Do you think upcoming tabla players of today have a weakness as they haven’t seen these people that you mentioned?
Yes, they have a disadvantage. But they should listen to their recordings. But they shouldn’t imitate. Today, because nobody has a copyright, many people are imitating. They are not thinking about originality. If they think about originality, the music will stay because it has been created by them. Nowadays people are taking this and that from different places. For example, Alla Rakha Khan used to play tak, tak, tak on the kinar and Zakir Hussain (his son) also plays it but it goes well with Zakir. This is because it was an original idea. Now, if somebody else follows that then how far can he go? They’ll get to one point and get stuck there. Nowadays people do this cheap stuff so they get the applause, but then what happens; it goes away. So I think in the modern generation there a lot of good tabla players, a lot of good talent but if they can think about originality and developing their own approach, then I think that would be more beneficial for them.
Interview by Sandeep Virdee, edited by Kulbir NattYou had quite a unique position in the way that you learnt tabla, in that your father, Pandit Biswanath Bose, was also your Guru. How did this affect your learning Tabla?
I was very fortunate to have my father as a Guru and also a very good friend of mine. He was very strict and disciplined too. I was unable to please him no matter how much I practiced or how well or beautifully I played. He always pointed out my weaknesses and showed the way of improvement. He constantly compared me to the contemporary tabla players so that I might improve myself. Often I felt whether my performances would be acceptable at cherished levels or not.
In 1974, I played in the Sadarang Music Conference with Ustad Amjad Ali Khan Sahib satisfactorily. After that concert my father recognised me as a good performer but after a few months in an evening he came back with his friend late Nitin Mukherjee and reversed his view of me and showed the mistakes I committed. Thereafter, I increased my practice hours for betterment and tried to reduce my faults. It is because of my father’s guidance that I have succeeded in lifeAnd your mother, did she have a strong influence?
My mother was an accomplished sitar player. She learnt from Ustad Dabir Khan Sahib and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan Sahib. Often I practiced to accompany her under her proper guidance.At what age did you start learning tabla?
I started learning after the age of twelve without knowing the proper lessons. Hence, I made a lot of mistakes and continued to play them without rectification.
Although I am a left-handed tabla player but actually I am not left-handed. It was our tradition not to sit on my father’s place or use his seat. So, when he used to show something on tabla I imitated while sitting at an opposite position and thus became a left handed tabla player. My father never tried to change my style because of my spontaneous playing.How did the training change after the age of twelve?
Well, it was always strict. When I played wrongly my father sometimes beat me up. Once I was supposed to play a tabla solo at our school function. My mother encouraged me very much. So, I started practicing in front of my father. When I played wrong Bol-Bani, he became furious and beat me up with his belt. He wrote down the correct kaydas, paltas, relas and tukdas line by line and gave me a tight schedule for practice up to 6 o’clock. He even tied my leg with a chain to the window and told me to keep practicing in front of the tabla until the concert.Did those events ever put you off tabla?
No, sometimes, I became fed up and asked God, “Why am I so stupid?” and “Why I am not very intelligent?” But that situation led me into the challenge to be good performer.Your father died when you were quite young. How did this affect your tabla?
Well, when my father passed away, he left no money at all. There was also some tension because he thought he hadn’t become a famous tabla player. When he died I was young man. Tabla was my only source of survival and I believed that it was only if I became a successful tabla player, I could make my father’s soul happy. So I had to struggle accordingly.And you sought another guru, Pandit Kishen Maharaj?
Yes, I liked his style of playing from my childhood and was my idol. The way he used the mathematical calculations in his tabla was amazing. Once I went to a conference of in Benares after my father died. Then I met him and took the decision instantly to have him as my Guru. Later I was also quite surprised to know that he was very anxious too to have me as his student.What does Ganda Bandhan mean to you?
With Ganda Bandhan, the student or disciple becomes like a son. The Guru takes responsibility for many aspects of the student’s life. On the contrary, the student is also responsible for his Guru. For example, if my Guru faces any problem I shall be responsible to solve the matter as quickly as possible. In a Gurukul System the basic idea is to obey the Guru just like ones parents.Which tabla players have been your main influences?
