Musical Revival

Punjab’s pakhawaj is the ideal percussion instrument – so why did it lose out to the tabla?

Thanks to two masters, the pakhawaj is getting its groove back.

With the predominance of the tabla as an instrument of percussion in North India, the pakhawaj, or a version of it, has come to be associated as a percussion instrument played primarily in the South. But, in fact, the barrel-shaped drum has been played in Punjab since the time of the fifth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Arjan Dev (1563-1606). Without the accompaniment of the pakhawaj, no Gurbani kirtan would ever have sounded quite the same.

The devotional musical offerings in gurdwaras, sung in dhrupad style, were traditionally rendered to the accompaniment of the rabab, a stringed instrument, and the pakhawaj. Bhai Mardana, who accompanied Guru Nanak on all his travels, playing the rabab to the Guru’s compositions, was famously gifted his rabab by Guru Nanak Dev himself.

In a kabit (a form of Punjabi oral poetry) by Bhai Gurdas, the first interpreter of Gurbani, writes about the popularity of the pakhawaj in the 16th century: “Ghar-ghar baba gaviyai, vajjan tāla mridañg rabābā” or, each home has become a resting place where kirtans are sung to the accompaniment of rababs and mridangs (another kind of percussion instrument).

The glory of jori

According to Bhai Baldeep Singh, one of the two well-known exponents of Punjab pakahwaj, if the migration of rababis to Pakistan post-1947 caused the eviction of the rabab from the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, then the disappearance of pakhawaj or jori had to do with the changing style of kirtan.

The Punjab gharana was referred to as the gharana of Pakhawajis, according to Pundit Arvind Mulgaonkar, a tabla percussionist. The glory of the recital of jori is self-explanatory – even a layperson can feel immersed in the swagger of the percussionists who play the mind-blowing intricacies of rhythmic patterns and mathematical permutations effortlessly, with ease and graceful movements of the arms.

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This also explains its lost popularity. Difficult genres of singing, like dhrupad, are not the most popular. All the shabads in Gurbani are composed in appropriate ragas and are also set to the talas or rhythmic patterns. For the sake of popularity and ease, a few granthis (the singers who sing Gurbani in a Gurdwara) have begun to sing Gurbani set to filmy tunes. As a result, the pakhawaj lost its place of glory and was replaced by the tabla, the same way the rabab was replaced by the harmonium.

What is jori pakhawaj?

Similar in appearance to the tabla, the jori is a vertical pakhawaj with its left and right sides inverted. It comprises two separate vertical drums with atta or moist flour smeared on the dhama (the left drum) for a deeper resonance.

Everything that is played on the tabla can be played on the pakhawaj, but not the other way round. “All the mnemonic literature played on the tabla is derived from pakhawaj’s repertoire,” said Bhai Baldeep. “The tabla’s benefit is that one need not apply atta for its bayan or duggi [the left side of the tabla]. The tabla was used mostly to keep the rhythmic cycle, to aide in the singing. It is interesting to note that tabla could never replace the pakhawaj in the singing of other Hindustani classical styles like dhrupad, dhamar, var and chantt.”

The distinct feature of the pakhawaj is that the laya or the rhythm is played in three distinct styles, namely, sath, jatt and gatt. In the playing of sath, both the hands remain open, while in playing jatt only the dhamma, or playing hand remains open. Both hands are cupped, or closed, in the playing of gatt, albeit the heel of the palm and fingertips are used to press and strike the duggi. Each of these three styles has its own distinct repertoire of mnemonic syllables and unique nikas or playing techniques. The first two, sath and jatt, are not playable on the tabla, only gatt is. For this reason, the jori is called the sampuran saz, or the complete percussion instrument of Indian classical music.

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The mesmerising impact of the jori recital made late Professor Sushil Kumar Saxena rewrite an essay on rhythm and aesthetics, which he had penned about 35 years ago, based on conversations with maestros like Ustad Ahmadjan Thirakwa and Ustad Habiduddin Khan. In The Winged Form: Aesthetic Essays on Hindustani Rhythm, Saxena writes that he never saw the idea of “intentful waywardness and dignity” of complex rhythmic patterns. He said he could listen to the pakhawaj rendition for hours without feeling the need for vocal rendition.

Lost and found

Amritsar, Hoshiarpur, Sultanpur Lodi and Lahore became major centres for Pakhawajis during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The maharaja had encouraged scholarship in his court in war-ravaged Lahore, and his court produced Baba Maiyya Singh, who received the knowledge of percussion at the feet of elderly pakhawaj maestros, at Darbar Sahib.

At the holy place of the Sikhs, Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar, there was a tradition since the time of Bhai Mardana – the rabab player was always a Muslim. In 1947, the rabab players migrated to Pakistan, and with the falling standards of the kirtan, masters like Bhai Batan Singh of Mehli, Bhai Partap Singh (son of Ustad Harnam Singh of royal court of Jammu), Bhai Dal Singh of Lasada and many others died in anonymity. Mian Faqir Bukhsh, Mian Qadir Bukhsh, Baba Malang Khan, Bhai Naseera and Bhai Santoo were some of the illustrious names associated with the Punjab pakhawaj, who produced a line of talented pakhawajis.

At present, two jori players, Ustad Sukhwinder Namdhari from Bhaini Sahib who plays the Benaras baj or style, and Bhai Baldeep of Sultanpur Lodhi, who plays the Amritsar baj, are trying to revive the lost glory of jori by training young percussionists in the UK, Canada and India. Another pakhawaji, Allah Lok, is keeping the tradition of Punjab pakhawaj alive in Pakistan against all odds.

Bhai Baldeep said: “The first thing I did successfully was to dissociate the term jori from tabla by calling it jori-pakhawaj, and the second was to revive the original nikas or style. It took me a few years to reintroduce jori with the dhrupad renditions but after I played in Kolkata with Ustad Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar and Pandit Indra Kishore Misra of Bettiah, there was no turning back. There were letters from celebrated pakhawaj players asking if they could also learn the intricacies of Punjab ang. Also, playing jori solo at the Dhrupad Mela, Sankatmochan, Varanasi in 2003 and 2004 had a major role in reestablishing this instrument back on Indian classical music platform.”

Now, under Sangeet Natak Akademi’s guru-shishya programme, six talented students from Punjab are learning the art of jori-pakhawaj under Pandit Hari Om Srivastava of Amritsar, son of the late Ustad Bhajan Lal.

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