Most Hindustani musicians carry toolkits to performance venues. For instrumentalists, these toolkits may contain spare strings, spare plectrums (mizrabs for sitar or jawas for the sarod), a box of cotton dampened in oil for providing lubrication to the fingers when moving up and down the fretboard, a set of pliers and sundry other things.
In the case of vocalists, they may contain lozenges, cloves and rock candy to soothe the throat. Depending on personal preferences, these toolkits may also contain tobacco, betel leaves and such other material. In many cases, the toolkit is housed in a small leather pouch that seems like an inseparable part of the musician’s being.
For tabla and pakhawaj players, important additions could be a metal hammer and a box of powder: the hammer to tune the instrument and powder to keep the fingers dry in order to move freely on the skin-heads of the instrument.
Here’s a video featuring the tabla maestro Zakir Hussain explaining the manner in which the hammer is used to tune the instrument.
The hammer can also be a source of concern or mirth, depending on the situation. At airports, hammers are a security hazard so it is best to check them in with the instrument as checked-in baggage. But there have been times when hammers have mysteriously gone missing from bags containing tablas or from the ubiquitous leather pouches mentioned earlier.
I have had such an experience immediately after a recording at the local television station. The producer invited me to the console room to check the quality of the recording. I had packed my tabla case and one of the employees at the station very helpfully offered to look after it while I was checking the recording. On reaching home, I discovered that while all other material in the case was intact, the only thing missing was the metal hammer. Surely, it had not gone for a walkabout.
It is perhaps, to counter these mysterious absences from the pouches and instrument cases that tabla players working in certain contexts are doubly careful about guarding their hammers. I have a vivid memory of a tabla solo that I was recording at the local radio station. I was in the midst of the recital when the door slowly opened and in crept a senior tabla player who was employed as an accompanist. I learnt later that he was scheduled to accompany a vocalist in the neighbouring studio and had to tune his tabla. But he could not undertake the task without his hammer.
So here he was, walking in, signalling that I should continue with the recording. He walked up to the decrepit grand piano on the other side of the studio floor, opened the lid and pulled out a hammer. Later, he explained to me that mysterious absences of the nature I have mentioned before led him to find a secure place for his hammer.
For me, this was a revelation in many ways – above all, for the fact that the piano was being used to house a hammer of a different kind. Not the ones that struck the strings of the piano to produce the notes but a hammer that was used to tune the tabla.
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.