Shaswati Mandal Paul in conversation with Shuchita Rao
The legendary romantic tragedies of Heer-Ranjha and Sohni-Mahiwaal have been popular in India for a couple of centuries. When they are sung as Hindustani Tappas, some listeners are awe-struck while others are not impressed. The listeners who don't care much for tappa as a form of music say that singing them is a gimmick. Much like how jeans with tears near the knees are the most expensive item in a garment store, the tappa is a kind of fad and attracts attention for its novelty aspect. It fails to communicate the lyrical aspect of love stories and can be enjoyed for perhaps just a few minutes. The listeners who love tappa consider tappa singing an admirable feat that only a select handful of vocalists can deliver with ease and expertise. They say that singing the tappa demands an exceptional command not only over sruti and laya but also over short and complex taan patterns that move in a brisk and oblique fashion against the rhythmic cycle. Vidushi Malini Rajurkar has acquired an iconic status when it comes to tappa renditions. She is almost always requested to sing tappa in her vocal performances to this day.
Few artists take the risk of including tappa in their performances. The khayal, dhrupad, tarana, bhajan and Abhang musical forms seem to be the safer choices. Very few artists can pull off a tappa and win the hearts of the listeners. When Bhopal based vocalist Shashwati Mandal Paul, accompanied by Ashis Sengupta on the tabla and Sanatan Goswami on the harmonium performed in Boston on 7 July, she left the listeners spellbound. She sang khayal in ragas Multani, Dhani and Khambavati, and tarana in Bhimpalasi and Bhairavi . What captivated the audience, however, was her flawless rendering of a famous traditional Punjabi tappa in raga Kaafi set to the 16-beat addhaa tal.
O miya jaanewaale,
Saanu Allah di kasam,
Phir aa ray
Allah jaanda tusi
Munuh le jaande
Aavo sujnaa galey lug jaa
O traveller, you must come back to me because God knows that you have stolen my heart.
Shashwati Mandal learned to sing tappa for several years from Pandit Balasaheb Poochwale of the Gwalior gharana under an Indian national merit scholarship in the year 1987. A versatile and well-recognized vocalist, she has performed at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy, Sawai Gandharva, Saptak and Harivallabh festivals in India. She has collaborated with U.K based musician Derek Roberts to release a tappa recording in a fusion format. Based on its popularity in Europe, she was invited to give a tappa presentation at the Darbar festival in London in 2008.
Shashwati Mandal Paul spoke to Sruti about tappa.
What is tappa?
It is a tradition of folk singing from the Punjab/Multan/Baluchistan/Sindh regions of north western India. Camel riders sang stories of human love and separation while riding camels. The musical form came to be known as tappa as it followed the gait of the camel.. The camel riders had high-pitched, flexible voices. The tappas they sang were marked by a fusillade of short and quick melodic taan patterns that moved obliquely in conjunction with a 16-beat rhythmic cycle creating a unique flavour. Because of the short, brisk taan movements, tappas are characterized by a chanchal or restless temperament. Like thumri and dadra, tappa is now considered an independent genre in the semi-classical system of Hindustani music..
When and how were you introduced to tappa singing?
My grandfather Sri Bala Bhau Umdekar was a court musician in the court of the Scindias in Gwalior. My late mother Srimati Kamal Mandal put me through rigorous and intensive musical training to master tans on a daily basis through my childhood years. I was probably 17 years old when I won a three-year long scholarship to study tappa under Gwalior gharana singer Pandit Balasaheb Poochwale because I was good at singing taans. I learned several tappa compositions from him and continued to train with him for five more years after my scholarship ended. I learned special ragas such as Narayani, Khambavati and Devgandhar from him.
What is the story behind how Gwalior gharana musicians learned to sing Punjabi tappa?
Ghulam Nabi, the son of Ghulam Rasool, court musician of the princely court of Awadh, travelled from Lucknow to Punjab.He was a khayal singer and it is said that his voice had a shrill, high pitched timbre, much like the camel riders. He liked what he heard, came back to Lucknow and composed several tappas under the pen-name of Shori Miyaan. He fused the taan elements of tappa into khayals which came to be known as tup-khayals. Tup-khayals are sung in slow tempo and are followed by faster, drut khayals in double the tempo. From Lucknow, the tappa went to Gwalior and Benaras.