My father, Pandit Kanthe Maharaj Ji, Pandit Kishen Maharaj Ji, Pandit Samta Prasad Ji and Pandit Anokhelal Ji.Have there been any senior musicians or dancers whom you have accompanied with inspired you or created an impact in you?
Yes, there have been such musicians and dancers most of whom have passed away are include Late Nataraj Gopi Kishen Ji, Late Devendra Mundshevera Ji, Late Siaram Tewari Ji, Late Gokul Nag Ji, Late Angurbala Devi, Late Gour Goswami Ji and Late Shyam Ganguli Ji who could play flute and sarod respectively.
There is a story that I recall about Late Siaram Ji in Bhopal. Late Siaram Ji was in the audience in the night when I accompanied Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. At that stage, I was wearing a Nehru style hat because my father had recently died and I had shaved my hair. The next night Late Siaram Ji had a concert. I had already gone to sleep in my hotel room after my performance with Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. Then somebody came up to my room and informed me that Siaram Ji wanted me to accompany him at his concert. Anyway, I went to the stage and as I approached him he told me that I looked so young though after listening to my tabla he thought I was a lot older. While watching me the previous night he had been thinking that he was accompanied by all the senior tabla players except myself and so he wanted me specifically to play with him. And so I spent the night accompanying Siarmji – thr Dhrupad King.You spent many years accompanying Pandit Ravi Shankar. How valuable was that experience?
With Pandit Ravi Shankar there are a lot of different aspects. There is his music, his philosophy and his culture. I learnt so many things while practicing and touring with him for more than 14 years. Pandit Ji is a very disciplined and determined personality and his mind is just like a computer and knowledge as vast as an ocean.
I played with him at some of my most memorable concerts like once at Shantiniketen in 1987 in front of 15,000 people, many of whom were students. He was really in a superb mood that night and we gave a fantastic performance- full of romanticism. The audience was so mesmerized that after the concert, it was so difficult to get off the stage. It was as if the crowd swept us away from the stage. With Pandit Ravi Shankar, you always have to work hard not only on stage but also because of his tight schedule. In one tour, in the course of a week we used to fly from Los Angeles to Florence - New York – France and then to London.
I felt very tired after flights of more than 10 hours. At times I was in tears and felt like mad. When we arrived in London, we didn’t get back to our hotel until about 2:30 a.m. and he asked me to be ready again at 6 the next morning. Pandit Ravi Shankar Ji was extremely punctual. I was actually at reception at 5:30 a.m. but finding nobody there went back to my room. I shouldn’t have done that but I fell asleep in the armchair. I was woken up by the telephone call at 6 o’clock sharp. When I went down to the taxi, he got extremely angry on me. He was asked me how was that I got so tired at that young age of mine and told me that did not go to sleep but was getting ready for the next concert of the tour. He suggested me that I should have used the flights to sleep. So that’s how I learnt from Pandit Ji. During the long 14 years of my association with him there have been so many memorable moments that cannot be narrated in such a short time.What is the role of the tabla player in accompaniment?
Like husband and wife, the tabla player and the main artiste have to compromise. The tabla player has to think what the main artiste is doing and where the musical piece is going. In a way the tabla player has to stay slightly subdued than the main artiste because you are there to support him. Because the main artist is driving the concert and your job is to let him lead and follow his direction. You may only overtake if he allows you to play something or the situation demands so.Indian classical music is deeply spiritual and there is need to control the ego, how do you manage the ego in this context?
You need to keep in mind that the music is the ultimate motive and within that context ego has no place. Spirituality is central to the music without which Indian classical music would be without soul. On the stage, all artists should be confident but humble to the bigger spirituality. We always think that we are improvising but actually the sound is being thrown out by God.How relevant is the gharana to modern day tabla players?
