Ustad Abdul Sattar Khan Tari is one of the topmost tabla players in the world, known for his knowledge of the authentic Punjab tradition, his virtuosity and his tremendous contributions to the art of percussion. In the first of this two-part interview, he talks at length to Ally Adnan about the history of the tabla, its different schools and styles, and the great man who taufght him but for the longest time refused to formalize the apprenticeship
"A tabla player should have one Ustad, like he has one father"
Ustad Tari Khan
Ally Adnan: What are the qualities that make a good tabla player?Ustad Tari Khan: In my opinion, a truly gifted artist is made by God in the heavens. Once in this world, the artist is educated by his Ustad - and this is necessary - but the real talent that an artist has is inborn.
The Ustad builds the foundation upon which a tabla player builds his skills. It is not possible to become a good tabla player unless one has a good Ustad.
In terms of qualities, a good tabla player understands tempo well and has perfect command over time keeping. He needs to be able to play tabla with vocalists as well as with instrumentalists; and he needs to understand the specific requirements of the artist whom he is accompanying. The tabla player should also know how to perform solo. The art of solo tabla playing is not easy. One needs to have thorough knowledge, tremendous discipline, good memory and the ability to gradually and systematically build his performance. The presentation of the peshkara, the introduction of a qaida, the imaginative but principled development of the qaida, the systematic introduction of relas, gats and parans, all done in a disciplined manner make a good solo. Solos of good tabla players have themes which form the basis of the qaidas, gats and parans that are played during the performance. A good tabla player is also able to play tabla with dance. This requires perfect time-keeping and a very good memory. More importantly, a good tabla player has a sureela hand. His tabla is pleasing to the ears, his dayan and bayan are well-balanced, and he plays bols with love, finesse and sensitivity. The bols need to be clear, crisp and clean and sound the same at all tempos. These are the things that make a good tabla player.
Ally Adnan: You have talked about the importance of having a "good Ustad." What is a good Ustad?
"My father abandoned singing after moving to Pakistan and did not want me to enter the music field"
Ustad Tari Khan: First and foremost, a good Ustad is knowledgeable. The knowledge needs to encompass both ancient and modern tabla playing. The art of playing tabla has evolved over the years. The tabla that was played a hundred years ago, albeit good and important, is different form that which is played today and that which will be played in the future. Let me give you an example from the aviation industry. The Ryan monoplane of the 1920 was a great plane at the time, a marvel of engineering, and the one first used for a transatlantic journey. Today we have hundreds of transatlantic flights daily using airplanes as sophisticated as the A380s and the 777s. These planes are built on the same aviation principles as the Ryan monoplane but are far more sophisticated than that aircraft. Coming back to tabla, a good Ustad knows ancient tabla but has kept up with the times and is able to play modern tabla well. He can also foresee the tabla that will be played in the future. The good Ustad will teach all tabla - ancient, modern and future - to his students.
A good Ustad does not exploit his students; rather he treats them like his sons and teaches them faithfully and accurately. He is strict, fair, compassionate and a hard taskmaster. He knows what to teach a particular student at a particular time and adapts his teaching to match the capabilities and talent of his students. A good Ustad does not dole out his knowledge freely; he only teaches those who have earned the right to learn by sheer hard work, sincerity and honesty, and those that show promise. Good Ustads do not waste their time and energy on students who don't show promise.
Ally Adnan: How has tabla evolved over the years?
"In Lucknow, the accompaniment of kathak dancers resulted in the development of intricate tukras, tihaais and chakardars"
Ustad Tari Khan: The tabla that was played a hundred years ago was simple in structure, louder in volume and almost exclusively an accompanying instrument. Over the years, the great Ustads of tabla defined the rules and established the principles of playing tabla. Early on, everyone used to play teentaal. Performing different taals was added over the years. The great Ustads expanded the repertoire of the instrument by continuously composing new qaidas, gats and parans. In the first half of the twentieth century, tabla players used to sit behind the artists that they were accompanying. Over the years they moved closer to the front of the performance stage. The second half of the century saw a great emphasis onlayakari, the splitting of beats, and the development of fractional taals. The last fifty (50) years have been the golden years of tabla as far as evolution and development of the art of tabla is concerned. In this period, the superstars of tabla were born who had the same stature as major vocalists and instrumentalists. Great strides were made in layakari and in playing with tempo and rhythmic cycles. Tabla players have built castles on the foundation laid by their Ustads and dada Ustads. New taals have been invented; complex qaidas andlaris have been written. The advent of the microphone and advances in audio technology have allowed tabla players to develop tone, finesses and feeling on their playing since they no longer have to produce loud sounds in outdoor settings. The tabla of yesteryears is important and has academic and nostalgic value; it is, however, simple compared to the tabla that is played today.
Ally Adnan: There are six (6) major gharanas of tabla playing today. Please tell us about these.