Are there particular ragas and taalas particularly suitable to tappa?
Khamaj, Kaafi, and Bhairavi are some common ragas and the 16-beat cycles Punjabi and addha (the number of beats in the rhythmic cycle are same but the bols are different) and the 7-beat cycle pashto are common tal cycles suitable for tappa singing.
What kind of special vocal training is needed to sing tappas?
You must be able to sing several different kinds of taans in perfect sruti, in varying laya tempos and using words or lyrics while singing the taans. You need a good breath span because often the entire sthayi and antara must be completed within single rhythmic cycles. There's no time even to take a breath. The ability to sing complex two- note taan patterns such as mmppdd, ppddnn, cut and move to the next pattern and then return to the original pattern is important. Rhythmic proficiency is another requirement. Every tappa has its own unique tempo and the singer needs to practice frequently with the tabla player to learn how and where to adjust the composition in real-time.
In addition to Punjab, do you know of other regions where tappa became popular?
Musicians of Gwalior, Benaras and Kolkata commonly sing tappa. The Kafi musical form sung in Pakistan and the Heer of Punjab/ Sindh also bear a close resemblance to tappa.
Do you feel the lyrics take a beating in tappa?
The poems are short and primarily in Punjabi/ Multani/ Saraayki languages. Shori Miyan added Urdu and Hindi words to some of his compositions. Gwalior musicians taught tappa to many of their students. Some of the words got distorted with the passage of time in the oral tradition. The compositions are beautiful but we cannot make out the meaning of the words Girija Devi and Rajan-Sajan Mishra helped popularize tappa in Benaras. Kalinath Mishra and Nidhu Babu popularized it in Bengal. Today, you can hear tappas in Bengali and Marathi too.
You worked with London based musicians to record tappa in fusion format. What was the experience like?
Derek Roberts was fascinated by the tappa and had me record traditional tappas with the sarangi and tabla. He was not fully satisfied with the sound and ended up blending my original sound track with additional Carnatic percussion and violin as well as Spanish music tracks. The record was released in the UK and became popular in Eastern Europe.
Did the end product appeal to you?
I am quite satisfied with the end product and am thankful to Derek Roberts for the opportunity.
What are your plans? Will you prefer singing tappa “as-is” or would you like to make modifications to it?
I have been in the process of understanding and improving the gayaki of tappa since the time I started learning it. I'd like to work on bringing out the feelings and emotions of the lyrics while preserving the brisk and frolicky nature of the musical genre. I don't like to plan too much in advance.We have to wait to see the outcome of my thoughts and ideas.
A note on Bengali tappa by Kolkata based artist Ujjal Banerjee.
What is Bengali tappa?
Much like Punjabi tappa, Bengali tappa is marked by brisk movements of melodic patterns except that they are sung in a slower tempo. Gliding meend movements balance the taan patterns and the format is simple without elaborate improvisation. The talas commonly used are jat, addha and pancham savari.
The theme of the poems is love and separation and the lyrics are in the Bangla language. Nidhi Ram Gupta and Kalinath Mishra composed and popularized Bengali tappa. It is said that Rabindranath Tagore invited among others, Rajeshwari Dutta, the Punjabi bride of a Bengali poet, educated in Santiniketan to sing many of his compositions in the tappa format.
A Kafi tappa by Nidhi Ram Gupta goes like this:
Hori tomai bhalo bashi koi
Amar shay prem koi
Amar lok dekhano bhalobasha
Antaray bhalobashi koi
Where has my love for you gone? The love people see in me is fake. In my heart, there is no love.
There are scores of Tagore songs sung in the tappa style. One example:
E parobashey robey ke, hai
Ke robe e sansarey santaapey, shokey.
Hetha key rakhibey dukho-bhayo-shankote
Temono apono keho nahi e prantorey hai re.
Who wants to live in this alien land, in this world of sadness and misery?
Who will give support here in sadness, fear and despair?
Alas, I do not find one such friend in this world.