To a tabla player or in fact to any Indian classical musician, gharana is relevant because it is most challenging to him that in spite of maintaining the basis of his gharana how brilliantly he can establish himself amongst others. His identification as a musician should be portrayed in his performance to reveal the essence of his gharana. If a tabla player mixes up all the gharanas while playing it reveals that he has no specific musical family background. Keeping this in mind he should improvise on his performance to establish a new style of his own. There can be musicians of the same gharana who are famous for their respective styles of performing. For example, although Pandit Kishen Maharaj Ji, Pandit Samta Prasad Ji and Pandit Anokhelal Ji belong to the Benares Gharana, they still have their own style of playing which is unique and different from each other. In the present Indian classical music scenario Zakir-bhai and myself have created a new style of accompaniment that is followed by many tabla players of our next generation. But the essence of our two separate gharanas can clearly be identified in whatever we play.What role would you say the media play?
Well, the media cannot make an artist unless the person has enough potentiality. They can only help to promote competent artists.What makes a complete tabla player?
Traditionally, a ‘sampurna tabla vadak’ means a tabla player who can play tabla with classical dance (Kathak), give solo performances as well as accompany artists who are playing a musical instrument or giving a vocal performance. They should be able to do all these things to a high standard. Sometimes tabla players have a weak point. Very few are accomplished in all these areas. In the Benares gharana we first learn solo performance, then accompaniment with instruments, then with dance and finally with vocal recital. You need not rehearse before performing but you need to improvise on stage. You should know the system of dance and then follow the performance. Sometimes the tabla player would play softly and sometimes with vigor. He needs to play at the matching level and in an accurate tune with the mood of the piece. Nowadays, the young tabla players accompany certain artistes who do not suit them at all but the organizers are not bothered about the quality of the concert. But I don’t blame the new generation for this at all.
Interview by Sandeep Virdee, edited by Kulbir Natt
Shankar Ghosh – born 1935Could you tell us about your early years of playing tabla and the influence of your parents?
I belong to a family where my eldest sister is the mother of Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri. My sister used to sing classical and popular music. I was three or four years old when I started patting the tabla. Then from the age of five my sister’s tabla player, Satyen Ghosal, who used to come to our house three times a week to accompany my sister, taught me a few basic strokes. He was not a full-time tabla player but he knew enough to teach me the basics. From the age of eight, Ustad Firoz Khan from the Patiala, from the Punjab gharana gave me some lessons and from the age of ten I started getting lessons from Pandit Anath Bose, from the Baneres gharana who is the father of the famous tabla player Shymal Bose. From 14, I studied with Pandit Sudardhan Adhikari from the Lucknow gharana. Finally, from 1951, when I was about 16, I started learning from Guriji Pandit Gyan Prakash Ghosh who knew about several gharanas.What made you go to your Guru Ji?
When I went to him, I was already playing at a good standard and I was playing some concerts. I was also playing quite a lot of modern compositions using Karewa and Dadra tals. I decided to go to Guru Ji in 1951 because he was the best teacher in India. We did not do ganda banda because he did not believe in showing off or making a display for the outside world.
It was only much later, when I was 55 that I persuaded my Guru Ji to tie ganda. These days, I don’t tie ganda with my students until I have taught my students for at least three because I feel that you need to know the student. But I do believe in tying ganda because it means that the teaching has to be done by the Guru Paranpara system which I believe is the best system.Is there a spiritual aspect to the ganda ceremony itself?
Yes, because it always done in front to the Gods. And in effect your Guru becomes your God while you are learning tabla. So whatever I have become as a tabla player it is due to my Gurus.Tell us about how you practice and your daily routine?
Even now, practice is important. There is a concept of Chilla. It means you go to the temple, mosque or gurudwara and you promise that you will practice for so many hours a day. It is thought that if you break your promise you will not achieve the artistic standards that you aspire towards. I vowed to do 14 hours practice everyday in two shifts of seven hours each, for 3 months in a row. And I did this on three occasions. These intense periods of practice were done every two or three years. During those 7 hours, I might not have played continuously but I was not allowed to walk away from my tabla.
