Life has its own way of surprising us. It served one of its better ones to a young tabla player performing at a small house concert in Brussels. Among the invitees in that house was probably the biggest Indian music icon, Pandit Ravi Shankar. The young tabla player, Bickram Ghosh, was earnestly performing his part unaware of what tomorrow held for him. A day after that, Bickram went on to perform his debut concert with Panditji.
The tabla player considers Panditji as a guru for the learning experiences he had while performing with him. Bickram played with the Indian classical music giant for over a decade which included over 100 concerts.
“If you just look at how he conducted himself as the top ambassador of Indian music in the world, that was a learning experience in itself. He never compromised with Indian classical music and always played it in its purest form. What I learnt from him and the experiences I had with him, has made me what I am. It is an unforgettable honour and I am forever indebted to him,” said Bickram.
The learning days
A story of Bickram’s toddler days is that his father, the tabla maestro Pandit Shankar Ghosh, would entrap him in a ‘chakravyuh’ of tablas. Pandit Ghosh was hopeful that a crawling Bickram would hit one of the tablas and get attracted to it. Whether Bickram hit them is a story for another day but he sure did get attracted to one of the most versatile percussion instrument. It would be immeasurable to sum up his father’s influence on him.
“It is because of him that I wanted to become a musician,” quipped Bickram.
Bickram’s father taught him so well that on turning professional he had no problems in performing alongside any artist in the country. That kind of skill develops only when you have an incredibly great teacher which Pandit Ghosh is regarded as.
After learning the Hindustani classical music under the tutelage of his father, Bickram headed to the southern part of India. His father enrolled him as a student under the mridangam maestro S Sehkar, to learn the nuances of Carnatic percussions. For over 25 years, Bickram has been learning and even performing alongside him. This association has enabled him to add Carnatic percussions to his repertoire.
“Learning under Shri Sehkar helped me understand the nuances of Carnatic percussion which are, of course, the math of it. It has very intricate mathematics which is very different from the tabla math. This makes it one of the most important things. Also the various compositions, core wise, are a completely different system of rhythms,” the tabla player said.
The universe and its rhythm patters
As a novice if one gets an opportunity to pick a maestro’s brain, would one let go of it? I certainly would not.
It is common knowledge that Bickram is well versed with the nuances and technicalities of percussions. The tabla maestro has a holistic view of life which also encompasses his music. He thinks percussion and rhythm are very important even in our day to day life. Anything we see around us is actually a rhythmic cycle.
“The 24 hours of a day, 365 days of the year, Halley’s comet coming every 75 years is all set to rhythmic cycles. It is much more important than we think in our daily life,” said Bickram.
The tabla player feels the finer nuances of percussion are impossible to master without a holistic approach towards it.
“It cannot be segregated it into math and composition, the idea is to have all of it and then weave it together aesthetically. That is where the finer nuances are actually launched in the aesthetic appeal of the percussive performance. This cannot be delivered correctly until the percussionist is in complete control of the drumming genre. I would say that a good level of teaching and learning is important,” asserted Bickram.
A sensitive ear is a prerequisite for a percussionist. Especially if you are accompanying any other instrument in Indian classical music. Most often than not, the tabla is preferred as an accompanying instrument.
“If you are not fine-tuned and just loud and fast, you will never be acknowledged as a great tabla player. You have to be subtle and throw in little complications in the aesthetic scheme of things to make it interesting.” – are the maestro’s thoughts.
Technical essentials for a percussionist
Things took a technical route as soon as Bickram shared his thoughts on the aspects a percussionist should look to hone. A sound technique is of utmost requirement for any skill to be mastered. For a tabla player the finger techniques are of primary importance. If it is the drum kit, then one must know how to use the drum sticks, be very flexible and be in command of all the syllables of drumming.
“It is the mathematical aspect of any drum. There is always a math involved in whatever you are creating. If you are creating a rhythm there is math that decodes the rhythm. Contrarily, you could create a math and make the rhythm on the basis of the math. The divisions that are involved give us our rhythms. If you do not know or are not in command of these aspects your drumming becomes weak,” said Bickram.
The acoustic tabla player and percussionist
Tabla, though the closest to his heart, is not the only percussion instrument Bickram plays. His proficiency in tabla is beyond doubt but he is equally good at the djembe, kanjira and even body drumming. The last being the most unconventional instrument.
Bickram has also played on the handsonic for over 20 years and is one of the early people to have used it. He uses the wave drum, different microphones for his body drumming techniques.
According to him technology is a very big part of one’s performance. Having said that, he still remains an acoustic percussionist.
Explaining his stance, the maestro said,
“The finer nuances of the tabla is very important in my scheme of things. Too much technology, I think destroys the finer nuances. As a tabla player, I would supplement it with a little technology but not go all the way.”