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Our readers, may their tribe increase, have already been informed about an
issue that has been exercising our mind for some decades. That again concerns
Indian Classical and the antics of Tabalchis, which are getting on our nerves
now. The last straw on Amitabh’s back was the projection of a Little Hirsute Zakir
at the CWG inaugural. That was mAtra too much haan! The tabalchis have their
side, no doubt, and we shall try not to be too harsh. The author is no expert or
authority on the tabla, only an old disciple of Pandit Srikrishna Sawner of Indore.
But he speaks on the authority many experts like Appa Madkaikar, and Wife’s
Dad, doyen of Bhatkhande, Dr. Balaji Pathak (Dada). JyAstach LAdavtAt saale,
he used to say. Its parliamentary, but untranslatable.

A word of explanation here. Although he was associated with Ratanjankar and

Bhatkhande, Dada was still a gallivanting liberal by their standards. The
Ratanjankar-B.V.Keskar axis was behind some of the most sordid sagas of
Indian Classical. B.V.Keskar was the first I&B Minister of I ndependent India, and
AIR was his fiefdom. And boy! Did he do full justice to his Maharashtrian Brahmin
identity! Mhanje agdi PeshwAi phetyAchA mAn rAkhalA!

The influence that the Gwalior Grandees could not wield through musical
excellence, was sought to be achieved through All India Radio, where Keskar’s
writ ran amok. (Ha,ha,ha!!!) That era can be said to be the ‘Emergency’ of Indian
Classical. Senior artistes had to submit to auditions on AIR and listen to
discourses by the school-masterish Pt. Ratanjankar. Pt. Maniram, Pt. Jasraj’s
father, did not submit to the auditions, while the then junior Jasraj did. Ergo, the
father was graded as ‘C’, and son as ‘B’! Then- no Harmonium on AIR
(Harmonium-phobia was a Raj legacy). The ban on the Harmonium had an
unexpected windfall in the form of the sarangi , though. The then Govt. was
definitely laissez faire on the arts. Today a bronze in badminton at the Timbuktu
Open merits a hug from the PM. He,He,He!

Back to percussion.

Tabalchis were a humble class once. When that frustrated bachelor Ram
Manohar Lohia accused frustrator’s father Pt. Nehru of being dressed like a
Tabalchi, no one objected, and some were in favour of more so. Tabalchis
accepted playing second fiddle. The pecking order was like that. Like girls, they
were reconciled to be seen and not heard, literally. Yielding types, like the ideal
Bharatiya naari.

Graaaadually, tabla caught the fancy of the masses. Here we give three URLs of
that magnificent natyageeta sung by three greats, with decades in between. You
can observe for yourself the paltas, uthans and other gyrations on the rise
temporally, ceteris paribus.
Marmabandhatali thewa hi by Dinanath Mangeshkar (1931)

Marmabandhatali thewa hi by Prabhakar Karekar (1969)


Marmabandhatali thewa hi by Asha Bhosale (2007)


The tabla in the first one is most unobtrusive. It is what is called ‘theka’: marking
time. In Karekar’s, it becomes bolder and ventures out into the balcony. In
Asha’s its all over the chowpatty. Ashatai was into natyageete, while Latatai did it
on rare occasions. No mystery, do you expect a delicate beauty like Aishwarya to
believe in wrestling?

However, in defence of the tabalchis in the latter two versions,it must be said
here that although the embellishments follow the temper of the times, the
tabalchis have done justice, full marks to them. But the trend is clear enough.

Here is a sample of Uthan which is like prefacing the theka (rhythm).


and of a palta


There is a good introduction on


Here is a sample of complete domination of the main instrument by the tabla—

simmmply vanquished, swept awwaayyy. As if it is a solo by the tabalchi, with
lehra by the pandit….:

Why the tabla scores over swara-instruments in audience appeal is also a

conundrum in itself, Sir. It seems tala precedes the swara on the human
evolutionary ladder. Tribes which don’t have flutes or strings invariably have
drums. Drums were used to drive away wild beasts, they say. So..do they
provide a feeling of safety that is ingrained in the primitive part of our brain-our
‘read only’ memory?- our boot sector? Not convincing, really. Anyway, it does
appeal more that the swara to your animal part residing in the right brain- the
baser you as in bass ha,ha, and that is final.