Now, I don’t believe that this many hours of physical practice is needed. Physical practice is not really needed for more than four hours and that maybe in two sessions. But what we need is 8 hours of reciting with hand claps and this helps you to build the sense of taal and laya. There is no other means other than reciting to get the cycle of tala imprinted in your heart. That is very important. But physical practice is less important. In fact, I have overdone it and it led to muscle problems. And yoga is important. It is important because all those hours of sitting in one posture is injurious to your health as it stops the blood circulation.What are your thoughts about the gharana system? Is it still relevant today?
I don’t believe that the gharana system is relevant today. But the gharanas definitely developed different sorts of compositions. At first there was only one gharana, the Delhi gharana. From there musicians settled in other courts in Lucknow, Benares etc and then at these places different styles developed.
Today, if one guru teaches five students they will each develop different styles. There will be similarities but there will be different styles. And there are many hundreds of tabla players who have learnt from different gurus and all of them will play compositions from several gharanas.Which tabla players have influenced your playing?
Two players in particular. One is Ustad Ahmed Jan Thrikwa Khan Sahib and Pandit Samta Prasad. When I heard Pandit Samta Prasad ji I was moved by his sound. Some people have said my tabla player sounds like Samta Prasad Ji and that is because I used to like his playing. I was inspired by him.Tell us about some the great musicians that you’ve played with in your time?
One experience I’d like to share is about the first time I played with Ali Akbar Khan Sahib. It was a concert where Ustad Keramatula Khan Sahib was supposed to play and I was supposed to play with another vocalist. But Keramatula Khan Sahib couldn’t come. And people were telling Ali Akbar Khan Sahib that there was one small boy called Shankar Ghosh who was playing very good. I was standing nearby, overhearing this discussion, but Ali Akbar Khan Sahib was not aware of this. He didn’t know me and was very unsure. He asked for Kanidat to come but he was so far away that it was impossible. I felt bad because I heard this but actually he did not know me.
However, when I got on the stage with Khan Sahib I played fantastically. Then after the first part of the concert, I requested that Khan Sahib play ‘Dhamar’. Khan Sahib was a bit taken aback because this was the first time that I had met him, but he appreciated that I could play well from the first part. He agreed to play Dhamar but he said every time the sum should be on ‘Ka’ and that I did. I still remember how fantastic Khan Sahib played and also how well I played. Later he told many musicians that he could not believe that I had played his style in tabla. I told him that I had heard him 200 times before I actually played with him.
With Ravi Ji. I practiced with him many times. One day I had a concert to play him and that concert was unique because in that concert I broke three tablas. And of course I played many times with Vilayat Khan.With Vilayat Khan your recording with Darbari Kanada its recognised to be one of the most acclaimed instrumental recordings, what do you remember?
We had a performance one evening in a music circle in Calcutta with Vilayat Khan Sahib. And after that performance Khan Sahib asked me to stay behind for the recording. We went to HMV’s studios a short way from Calcutta. When we were about to record I said perhaps we could start with a fixed composition, Utthan, on the tabla. He agreed. So I played and he eventually picked up with the Sitar. Then after the session was over we immediately knew, and those that were listening also knew that it was great recording. And it was all done in one take.Tabla is evolving, but some have criticised the way you have developed tabla by changing old compositions. What’s your response?
Art is art when it passes through changes. No art form is static. If you make it static by calling it a gharana, you cannot do justice to the art. If I continue to play the compositions in a fixed way year-after-year and then play some of the strokes different what is the harm in that? Whatever changes I have made I try to do it logically. Maybe those that criticise do so because they cannot perform the compositions the way I am able to do. It may be a kind of frustration.What is the role of the tabla player in accompaniment?
First of all tabla players should learn how to sing and how to play one other instrument. I learnt vocal from Praful Bannerjee. I learnt Sarod from Ustad Ali Akbar Khan Sahib and I also play harmonium. But my playing and singing is for the sake of tabla. All the great tabla players were good vocalists and some even played another instrument. I think for good accompaniment you have to know the music.
