In the first part on tabla, we talked of the instrument’s history, features, terms and roles in performance. We shall now talk of the various gharanas or schools of tabla-playing, and the well-known names associated with each.
The world of tabla has seen so many great maestros and talented musicians, that it is very likely that some names have been missed out in this piece. Some musicians reading this article may feel that their gurus or senior members of their gharana have been left out. While every effort has been made to include all the major names, any omission is regretted.
Like in Indian vocal and instrumental music, different styles of tabla-playing can also be identified according to the schools or gharanas they belong to. This is unlike other forms of Indian percussion music, which are played on a more limited scale as compared to the tabla, either in that they are restricted to fewer genres or geographical regions.
The main gharanas of tabla playing are: Delhi, Lucknow, Ajrara, Farrukhabad, Benaras and Punjab. Most of them have well-known players associated with them ― for instance, Ustad Allarakha and his son Zakir Hussain represent the Punjab gharana. However, there have been players like Ahmedjan Thirakwa who have played compositions from more than one gharana (Farrukhabad and Ajrara in his case) and others like Suresh Talwalkar who play compositions from various gharanas.
Though the gharanas have their own importance in tabla-playing, a large section of today’s audiences are relatively unaware of the differences between the various schools. Barring the musicians’ community and true connoisseurs, many listeners are not familiar with who represents which gharana, with the exception of maybe a few examples. Thus, it becomes important for both musicians and musicologists to spread knowledge about the gharana system, in order to create more awareness among lay listeners.
Before we talk of the gharanas, it is important to mention two styles, called the ‘bandh baaz’ and ‘khulla baaz’. The former refers to the closed or bound style of playing, where the sounds are muffled. In contrast, ‘khulla baaz’ is an open style, where the beats of the tabla are allowed to sustain. The use of these styles is an important factor in each gharana, as it is on this basis that compositions like ‘peshkar’, ‘kaida’ and ‘rela’ are prepared.
Having said that, let’s look at the main gharanas, and mention some of the important players of each.
Delhi gharana: This was the first style of tabla-playing, and is said to have originated in the early 18th century. Sidhar Khan Dhadi is said to have created this style, which is more in favour of using the right hand fingers, and avoiding overuse of the ‘baayaan’ (bass drum). As it uses two fingers prominently, it is also called the ‘do ungliyon ki baaj’ (in Hindi, “technique of playing with two fingers”).
Important players from this gharana are Siddhar Khan, Kallu Khan, Ghasit Khan, Nathu Khan, Gamay Khan, Latif Ahmed Khan, the great Chatur Lal and Shafaat Ahmed Khan. Before his untimely death in 2005, Shafaat used to regularly accompany top musicians like santoor maestro Shivkumar Sharma, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and sarod exponent Amjad Ali Khan, and was considered one of India’s leading tabla players.
Lucknow gharana: This gharana branched out of the Delhi gharana, and was said to have been started by brothers Modu and Bakshu Khan, who were two generations younger than Siddhar Khan of the Delhi gharana. A common characteristic is the use of palms as much as the fingers, making it a style commonly used as an accompaniment in dance forms like Kathak.
Well-known practitioners include Abid Hussain Khan, Biru Khan, Munne Khan, Wajid Hussain Khan, Santosh Krishna Biswas, Anil Bhattacharjee and Swapan Chaudhuri, who has regularly accompanied sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, sarod great Ali Akbar Khan and vocalist Pandit Jasraj.
Ajrada gharana: This gharana was started in the beginning of the early 19th century by Miru Khan and Kallu Khan, disciples of Sitab Khan of the Delhi gharana. Its playing is characterised by rhythmic patterns that have an unusual complexity, and the use of three fingers with specially emphasis on playing on the ‘syahi’ (black central part).
Important Ajrada players include Shamsuddin Khan and Habibuddin Khan, but its compositions were played extensively by versatile maestros like Ahmedjan Thirakwa, Amir Hussain Khan and Shaik Dawood (a top-notch accompanist to legendary vocalists Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Bhimsen Joshi). Manju Khan, Niazu Khan and Sudhirkumar Saxena were earlier representatives, and the later generations have comprised Hashmat Ali Khan, Ghulam Sarwar Sabri and Akram Khan. Youngster Ojas Adhiya has been trained in this gharana by Mridangraj.