Ustad Miyan Shaukat Hussain
Ustad Tari Khan: A gharana is a school of tabla playing. The alphabet of tabla remains the same but each gharanahas their own style of playing the bols. Some gharanas lay claim to creating some specific bols and focus more on those bols in their compositions. The founders and elders of the various gharanas composed some remarkable items for tabla which came to be associated with those gharanas. The alphabet of tabla belongs to every gharana but each has bols that it likes. You will hear a lot of Tit Dhit in Delhi, a lot of Tak Dhin Na Nag in Lucknow.
The Delhi gharana focuses on lighter strokes and fine tone tending to avoid loud and resonant playing. There is a focus on the Tit Dhit, Dha Tit, Tir Kit and Ti Na Gin Na bols. The gharana is known for its vast repertoire of qaidas.
Lucknow stays away from kinar focusing on the sur and siyahi instead. Players of thisgharana stay away from sharp sounds. The accompaniment of kathak dancers resulted in the development of intricate tukras, tihaais and chakardars. The gharana is known for its crisp relas and unique paran-gat.
Ajrara focuses on complex bols like Ge Take, Dhat Trike, Dhin Na Gin Na Ta Ke. Players from this gharana sometimes deviate intentionally from the underlying laya and then return to it with great virtuosity. The gharana is known for some very special qaidas which span several cycles of a taal and place the khali in unexpected locations.
"A good ustad is a hard taskmaster"
Players of the Farrukhabad gharana are fond of using theDhir Dhir and Tak Tak bols. There is focus on the sur and thesiyahi. The gharana is known for its cache of gats, chalans and chakardar tukras. There is lesser focus on peshkara andqaida.
The Benaras gharana is known for its powerful sound and focus on resonant strokes. Thebaaj is open and whole hands are often used instead of just fingers. A lot of pakhawaj bols like Dhum Kit, Gadi Ginna, Gheghe Naka. Kradhan, Kita Dhan are used by Benaras players. They are known for the division of their gats into zanana and mardana.
The Punjab gharana is strongly influenced by Pakhawaj and uses a lot of the bols and techniques of that older instrument. Punjab players focus on layakari creating extremely intricate structures. They play in barabar, aar and kuaar. There is great focus on gat andrela. Peshkaras and qaidas are complex. The production of a gliding sound on the Bayan is a specialty of the Punjab gharana.
Ally Adnan: We have been talking about Ustads and gharanas. Today, we see that a lot of players learn from multiple Ustads. What do you think of this practice?
Ustad Tari Khan: There is saying in Punajbi: "Bauhte Karaan Da Parauna Pukha Rehnda Ae" wich loosley translates as: "A Guest that Goes to Many Homes Stays Hungry." I do not approve of having multiple Ustads. A tabla player should have one Ustad, like he has one father. Of course, death, ailments, migration and other circumstances may necessitate the need for a second or even a third Ustad, but ideally one should have one good Ustad. The Ustad Shagird relationship is not one that can be formed every day. Once the bind is created, it should last forever.
Ally Adnan: Please tell us about your gharana.Ustad Tari Khan: I am classified as a player of the Punjab gharana which is a gharana created by Pakhawaj players. However, the truth is that the tabla of my Ustad, Miyan Shaukat Hussain Khan, and consequently mine deviates a little from the Punjab tradition. Miyan Saab's first Ustad was Pandit Heeralal of the Delhi gharana. He started his career as a tabla player by focusing onqaida and became the master of the item. After partition, he migrated to Pakistan and happened to listen to the tabla of Miyan Qadir Baksh who was known for his gats andparans. My Ustad was a humble man and always felt that he needed to learn more. He became a student of Miyan Qadir Baksh to learn the tabla of Punjab and to add gat andparan to his repertoire. The truth is that he played very little Delhi and not the original form of Punjab. He was a genius and combined his knowledge of the two schools to create a tabla style so beautiful, balanced and complete that I, like many aficionados of classical music, believe that it has become its own gharana. If I am to speak the truth, I would say that I am a disciple of the Miyan Shaukat Hussain branch of the Punjab Gharana.
Ally Adnan: You belong to a family of vocalists. How did you become a student of tabla?
"My ustad used to sit erect, moving just his fingers, with a regal posture and a dignity that I have not seen since"
Ustad Tari Khan: My father was a very talented vocalist. After migration, he moved to Pakistan but felt hurt by the lack of patronage of arts in the newly formed country. He abandoned singing after moving to Pakistan and did not want me to enter the music field. I was always enamored of the tabla and felt that I had rhythm in my blood. It was hard to convince my father to allow me to enter not only the music field but as a percussionist. It was after several years of pleading that he gave me the go ahead to start learning tabla formally.
