In the past, Hindustani musicians believed that the speed of the taal or the rhythmic canvas should be slowed down or increased only to the extent that it retains its original form and flavour, rather than appearing like a metronome.
For the vilambit laya or slow speed, it was generally held that the theka or the universally accepted string of bols or mnemonic syllables that are used to represent the taal on the tabla was by far capable of holding its own without the addition of too many additional syllables or phrases.
This is not to suggest that tabla players in this situation merely marked time and did not embellish the theka. But the individuality of the tabla player was evident in the manner that the theka was embellished through inflections on the bayan or the bass drum of the tabla pair, the tonal differences between resonant strokes of the dayan or the treble drum, and such other nuanced features.
However, significant changes have been witnessed in the choice of speed and the perception of what is slow and fast. In the case of the khayal, it was Amir Khan, the founder of the Indore gharana, who slowed down the speed of the vilambit greatly.
This is not to say that the perception of vilambit in other cases was a universal one or that the vilambit laya chosen even by the same vocalist on different occasions was the same, as has been experienced through the tracks that we heard in the last two episodes. But Amir Khan, typically choosing the 14-matra Jhumra for his vilambit expositions, slowed down the speed to an extent where the space between the matras almost appeared to have four sub-units within each of the matras. In other words, what was 14 seemed to be 56.
Many old-timers frowned upon this change, often passing sarcastic remarks that one could sip a cup of tea in the span of one rhythmic cycle. But the masterful use of this large rhythmic space by the maestro for his reposeful and meditative renditions of the vilambit khayal so enamoured the next generation of vocalists that they too adopted this device and put it to use even in other taals, irrespective of their allegiance to other gharanas. Thus, it is now common to hear a 12-matra Ektaal almost appear to be a taal with 48 sub-units.
Discussions about this change in speed continue even among young vocalists today, who have learnt from gurus belonging to other gharanas. But clearly, there is no right and wrong when it comes to art. How can artists be stopped from experimenting if they have the conviction to do so and if they manage to communicate their ideas to other members in the musical ensemble and to audiences?
Can one jump to the conclusion that all those who choose not to slow down the speed in the manner that Amir Khan did, are naturally able to communicate better with their listeners? Of course, one must also remember that not all who do slow down the speed do not necessarily do justice to the vast space that has been created in the rhythmic canvas.
What role could tabla players adopt in situations that give rise to such variations in the vilambit laya depending upon the vocalist’s style? Obviously, they must adapt to each situation and to every style. They could be watchful so as not to allow their embellishments overpower the form of the original theka, and yet, not appear to be dry and prosaic.
We listen to Amir Khan’s rendition of Marwa, a raag prescribed for dusk. The vilambit khayal is set to Jhumra. Listeners will notice that one avartan or cycle of the taal takes approximately a minute to complete. The maestro follows the vilambit khayal with a madhya laya or medium-tempo khayal set to the 16-matra Teentaal. He accelerates this to the drut laya or fast speed towards the end of the recital.
One of India’s leading tabla players, Aneesh Pradhan is a widely recognised performer, teacher, composer and scholar of Hindustani music. Visit his website here.
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