Music is My Life — My Tabla Journey

Yesterday (as of when I wrote this article), December 7, 2019, was a special day for me. That day marked the turning point in my musical journey; it was the end of the beginning of my tabla journey. Now, I’ve learned the true basics that are required before I start my musical journey. This night was important for me because it also marked the completion of my Visharad Poorna (Visharad – “highest level”; Poorna – “final”) tabla exam.

When I mounted the stage for my performance, I felt a strange as a flow of memories washed over me. I looked at my audience, which consisted of other performers (including old friends of mine that I’ve known for years), my family (my family and somewhat more distant relatives comprised almost half of the total crowd), my tabla Guruji Satish Tare, and the examiner.

My performance, overall, was pretty great. The crowd enjoyed my energetic playing and noticeable stage presence. At one point towards the early part of my performance, the lehra (special backing track that provides melody and a cyclical rhythm for the musicians to follow – used in place of actual accompanying musicians) somehow stopped working. I noticed the lehra stop, but it didn’t disturb my playing and I didn’t break my rhythm. I kept going, and the examiner, whose mother is a professional singer, started singing the tune of the lehra along to my playing. After that part of my performance ended, we fixed the issue. The rest of the performance went by smoothly, and I ended with a bang (pun intended).

There is another reason why my performance was so special. This year has been a special year for me musically. Apart from starting my band Skarizon, it’s been 10 years since I first started taking tabla classes from my Guruji, Satish Tare. Among many other things, including thanking everyone for coming, I announced that it had been 10 years since I learned from him. It was moving realizing how far time has passed ever since my first official class with him, and how far we’ve all changed. Now, I will write about my tabla journey, while will eventually include exam preparation.

There are few people that can dedicate so much time, patience, energy, and love to their students and nurture them as they grow (source: http://www.tablaniketan.com/satish_tare.php)

Although my tabla journey formally started with him, it started years earlier. My late paternal grandfather, who passed away in 2015, was my first tabla teacher, and he started teaching me since I was around 3 years old. I don’t remember much from that time, and I don’t think I was seriously playing tabla (just banging on the drums but still keeping some rhythm). It all started off when he was playing something fun and danceable on the tabla and I started moving my hands up and down like I was mimicking his playing. I would sit on his lap and play the tabla as he patiently and happily watched.

My Dada (Gujarati for paternal grandfather) was credited with bringing musical talent to our entire family; he could sing, play tabla, and even play the keyboards. This talent spread to my dad’s side of the family; both my uncles play tabla, my dad plays the keyboards, my cousins have some tabla knowledge, and I can play tabla and have inherited a strong rhythmic feel from Dada.

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Here’s a snip of me playing for my Visharad Pratham solo. Once you reach Visharad, you are required to play a solo. 

My younger uncle, Pratik Kaka (Kaka is Gujarati for paternal uncle), however, was my main teacher. He brought me to tabla class, and I would sit next to him and try reciting the bols (bol means syllable; the tabla is one of the few percussion instruments to have its own syllables, perhaps because recitation aided in memorizing the playing). At home, we would spend a lot of time together practicing everything from class material to other fun things. During family events, when lots of relatives would come by and we’d play music, my uncle and I played tabla together; sometimes even alternating between songs for fun. In fact, during Thanksgiving Break, I would go to his house in Fremont in the early morning and practice with him for a few hours. Even though he was busy, he still allotted time to make sure my performance went well (which it did, thanks to him.) We’ve strongly connected musically, and it’s relationships like this that define my musical life.

Preparing for this exam was not easy. There was so much to learn and practice, and expectations were high. This exam, just like some previous tabla exams I took, had two parts – theory and practical.

The theory test was a six-hour test divided into two intervals of three hours. The first interval asked specifically tabla-based theory questions such as having to write tabla compositions. The second interval asked more broader-perspective questions, including the various schools of learning tabla (in olden days, in India, there were different isolated schools due to political, geographical, and cultural barriers. Nowadays there are no specific schools since information can be spread easily), the importance of tabla in Indian music, and detailed biographies of different tabla maestros.

The practical exam had two parts – the actual practical (examiner tells you to play things), and the stage presentation (you just present what you enjoy playing live, but you still need to follow some format regarding the content).