Farrukhabad gharana: This was formed by Haji Vilayat Khan, son-in-law of Bakshu Khan of the Lucknow gharana. The speciality of the school is the variety in compositions and the use of open strokes on the ‘baayan’ or left drum.
Thirakwa, Amir Hussain Khan and Shaik Dawood were primary exponents of this gharana, though they also played compositions of the Ajrada and Delhi schools too. Other famous exponents are Jnan Prakash Ghosh, whose disciples Anindo Chatterjee and Abhijeet Banerjee have made a mark, and Shankar Ghosh, whose son Bickram Ghosh has excelled in both classical music and fusion projects. Tanmoy Bose, who has also learnt from Shankar Ghosh, has made a name in classical and fusion too. Anubrata Chatterjee, son of Anindo Chatterjee, represents the younger generation.
Nikhil Ghosh studied from Gnan Prakash Ghosh, Thirakwa and Amir Hussain Khan, and has passed on his skills to son Nayan Ghosh. Aneesh Pradhan is another talented musician to be groomed by Nikhil Ghosh.
From the Farrukhabad style, another well-known name is Sabir Khan. Female player Rimpa Siva, who made a name as a tabla child prodigy, is among the young players in this style. Nayan Ghosh’s son Ishaan is also shaping up marvellously.
Benaras gharana: Known for its powerful, resonant sound, the Benaras gharana has a large number of followers. It was formed in the early 19th century by Ram Sahai.
Besides instrumental and vocal music, and solo performances, the Benaras style is also used prominently in dance forms. Reputed musicians include Anokhelal Mishra, Kanthe Maharaj, Kishen Maharaj, Mahapurush Mishra, Samta Prasad, Ramji Mishra, Chandra Nath Shastri, Ashutosh Bhattacharya and Sharda Sahai. Later generations are represented by Kumar Bose, Ananda Gopal Bandopadhyay and Sanju Sahai.
Punjab gharana: Today, the Punjab gharana is probably the best-known among the schools, as it was popularised by Ustad Allarakha and is currently represented by Zakir Hussain, his brothers Fazal and Taufiq Qureshi and a whole line-up of illustrious disciples who are currently popular on the concert circuit.
Though there is a debate as to who started it, some of the other early masters were Qadir Baksh II, who taught Allarakha. Among the gharana’s special features, it uses a style based on the two-headed pakhawaj drum, and has an influence of the Punjabi language in the pronunciation of bols. The use of the ‘baayaan’ is given special focus.
Some of Allarakha’s and Zakir Hussain’s disciples have made it on their own right. These include Yogesh Samsi, Anuradha Pal and Aditya Kalyanpur. Other renowned Punjab gharana players included Abdus Sattar ‘Tari Khan’, Pakistani maestro who has played with ghazal greats Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali and Sufi legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. London-based percussionist and producer Talvin Singh has also learnt tabla in the Punjab style.
Other maestros: While we have mentioned representatives of the main gharanas, there are a few musicians whose technique imbibes styles from different gharanas. Prominent among them would be Suresh Talwalkar, one of the most versatile tabla players in India, and disciple of such esteemed players as Pandarinath Nageshkar and Vinayakrao Gangrekar.
Talwalkar’s brilliant disciple Vijay Ghate and son Satyajeet are also among those who use a good blend of compositional styles. Well-known jazz drummer Trilok Gurtu, an accomplished tabla player too, has also taken regular guidance from Talwalkar.
The others not associated with any specific gharana include Taranath Rao, who blended various styles, and Badal Roy from Bangladesh, who has been involved with jazz and world music since the late 1960s. Aban Mistry, India’s first professional female tabla player and renowned researcher, blended the Delhi, Ajrada, Farrukhabad and Benaras schools to create her own style. Nana Muley, Sadanand Naimpally and Omkar Gulvady, who often accompanied the great vocalist Pt Bhimsen Joshi, also blended different schools.
As mentioned earlier, we’ve tried to name all the main artistes. The field of tabla, however, is so wide that there is always a chance that someone has been missed out. Yet, for those who are yet to hear many of those named above, it would be a great time to start, as this is one instrument that has seen a tremendous explosion of talent.
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