The tabla is the most commonly played percussion instrument in Indian classical music. Its versatility in all musical styles has enabled it to become the most popular percussion instrument in all of India. It is also widely used in fusion music involving Indian classical instruments.
Swarupa Ananth is one of the artistes who incorporates the tabla into her own style while playing for her ethnotronic band ‘Filter Coffee’. Apart from the Tabla she plays a whole gamut of percussion instruments from the Djembe & Darbuka to the Cajon and Timbale.
Swarupa, was thrust into the musical world at the age of 10. She began learning the tabla under the legendary Late Ustad Allarakha. As time passed, she realised how fortunate she was to have Abbaji as her Guru. This led to her taking music seriously and also began to understand the responsibility that she had toward the art coming from such a prestigious school of music. Maybe starting at such a young age meant that she was never overwhelmed by her Guru, who was the most sought after person in the world of tabla.
“Maybe it was my innocence that didn’t make me realise how huge a legend the man was. To me, he was simply my teacher whom I would go and learn from every day,” said Swarupa.
She not only learnt music from him but also learnt how to talk, conduct one’s self, the discipline to follow. Following her grandmothers and mothers footsteps, Swarupa took up music. As a child she would use every possible thing as her musical instrument. But it wasn’t until her college days that she thought of taking up music professionally.
“I got exposed to so much music and happenings like concerts, events, productions, albums that I had made up my mind I wanted to be a professional musician and do this for a living,” said Swarupa.
Over the years Swarupa’s music was influenced by a number of great musicians apart from her gurus Ustad Allarakha and Ustad Zakir Hussain. Her love for percussions stemmed from her drawing towards the music of stalwarts like percussionists/drummers Trilok Gurtu, Ranjit Barot, Vikku Vinayakram also bands like Shakti, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Mynta. But her mother remains the greatest influence in her life. Though a Tamilian by birth, her mother mastered the art of Gujarati Sugam Sangeet.
“Watching her sing and master a foreign language and culture, encouraged me to purse tabla which is not traditionally a women’s instrument,” admitted Swarupa.
Apart from the tabla, Swarupa plays a range of percussion instruments from the Djembe & Darbuka to the Cajon and Timbale. She formally has learnt only the tabla, all other instruments are self-taught with the internet as her teacher.
“I really enjoy playing all these instruments but I particularly enjoy the darbuka for its tonality, traditional grooves and intricate finger work,” smiled Swarupa.
It is largely due to artists like Taufiq Qureshi, Sivamani, Trilok Gurtu and the ilk that percussions are so popular today. The term percussion includes a variety of instruments and thus helps us fit in any context of music be it fusion, pop, Bollywood, indie or pretty much any genre. This has also help ensure that the percussionists, even solo artistes, have enough and quality work including as solo artists.
“Maybe 20 years back you were either a traditional rhythm artist like a tabla player, mridangam or ghatam player or a drummer. Now the percussionists are very much involved in cross-genre music too,” said Swarupa.
(Pic : Filter Coffee – Swarupa Ananath and Shriram Sampat)
This is quite reflective in her band, Filter Coffee’s music. Swarupa uses a variety of instruments in her song. Her fascination for technology is also very evident in her songs.
“We play Indian classical music on a bed of minimal electronic music that we produce ourselves. We use modern technology to bring Indian classical music to the current young generation in a more palatable format,” says Swarupa who has also perfected a signature style of fusing the tabla with konnakol,
“The very primary thing one is taught when you learn to play the tabla is to read aloud the bols (syllables) that you are playing. I remember Abbaji once telling us if you can’t say it clearly you can never play it clearly. So reciting bols has always been part of riyaaz forever. To add to that I am a Tamilian and have been greatly influenced by Carnatic music from where Konnakol originates,” adding that “It then got me thinking why not fuse the two. If you pay close attention I not only recite traditional konnakol but also mix in Hindustani classical bols. It is an art form that definitely needs to reach the masses. I’ve always said its Indian scatting or rhythmic rapping.”
Women musicians generally shy away from percussion instruments as they seem a lot more physical work. That we equate jobs of physical hard work to the male species is something that needs to be ended. A woman can perform these instruments just as any man would. Swarupa is one of the examples for this.
“Percussion is just like any other instrument, girls. Please don’t see it as something only for the guys. I want to see equality and that means I’d love to see a day when women percussionists are no longer being interviewed for the fact that they are ‘women’ percussionists but just kick-ass talents,” expressed Swarupa.
She is spot on about it. The women featured in this series are solely for the talent powerhouses that they are. But it is not just talent that creates an artiste. Evolving and learning about one’s pursued art form is integral.
Agreeing to this, Swarupa concluded, “Talent and hardwork are the keys and no amount of influence is ever going to replace them. You are always a student, the learning never ends.”