Ally Adnan: Please tell us about your Ustad.Ustad Tari Khan: I was born into a family of musicians. I was in love with ' sur' and enjoyed all music that was sureela. As a young kid, I had the good fortune of listening to a lot of musicians and tabla players but when I heard Miyan Saab's tabla, it hit me hard. This was a tabla so sureela, so musical that it captivated me. I would sit by the Radio and listen to his tabla for hours. The tone of his tabla, the melodious sound was unique to him. At that age I did not know a qaida from a gat, but I knew that his tabla was different from all others and the one that reached my soul. I first saw him on television. He used to sit erect, moving just his fingers, with a regal posture and a dignity that I have not seen since. I felt I was looking at the emperor of tabla when I saw him. I fell in love both with the person and the tabla of Miyan Saab. I decided to become his student not because I wanted to make tabla my profession but because I wanted an opportunity of being close to him and to do his seva.
I first saw Miyan Saab in person at the All Pakistan Music Conference. I was there with a few friends. I was backstage when I saw that Miyan Saab left to get some tea, leaving his tablas behind. I could not resist the temptation of playing the tablas. As I was playing them, Bhai Naseera walked in and asked me if I was Miyan Saab's son. Someone thinking that I was Miyan Saab's son was a great compliment for me. I told him that I was not but the compliment made me very proud. When I told Bhai Naseera about my real father, he told me that we were distantly related and encouraged me to continue playing tabla.
After that I tried to meet with Miyan Saab several times but was never successful. Then, I was booked to play with Pervez Mehdi at the Barsi of Ustad Alamgir Khan. As I was tuning the tabla, Miyan Saab walked on stage and sat on a chair to one side. This was a lot for me to handle and to this day I cannot remember what I played and whether I played well or not. I do remember that he said that I had played well. I gave him all the money that I had at the time as nazar. Qadir Faridi, who was around, told Miyan Saab that I was in love with him and that he should consider making me his student. I told Shaukat Saab that I had never had an Ustad and had learnt what little I knew by listening to him and imitating his style. After Pervez and me, Miyan Saab played a solo item and then accompanied Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and Ustad Nazakat Ali Khan. I remember that I was transfixed by the tabla and moved to tears. Once the show was over, I offered to carry Miyan Saab's tabla home and went to drop him off in a taxi. He did not say much during the ride but as he was getting off, he told me that he knew how much I loved him and that I should start coming to Lahore Radio Station to learn from him.
He started teaching me but would not make me a formal ganda bandh student. I used to ask him to tie the ganda but he would never agree, always asking me to wait. This used to cause me distress and it was only years later that I understood that he wanted to delay my ganda bandhan to a time when I would be able to play in front of major musicians and create a stir in the music world. Eight (8) years later, he agreed to make me his student formally. The event was attended by Inayati Khan, Baba Tufail Naorwaliya, Ghulam Ali and most major musicians of the time. It was here that Miyan Saab asked me to perform a solo and presented me to the music world as a proud father.
Ally Adnan: What was your relationship with Miyan Shaukat Hussain Khan like?Ustad Tari Khan: It really was not an Ustad-Shagird relationship. He had many students - good ones - before me and after he made me his student. Yet I was lucky to form a bond with him that no one else had. It was a spiritual connection. I had not gone to him to learn tabla. My only desire was to be close to him and have an opportunity to do his khidmat andseva. Honestly, I did not care if he taught me tabla or not as long as he allowed me to be close to him.
He became a friend, a father and an Ustad for me. I did not need anyone else. Shaukat Saab did not enjoy teaching but always made time to teach me.
It would be unfair of me to just talk about my Ustad teaching me tabla. He was my spiritual guide as well. He was a man of deep thought and a true philosopher. He used to share his thoughts with me and taught me about respect, honesty, faith, sincerity, love, modesty, and values. I have traveled the globe - many, many times - but have never met a person as remarkable as my Ustad. He was a humble man, an honest man, a dignified man. Any and everything good that I learned about life was from him.
Ally Adnan: Please tell us about his art.Ustad Tari Khan: I have had the good fortune of having listened to all major Ustads of tabla all over the world. And I have respect for all of them, but the balance in his dayan andbayan is unparalleled. The tonal quality of his tabla is unmatched. The purity of sound unequalled. A lot of people focus on the dayan and play it well but bayan has rarely, if ever, been sureela. Miyan Saab was able to play meend on the bayan; nobody has been able to glide over notes on the bayan like he used to. He created and perfected the technique of changing the frequency of the bayan using the bottom of his hand and by pulling at the straps. Tabla players have trouble tuning the bayan - some leave it very high - but he always played his bayan in the lower registers - where it should be - raising or lowering the pitch, as needed, by imperceptible moves of his hand.
I was fortunate to be his student but even if I was not and had a different Ustad, I would have to admit that he was the greatest tabla player of all times. Saying otherwise would be lying.
Ally Adnan: You are a towering figure in the world of tabla and have had close associations with a lot of major Ustads of tabla. After Shaukat Saab passed away, did you ever consider learning from another Ustad?Ustad Tari Khan: When one has learned from Miyan Shaukat Hussain Khan, there remains no need to learn from anyone else. [To be continued...]