January 23, 2014

The market for the Tabla solo is disappearing

Nayan spoke to Deepak Raja on January 28, 2000 

My father, Pandit Nikhil Ghosh -- we called him Baba--was my Guru in all departments of music. He is remembered as a tabla maestro. This, indeed, he was. He was trained by three phenomenal percussionists: Jnana Prokash Ghosh, Ahmedjan Thirakwa, and Ameer Hussein Khan. But, few people know that, until 1944, Baba was a professional vocalist. He sang regularly on radio as well as at music conferences. The greatest amongst his contemporaries, including Ustad Ameer Khan, recognized him as an accomplished vocalist.

Baba was persuaded to switch over to the tabla by Jnana Prokash Ghosh. Jnana Babu argued that the tabla needed to be emancipated from the grip of hereditary musicianship, and only a musician with a formal education could do this. In a sense, Baba committed himself to the tabla as a missionary calling.

My grandfather, though only a competent amateur, was a sitarist. He had received training from Bhagwan Chandra Das, a renowned musician of the Seniya Rudra Veena and Rabab tradition. As children, Baba, and his elder brother, the flautist Pannalal Ghosh, absorbed sitar music more than any other form. After my grandfather's demise, Panna Babu (Pannalal Ghosh) continued training Baba on the sitar. 

My claim to having learnt the sitar from Baba is often doubted. Ustad Vilayat Khan can vouch for my father's knowledge of the sitar, and also testify that Baba would qualify as a teacher. Vilayat Khan Saheb and Baba were friends from their early years in the profession, and had toured Europe together in 1958.

When my training began, I was facing a Guru who was highly proficient as a vocalist, percussionist, and sitarist. I was probably three years old when my training started. Vocal and tabla training started simultaneously. At the age of four, I did my first radio broadcast with a tabla solo in a children's programme. From the age of thirteen, I competed regularly in inter-school and inter-collegiate music competitions in the vocal music as well as tabla segments, and collected numerous trophies and prizes.

Although my entire training was with Baba, Ustad Ahmedjan Thirakwa played a very important role in my life. He lived with us for almost a decade during my teens -- the most formative years of my life -- and supervised my training. He was over ninety then, but had an amazing zest for his own daily practice, and for the sessions he took with me during the day, and with Baba at night.

I started playing the sitar when I was about twelve. It started rather casually. Seeing my interest, Baba made sure that my basic technique was sound. Being a tabla player, he was specially attentive to the technique of sound production (stroke-craft). For melodic content, he would guide mostly by singing, and I would follow.

My performing career started as a tabla player, when I was sixteen, with opportunities for solo concerts before learned gatherings, and invitations to accompany senior musicians. Life, however, got complicated when I was eighteen, and sitar performances began. 

In 1974, Baba was due to tour Europe with Radhu Babu (the sarodist, Radhika Mohan Maitra). A few days before their departure, Radhu Babu developed a coronary condition, and had to back out. Baba desperately tried booking a replacement of comparable stature, but failed. Baba was persuaded -- against his own better judgment -- to take me and my brother, Dhruva, on the tour. This is how the group, "Traya" (Trio), came into being. 

During that tour, I received the most intensive sitar training of my life. Much of the guidance was given on the stage itself, while I played, and Baba accompanied on the tabla. With that tour, Baba and I both got more involved in my competence as a sitarist, and began agonizing over the inevitable choice between the tabla and the sitar. 

To help us decide, we invited Baba's first Guru, Jnana Prakash Ghosh to Bombay. Thirty years ago, he had helped my father choose between vocal music and the tabla. We thought he could do something like that again, for me. Jnana Babu stayed with us for two weeks and tested me, alternately and thoroughly, on the sitar and the tabla. At the end of the ordeal, he advised me to continue with both until the choice became easier. Thereafter, Prof. DT Joshi, another elder statesman of the music world, and Radhu Babu, both undertook the same exercise, with identical results. 

So, I carried on with both. For over fifteen years now, I have been an A-grade artist on All India Radio in the sitar as well as tabla categories. But, I know that, in the real world, this status and parity on the radio have no meaning, and cannot be sustained.

The market has its own mind, and is tilting the scales in a subtle manner. The pattern of demand is still unclear, as I seem to go through alternating phases of being in demand as a tabla player, and as a sitarist. But, certain realities of the profession are giving me a direction.

I relate to the tabla solo with a certain sense of ownership, and authority. This is natural considering the intimate relationship with Thirakwa Khansaheb, and the legacy of the finest soloists of the century. But, the market for the solo is disappearing. Accompanists have a different problem. They need to manage two intermediaries -- the concert host, as well as the principal musician. This is a difficult scenario, unless I am willing to flow with the current tide of populism.

The sitar scene is less depressing. There is no shortage of outstanding sitarists; but, audiences are still receptive to original music. The pressure of populism, too, is less severe. I regard Ustad Vilayat Khan's music as my model; and this is the dominant style on the concert platform today. Within that style, I can remain original because of my vocal training and percussion orientation. Professional relationships are also more manageable for a sitarist. With only one intermediary to handle, a rewarding rapport with audiences can be established and sustained more easily. 

My father had anticipated such a drift in the market -- and in my perceptions of it. During his last days, he predicted that, ultimately, I would need to commit myself to the sitar. He asked me to prepare myself for the painful choice. He knew of my love for the tabla. He also knew about such pain; he had suffered it when, in 1944, he bid farewell to performing as a vocalist.

At an emotional level, I may not yet have accepted the severance from tabla. But, I have come to terms with my future as a sitarist.

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