The Teen Taal Spirit

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After centuries in the shadows, the tabla comes to the forefront with a 22-member orchestra, the first such ensemble in the world

Drumroll, please. This is the humble tabla’s grand, unsurpassed moment. After centuries of accompaniment, it has finally made it to the spotlight, thanks to the first tabla-only harmonic orchestra in the world. This unique ensemble, which recently performed a piece, Tablaphilia, explores the melodic and percussive complexities of an age-old instrument.

The orchestra is the brainchild of Pandit Samir Chatterjee, founder-director of Chhandayan Centre for Indian Music, New York. Chatterjee, himself an accomplished tabla player, was inspired by those philharmonic orchestras that use a single musical instrument. “Take, for example, a violin orchestra. It’s a beautiful harmony performed by dozens on stage. Some of them may have short and strong interjections, but to a listener, it seems a fluid whole. Never before has a single percussion instrument been used as an orchestra by itself. There have been tablas, drums and other percussion instruments following each other in an ensemble, but never tablas alone creating this effect.’’

And what an effect it is. The 22 pairs of tabla—each denoting a shruti (note) in Hindustani music—come together to create a pulsating harmonic rhythm. Though the individuals on stage appear to perform simultaneously, each player is charged with the difficult task of producing his or her individual note at exactly the precise moment. An aficionado explains succinctly: “It was very challenging... as each of them plays just one note as part of an ongoing ensemble. Their turn comes in a flash and they have to be very alert. They cannot afford to be off-key.” These simple, independent strokes weave themselves together to form the ensemble’s exquisite overall harmony.

For the 65-minute Tablaphilia, Chatterjee arranged classic ragas—Bhopali, Hamsadhvani and Jog, among them—into a four-segment piece for the tabla orchestra, accompanied at parts by sung Vedic hymns. Serving as the central theme for the piece was the concept of chaturashram, the four stages of human life. Brahmacharya, grahastha, vanaprastha and sanyas were each accorded a movement of Chatterjee’s philosophically-oriented work. “This concept struck me when I visited Ramakrishna Mission on the outskirts of Calcutta,’’ the musician explains. “Every stage [of life] has a purpose and motivation.”  Even with such a strong source of inspiration, however, the composition did not come easy: “The challenge was to find a musical expression through the tabla. Earlier, sitar maestros . . . experimented and mixed their instruments effortlessly with Western classical music to produce a harmonic rhythm back in the 80s. That set me thinking that I could do the same with the tabla. Once I realised the melodic singing quality of the instrument ... [I]  started composing this symphony. As I am based in the West, I easily understood how to compose a symphony.’’

By reinterpreting a quintessentially Indian instrument in a uniquely Western format, Chatterjee fused both Eastern and Western influences in this endeavour. And the ensemble met with success both in America and here in India.  Nagaraja Rao Havaldar, an accomplished classical singer, heard Tablaphilia while he was in the US last year, and immediately invited Chatterjee and his pupils to be part of the Swara Nada Yatra event organised by his Sunaada Art Foundation in Bangalore. The ensemble has toured Mysore, Bangalore and other cities of Karnataka over the past month.

The orchestra comprises musicians from Mexico, Croatia and the US. And within the country, seven are from Calcutta, six from Karnataka, and one is from Delhi.  Such a unique blend of backgrounds could only enhance the ensemble’s performance. “The five foreigners who were part of it went through a major life transformation as part of Tablaphilia,” says Havaldar.  “They performed for an idea and [did] not just follow ragas.’’

The powerful effect of sound proves transformative for both players and audience members alike, says Chatterjee. It’s a profound experience.