For some years now Neelu Sharma, the professor of tabla at the Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra, has been undertaking a musical pilgrimage to Nashik with the PhD scholars she is guiding. For them, the annual Nashik Tabla Chilla holds more knowledge and expertise than what any library can offer.

Dedicated to the memory of the tabla titan Ahmed Jaan Thirakwa, the festival held at the Kusumagraj Smarak hall draws the keenest percussive talent from across the country, from initiates to stalwarts. For three days, in session after session of solo virtuosity, around 15 tabla players offer the best of their artistry as an homage to the man who is said to have revolutionised the instrument. The hall is packed to the rafters.

Among tabla players, the ustad, who died in 1976 aged 85, holds a cult status for the lyricism that marked his art. The playful suffix Thirakwa was given to him by his guru’s father for the grace with which his fingers flew over the drums – thirakna in Hindi means ‘to sway’. Even today, musicians use nothing less than superlatives to describe the legend.

Aneesh Pradhan describes him as one of the “greatest tabla players of all time”. Ojas Adhiya uses the most common descriptor for him – the “Mount Everest of tabla”. For Swapnil Bhise, he is the ultimate “idol”, and for his guru, Yogesh Shamsi, he is the one percussionist who embodied “dynamic stillness”.

Ahmed Jaan Thirakwa. Courtesy: Aaditaal Tabla Academy.

This year was the 10th iteration of the festival founded by the Ware family of tabla players based in Nashik. “For us tabla begins and ends with Thirakwa saab,” said Nitin Ware, whose father Kamlakar was associated closely with Thirakwa’s leading student, Narayan Joshi, and another tabla great from Maharashtra, Nana Mulay. It was to also mark the 75th birth year of all these three men that Ware, founder of the Aaditaal Tabla Academy in Nashik, started the festival in 2014.

Sharma says Thirakwa took solo tabla to what she calls an “anootha makam (unique place)”. “I consider him a complete artiste because he explored every single aspect of his music and essayed the most complex aspects of taal with effortless ease and finesse,” she said. “For example, he maintained the perfect and precise balance between the two drums of the tabla, which can be a struggle for many artistes.”

Singular celebration

There is a reason why the Nashik Tabla Chilla is considered a singular celebration of the Hindustani percussive tradition. The tabla is mostly known as an instrument of accompaniment, and at best you might be treated to a short interlude of solo-playing during a concert or sawal-jawab moments.

Ojas Adhiya performs at the Nashik Tabla Chilla. Courtesy: Aaditaal Tabla Academy.

So for artistes to play solo at a fraternal fiesta of percussion is the sort of enriching and pleasurable communal experience that is becoming rarer by the day. No longer do they have musical dangals, so common in the early decades of the last century, where a galaxy of masters of various genres performed one after another. As the word implies, a dangal was a platform to flex one’s creative muscles. Dhrupad, qawwali and kajri dangals were for instance common in traditional pockets of music in Uttar Pradesh. In archived radio interviews, Thirakwa himself talks of playing at “saikdon (several)” dangals.

“It is one thing to play for general audiences but another altogether to play in a sort of close circuit of hardcore tabla artistes – this is music for musicians,” said Bhise.

This was the first year Adhiya performed at the festival and he was thrilled at playing to a full house of connoisseurs and other tabla players. In his eyes, Thirakwa occupies a special place in history. “Thirakwa saab was a rare tabla maestro whose music was roohdari (soulful), a word we never associate with percussion – he was not just about arithmetic and rhythmic wizardy,” he said. “He created history with his style and to hear so many of his tradition, across generations, celebrating his life and art together is a joy.”


Why is Thirakwa’s life a cause for celebration in Nashik? Though he was born in Moradabad and was attached to the Rampur court and later settled in Lucknow, a critical chunk of Thirakwa’s early career was spent in Maharashtra. He famously accompanied the great actor-singer Bal Gandharva in the sangeet nataks (Marathi musicals) staged by the latter’s drama troupe. He also taught a multitude of students in Maharashtra – Lalji Gokhale, Narayan Joshi, Suresh Gaitonde, Nikhil Ghosh and Bapu Patwardharn, among them – and left a deep impact on the state’s percussion tradition.

Stories about Thirakwa are told and retold so often they have become legends. It is said he practised 16 hours a day for nine years at a stretch unmindful of the needs of his body. That he sought out the most uncomfortable of places to ensure that he did not fall asleep during this extended riyaz. That the floor where he sat to practise turned concave from long hours of sitting.

These punishing practices form the basics of what is called chilla in the Hindustani music tradition. Related as much to Sufi mysticism as it is to music, the chilla is a kind of single-minded, meditative pursuit conducted in seclusion. According to tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, the idea of chilla is drawn from the Persian concept of chehal, meaning 40, the mandated number of days of immersive solitary practice.


