Sonic Saturday

Listen: Tabla performances by maestros of the Delhi gharana, where it all began

Natthu Khan and Inam Ali Khan's show their expertise of the percussion instrument.

Audiences across the world marvel at the multi-dimensional approach of tabla players, particularly when performing solo. The sophisticated vocabulary of the instrument has helped evolve a rich and varied solo repertoire.

The word "solo" may misguide the reader, since the tabla, when heard in this role, is not exactly unaccompanied. In fact, solo recitals have a melodic accompaniment called lehera or naghma, provided by a sarangi or a harmonium. In some parts of India, particularly West Bengal, solo presentations are even referred to as lehera.

The naghma is a single recurring melodic line that is played with minimal embellishments to maintain the rhythmic canvas of the taal chosen for the performance. In a sense, therefore, the sarangi and harmonium play the same role that a tabla would otherwise play when accompanying a vocal or instrumental performance. These instruments do not intersperse the nagma with solo passages, though there are some exceptions to this rule in recent times. The restrained elaboration by the accompanying instruments, perhaps lends the solo colour to the presentation that places the tabla at centrestage.

Two styles

Innumerable aesthetic possibilities have given rise to different styles of tabla playing. Each of these styles is referred to as a gharana or baaj, identified by the name of the town or city where its founder hailed from. Gharana literally means a family or household and refers to the hereditary lineage of musicians and their disciples who follow a particular style of vocal or instrumental music. Baaj refers to the style of playing an instrument.

Each of the compositional forms presented in a tabla solo recital displays a distinctive choice of bols or mnemonic syllables that represent individual and compound strokes, tonal variation and manner of presentation. Building on these forms, tabla players composed pieces and developed special techniques to render their compositions, which went on to becoming the cornerstones for each gharana or baaj. The instrument initially played an accompanying role and the forms it accompanied may have also contributed to moulding solo styles.

Broadly, there are two major approaches to tabla playing, which are called the band/bund baaj and khulaa baaj. As the names suggest, the first is a quieter and closed style, while the latter is more resonant and open. The two styles are marked by differences in repertoire, technique and the quality of sound production.

Delhi gharana

The Delhi gharana, regarded by many as the fountainhead of all the tabla gharanas, represents the band baaj. This gharana is supposed to have begun with the earliest known tabla player Sudhar or Sidhar Khan Dhadhi in the first half of the 18th century.

Here is a short recording of Natthu Khan (1875-1940), a significant exponent of the Delhi gharana who had a big influence on the next generation of tabla players. This is a sample of the Delhi peshkar or the introductory composition presented in solo recitals across most gharanas. It leads into another form called the qaida. The peshkar and qaida are extendable compositions wherein the theme is used to explore a sequence of variations. However, the peshkar allows the performer to employ bols that are extraneous to the theme, while the qaida challenges the performer to utilise bols only from the theme.

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The concluding track features Inam Ali Khan (1924-1986) recorded in October 1971 by Robert Gottlieb, one of the earliest non-Indian scholars to have written about the tabla tradition. Inam Ali Khan, also a scion of the Delhi gharana, begins with the peshkar, moves on to different qaidas and then accelerates the speed to present a few compositions from the khula baaj.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.