In my day, when I played with the great maestros they did not have to signal me when to start. It was my understanding of music that allowed me to make the decision to join in the performance. At a certain point I think I need to enter. Perhaps play a few Ta strokes and then come back with something else. And then do something a little more complicated, like a kayda. Each entry was significant. Today, nowadays many instrumentalists have become very selfish, they want to take all the credit and they don’t give the tabla players an opportunity.
And another thing, the utthan for the tabla is no longer there. Zakir Hussein doesn’t play utthans, he seems to believe they are too long. In our time, utthans were so significant, people would wait in silence for the utthan because each tabla player would do different utthans. This kind of challenge doesn’t seem to be happening nowadays.
Another thing, Jawab. I have several records with Ravi Shankar Ji, he plays a thiai and immediately I am answering that. I am not waiting. This kind of interplay is not happening. That may be why people are bored with classical music. And that may be why people are going into fusion music. But if our music is about fusion. It is about fusing with other instruments to create something new and exciting. Fusion, doesn’t mean just between west and east.You have been involved in many innovative projects, like the Calcutta Drum Orchestra and played with the Grateful Dead. What are your thoughts on mixing our classical tradition with other music genres and is there any dilution of the music?
When I play fusion I play fusion, I play fusion. I never think that I am diluting classical music because classical music is a form. You cannot dilute the compositions like Darbari Kanada How can you dilute these classical compositions? When you create fusion you are not diluting you are creating another format. But whenever fusion is happening one person may be playing a raga and the other person may be playing something else, so I say ‘So what?’
Another aspect is that Indian classical music is losing its free spirit in its interaction with tabla. Many musicians want to take all the credit and not give any to the tabla player. When a tabla player plays his piece in a performance they will be applauded if they play well and not if they don’t. But many musicians want to remain the centre of attraction. That is one of the reasons why instrumentalists have begun to take their own tabla player. So what happens is that all their concerts are the same and there is little improvisation or creation on the stage. When I used to play with Ali Akbar Khan Sahib I used to tell him when you go to India please play with another artist. It was understood. Because I used to get bored playing with only one artist. Because I used to know every step of his music and he also knew what I would play and what thias, as at that time I was not master of tihais – I had fixed thias. Nowadays I have many.Pandit Ji, tell me about some of your book projects?
I have written fantastic book about tabla. Its called ‘Anaddha’ it means drums. I try to go through some of the terminology used in tabla playing as well as some of the illogical definitions. For example, I try to explain what is a mukhda? A mukhda is a small tukda. What I a tukda? It’s a big mukhda. So how big is big and how small is small? The old explanations give no indication of size. Also are the different speeds of tabla playing ever defined? What is the span of the matra? What is kayda? What is the difference between a kayda and rela? So I have tried to give some clarity to these terms so that they are more easily understood. The book is currently in Bengali and eventually it will translated into English.
I have also written another book about the mathematics of thiai. Both will be out in 2004. I have also been involved in this video/DVD project in French called ‘La Tabla’. It provides three camera views of tabla compositions being played. So you can see the hand movements from different angles.You have taught many students? What are the differences in the way that tabla playing is taught today compared to when you learnt tabla many decades ago?
When I was learning I learnt from many Gurus. It allowed to me see many different types of playing. I finally decided that there are no standard hand settings. A thin hand will play and sound different to a thickset hand. When I teach my main focus is on the sound that is created by the hands on the tabla.Is there a link between spirituality and playing tabla?
Not really. I am not religious minded nor have a 100% belief in God. What I feel is that if you praise God in whatever way, which I do everyday, that this is the practicing of meditation. What I feel is that during my practicing session is that God is with me because the music is a meditative sound. Sound makes you concentrate more. And this concentration helps in other spheres of life. Tabla playing helps in the concentration that will help in studying.
But I do believe that there is some force, there is something there. With tabla and musical instruments these sound vibrations have colour, have power and impact on the body and mind. That I do firmly believe and from that point of view I am orthodox.