Preparation for this started back in June. My fellow East Bay Visharad Poorna batchmates and I went to our Guruji’s class in Sunnyvale, where we learned the material that was required of us from our practical syllabus. We had a large amount of challenging material to learn, digest, practice, and later play to the best of our abilities. We would often talk to each other about what we’re playing and difficulties we encountered, and we always supported each other. They helped me figure out how to play difficult compositions and gave me advice on how to make my overall performance better. Those tough months paid off, and now we’ve all put up great shows.

Now that I’ve reached this level, I can also look back on my past and see how I’ve progressed.

As I mentioned before, at first, my tabla journey started after I was spellbound by my Dada’s playing. After going to classes with my Kaka, I was eventually enrolled in tabla class. Every Tuesday night, Kaka would take me to my class in Cupertino and bring me back home. Eventually, I was switched to classes on Saturday morning. These classes were held at a Mr. Gandhi’s house in Pleasanton (he must’ve been a close friend of my Guruji). After every practice, we would all get snacks to eat, including biscuits and samosas, and tea (mainly for the adults). Unfortunately, Mr. Gandhi passed away back in 2016, but we had long since moved practice locations.

I was eventually pulled out of that group and would later get moved to another group, which I have been a part of ever since. We met in Fremont at the house of two twins in the group. I quickly caught up on the material (surprisingly well for someone of my level), and was there for our performance. We met on Saturday morning, originally at 11 AM, but we got later moved to 10 AM. This was the official class group, and I’m still part of it. As time went on, we gained and lost members. Currently, all four of us East Bay Visharad Poorna kids are in the same group; they all joined at different times.

While my tabla skills have greatly developed outside of class through practices with my uncle and jamming out with the rest of the family during our family get-togethers, I’ve grown and developed the most under the care of my Guruji, especially in this group. We’ve learned a lot, ranging from the most simple to the most complex compostions. We’ve learned to perform well as a group while still shining individually; we’ve gathered enough knowledge to make a good solo performance. When I joined this group, I was so small I could barely appear above my tabla; now, I’m towering over my tabla and playing hard like it’s the time of my life! I’ve also made lots of great friends in this group, some of whom I stay in touch with.

I’ve also had a lot of great memories associated with this group. In UC Berekeley, there was an organization called Asha for Education that raised money to fund the education for kids in India. Every September(?), they hosted benefit performances in the International House Cafe in the UC Berkeley campus. For four years, we played there. Our parents would all go together to see the performances, and they donated lots of money to the organization. We don’t play there anymore after a falling out with the event coordinators (they decided we weren’t their troubles anymore), but we had great times carpooling there and memorizing our material together. We’ve also played at places ranging from temples to a local middle school for its culture event. At one show, when we played at some convention center in San Jose, we got an encore, which felt great since the crowd really enjoyed our shows!

When I think about my tabla journey and everything that I’ve seen, there’s so much I can write about here. I’ve grown as a tabla player. The most obvious difference is my actual competency in playing the tabla compared to simply banging the tablas with no regard for skill. Now, I’ve learned (and still am learning) to use my fingers and hands properly to make the desired sound. I’ve learned how to master different rhythms and play seemingly offbeat patterns that musically sound amazing. I’ve learned complicated compositions, even if I can’t figure out how to play them at the moment. I’ve performed onstage with people who came into and some who left my life at different points.

However, here’s what truly matters. People will always enter and leave your life, but the relationships you develop with them stay with you. My relationship with my Guruji isn’t just a teacher-student relationship; it’s also a father-son relationship. All the friends I’ve made in my tabla group, especially those that are still there, have become like a family to me. Music brings everyone together and creates powerful bonds. This develops into a huge community where everyone supports each other. When special moments like this arise, everyone celebrates together.

Even though I’m done with Visharad and all other tabla exams, my learning journey isn’t over. Learning is a lifelong process. There’s so much more I need to discover, and it will take time. I don’t exactly realize it just yet, but this is only the beginning of a long journey. My life has been strongly intertwined with music. My skills at the tabla are still developing; I’ve encountered challenges, such as my stiffness, that I’m still working on overcoming. I still need to work on developing better tonal quality and increasing my speed. I may not get to those places now, but over time, I will. More importantly, it’s the traveling that counts. There’s always some reason to keep growing. 

The future awaits. I don’t know what it has in store for me, but I do know that as long as I live, there will still be a reason to grow musically. Music is my life, and it’s a major part of me. It will remain an essential component of my identity even when I die.

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