“We call the festival a chilla because it is an unwavering pursuit of tabla kala in all its colours and forms,” said Ware. “We make it a point to call the elderly musicians who may no longer have strength in their fingers but hold abundant knowledge we can draw from. After all, Thirakwa saab played up until his last moments.”

Jaunty figure

A 1971 Films Division documentary on Thirakwa – then likely aged around 80 – offers delightful insights into his retired life in Lucknow. You see him visibly aged and gaunt but as he travels around his city’s monuments in a tonga, he still cuts a jaunty figure – an ensemble of a sharp white pajama and black achkan topped by a natty Rampuri topi, surma-smeared eyes and a trademark toothbrush moustache. Back home, after a lunch with his family, he settles down for a siesta but even in postprandial stupor his fingers never stop drumming, first on his chest and then to the rounded expanse of his pate.

Thirakwa was born in 1891 in Moradabad to a family of musicians. He was taught vocal music first but by age 10 it became clear that his heart lay in the tabla. He was taken to Mumbai to learn under the great Munir Khan who was a master of the Big Four of tabla gharanas – Delhi, Lucknow, Farrukhabad and Ajrada. Thirakwa inherited this eclectic approach from his guru and fostered it in his playing.


It is said the reason he abjured excessive mathematical fireworks in his playing was an early reprimand from his guru’s father: “Magaz kyon mar riya ai? Kya hisabiya banega? (Why torture yourself like this? Do you plan to become an accountant?).”

Various interviews with him conducted for radio and television in his later years give us a picture of a straight-talking artiste of integrity and generosity. He speaks of 20-hour riyaaz sessions with just four hours of sleep every day under the sharp supervision of his guru.

Thirakwa’s first public concert at Khetwadi in Mumbai aged 16 was a runaway hit, according to Great Masters of Hindustani Music by musician and broadcaster Susheela Mishra. Following that success, he was invited to join the Bal Gandharva theatre company and, according to Ware, his Sunday performances with the great actor-singer became a rage.

Bapu Patwardhan, a direct student of Thirakwa, performs at the Nashik Tabla Chilla. Courtesy: Aaditaal Tabla Academy.

By the time he was in his late 40s, an invitation to the Rampur court took him to an altogether different role, as a musician at the beck and call of the nawab, a fact that he often talked about. “I played what he desired, not what I wanted,” he said. It was radio that gave him creative joy.

When the privy purse wound up, he moved to Lucknow, heading the tabla faculty at Bhatkhande College.

Despite his status as an eminent soloist, Thirakwa also accompanied the biggest musicians of his time, among them Rajab Ali Khan, Alladiya Khan, Wahid Khan, Bhaskarbuwa Bakhle, Faiyaz Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Bismillah Khan and Begum Akhtar. As he said disarmingly: “Koi gawaiya ham se nahin bacha (no singer could escape me).”

Vaishali Sharma, who did her PhD on Thirakwa, says the ustad’s stage presence and body language were unique when he performed. “He always maintained eye contact with the audience so he knew which direction to take his music,” she said. “And while he played only his fingers and wrist moved, he otherwise remained still without any exaggerated actions of the shoulder and head.”


Post-dinner lessons

Maharashtra remained Thirakwa’s turf for nearly three decades. Well into his 80s, he made the first recording for an archival project of the National Centre for Performing Arts, playing a solo and answering questions from his shishya, Nikhil Ghosh.

It was in 1967 that the ustad came to Nashik, says Ware. “Despite his age he played two and half hours of tabla and also stayed at our old home, a haveli along the Godavari river,” Ware said. “The night after the concert he complained of chest pain and was forced to stay back in Nashik for eight days to recover. It was my father and Narayan Joshi, who had lived with him and learned for 15 years in Lucknow, who cared for him.”

Ware has an interesting account of Joshi’s tutelage under the ustad in Lucknow. He would be summoned by his guru for a prolonged post-dinner massage and during this Thirakwa would recite rare cheez (items) for his student’s benefit but he would do it only twice. As soon as he woke the next morning, and before he would forget, Joshi would scribble down the compositions. It was during his stay at the Ware home in 1977 that Joshi transcribed these notes covering 500 pages. The next year he published these as a book, Adi Taal, still held as a priceless document of Thirakwa’s artistry.

Nitin Ware, the organiser of the Nashik Tabla Chilla. Courtesy: Aaditaal Tabla Academy.

Starting the chilla in Nashik had been a challenge for the Ware family. How big an audience or participation would a festival dedicated to the tabla draw? “We were clear that we would not include other kinds of music or dance,” said Ware. “In the first year we had few listeners but word spread about the idea and now our halls go khachakhach (jampacked). We already have a list of 25 applicants for 2025.”

Malini Nair is a culture writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She can be reached at