Pucca gana had nuances, calling for a trained ear. Not so, the tabla. Dhangad-
dhinga has no nuances, beg your pardon. So- survival of the fittest, music-wise?
Taking our music to masses was an economic compulsion for the very survival of
our music, and the tabla did the trick. Thus prominence to the tablchi was the
opposite of ‘throwing the baby with the bathwater’, if there is an opposite.
‘Throwing the bathwater with the baby’? Ha,ha,ha!!! Preserving bathwater with
the baby? Better.

Tabla had a number of other things going for it. One factor was the revolution in
sound engineering. Technical advances in sound engineering which jelled with
audience preference are also partly responsible for the sorry state of affairs. We
had occasion to chat with Appa Madkaikar, percussionist who played for leading
music directors of the Bombay filmdom, now retired. According to him, in ancient
times, the prominence of one player from the other could be ensured only by
varying the distances of the microphones which were one or two, effect of which
does not amount to much. Level playing field. Enter, multi-channel-sound-
pressure-enhancing machines. The sound level of individual instruments could
be enhanced at the turn of a knob by the backroom boys! Backroom boys are
big-big music directors now, but that another day.

According to our Goanese friend, in the infancy of these machines, the decibel
level of sound pressure for the tabalchi as read from the sound meters, was
maintained at least 10 dB below the level maintained for the principal performer,
and 5 dB below other sangatkars. Tabalchis were simply sangatkars. To
familarise readers with dB, at a threshold frequency 1 kHz equals 0 dB (this
unnecessary detail is inserted just for being technically correct, and can be
ignored), the noise of a domestic mixie is 65 dB, jet engine at 100 m is 140 dB,
and a regular exposure to 100dB can leave you deaf in a few months. Thus, in
an auditorium situation, if sitar was @ 70 dB, tabla would be @ 60 dB, and
harmonium, say 65 dB. Now- they are kept at similar decibels, and at a Mumbai
concert, we have actually seen The Hairy One ask for a rise in dB, if not in his

Another development that worked wonnnnders for the tabla was band-width
extension. That is, stretching the spectrum of the desired frequencies. This is
what you manually do while setting the ‘equaliser’- bass, treble enhancements.
Three types of speakers also came into existence, the Woofer for lower
frequencies, Mid-rangers for middle frequencies, and the Tweeters for the higher
ones. The frequency of maximum amplitude in cycles/sec. for Veena is around
250, for the Sitar, 315, for a Violin, 500, for Shehnai, 1250, and for Tabla, only
110. For a man’s voice, it is 315, and for a woman, 400. Now you know why the
Sitar is a she and a tabla, a he.

Manipulation of the baser frequencies is funnn, isn’t it? Recall Zakir bhai’s train
sequence in the Hamsadhwani by Pt. Hari Prasad? It sort of churns your
stomach and produces that roller-coaster effect, whole rooms and window panes
reverberate, and this cannot be bloody achieved by a sitar. But the things the
sitar does to the cognoscenti ear is ethereal. Daroooon. It is witch craft! It takes
you to the other world, while the tabla is busy jiving with window panes!
For a scholarly research paper by S.G.Ranade, from which the data is taken, dial

But in the end, the loser is our music. Advancement in percussion isn’t the whole
story. Should we be left with the drums only on qayamat day? You find it difficult
to behold the shy notes of the sitar, or a delicate caress on the violin in all that
din , boss. You miss a lot in those nettlesome intrusions. They detract from the
sum and substance of Classical. Chattopadhyay K., our conscience-keeper, calls
it claptrap. AmAke shoonte dao, dada!

To get over the our Mayoosi, or disappointment with tabla greats, let us try to
imagine what-if Dr. B.V Kerkar was allowed to have the last word on the issue.
He would set up IMRA- Indian Music Regulatory Authority! No more than so
many paltas or tihais per so and so…Penalties?.. Yellow card. Benching,
Monetary penalties on the rich tabalchis