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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