Where are the women tabla players?

Published May 1, 2014
The author playing her tampura.
The author playing her tampura.

I went to a tabla and lecture demonstration at Amherst College. I went because I love percussion, all percussion, but tabla most of all. I went also in homage to the pair I left behind in Lahore in 2008. The year before leaving, I’d taken the very tentative step of learning how to play this daunting but thrilling instrument in my ‘old’ age.

Music lessons and I have had an uneasy past. My father loved South Asian classical music more than anyone I know, yet he never put a South Asian musical instrument in my hands. He seemed to have had a different dream: ‘When I grow up and have girls (he never wanted boys, nor had them) they’ll play piano for me (like proper English girls?), and it will be very sweet.’

So, at age seven, I was sent to this horrible English woman who hit my knuckles with a ruler – a parody of the mean music instructor. My father also bought a second-hand piano. My sister played it with some cheer. I didn’t have a clue. Afterwards, our house would ring with Mehdi Hassan and Amanat Ali Khan, or Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan on sitar, and I’d mirror my father’s fingers as they played air tabla, and touch the joy the piano keys never offered.

For his sake, I kept trying to improve. My third try was at college, with a Japanese-American instructor. The first day, he complimented my fingers instead of hitting them, then told me my problem was with rhythm. Perhaps he’d also grown up listening to eastern and western music and understood that I’d internalised a very different beat, which I tried to play on an instrument that rejected it.

He said, ‘Play what you love instead.’

No one at college was teaching tabla, so I only took half his advice and gave up what I didn’t love.

Then in 2007, not at age seven but 37, I decided to do it. My ustad’s name was Ustad Ghulam Sabir. He was by his own admission not a professional player, but he had an excellent ear and was often called upon by professionals to tune their tablas. He was also one of the most highly regarded tuners of the deeply sensuous tampura, which our sessions would begin with him playing. (Ustad Sabir told me that he tuned the dancer Naheed Siddiqui’s tampura, and that she began each day by strumming it. I don’t know if this is true, but there is no better way to embrace the morning than with the four strings of this hypnotic drone.)

I struggled with the lessons. I am not physically strong and the left hand, in particular was almost impossible to get any sound worth hearing out of. But even the right hand would not behave. It only occurred to me then, that for my entire life, I’d been wasting the two little fingers of my right hand. And even the first and second fingers. Surely writing with a pen (which is how I still prefer to write) would have taught these dithering digits some discipline? Not so. Writing may hurt the fingers but this doesn’t mean it uses them.

Ustad Sabir was always patient. He kept adding more compositions (kaida, dadra, jhaptal), while I struggled with counting the beats and urging my fingers to keep up. Often, I did hear the beats. I knew what I should have been doing. If only the tabla had fallen in my hands 30 years earlier, instead of the piano I couldn’t even hear!

According to my ustad, my fingers would not play what my tongue could not speak, so a large part of that all-too short period involved finding the confidence to say out loud the syllables, which after all are called ‘bol.’ Though I wished I had a better voice, eventually I stopped caring and began to find it incredibly engrossing to call out the syllables, while he clapped and drank tea.

After about eight months, he said he couldn’t teach me more, not because I’d learned much, but because he’d passed on all he believed he could. He referred me to a music center where I studied with a professional ustad and about a dozen boys, a lot younger than myself who’d been playing since childhood. Though they never initiated a conversation with me, I never felt any hostility from them. And though they had no reason to be as attuned to my playing as I was to theirs, when I got something right, there’d be a kind of silence in the room. Eyes would switch to my hands and there might even be gentle nods, and once or twice, the ultimate compliment: the best student among them (who was rather cocky) muttered, “Wah!”

When I got something wrong, no one laughed or even winced; they just knew I was coming at it late, and accepted it. They’d tune me out again, and it was just as well.

But there was one boy who did more. He could have been 17 or 27, was always the one called upon to bring the tea, and was generally treated differently. More brusquely, yet also with more familiarity, as though there existed between him and the ustad (and other musicians, for instance, the harmonium player who sometimes accompanied us) an understanding.

I never learned what this understanding was because he was the shiest of us all. However, he was usually the first in the room and would be warming up when I arrived. When I also started to warm up, he’d join me. It was subtle and sweet; we were having a conversation. I remember well the tilt of his head and his sleeveless mustard sweater and how the head would tilt a little more when I stumbled, or else the fingers would wait in the air, and when I found the beat he’d nod quite vigorously and rejoin me at just the perfect moment and with just the smallest smile.

But he would never, ever, meet my eye. I tried to, but backed away when I feared I was crossing a boundary. It was better to stay within the boundary than to risk losing his friendship in music. A music without borders.

I never learned his name or said goodbye but I have always wanted to thank him.

Six years have passed. I’m in my 40s now, I teach full time at an American college, and I have a range of health issues, including a chronic knee and back problem for which I must follow a daily regime of exercises. Sitting for hours on the floor with my legs crossed and without back support to play music is out of the question. So I haven’t played, for six years. My tablas and my tampura – before I left, Ustab Sabir gave me one of his, a particularly old and gorgeous one – are still in Pakistan.

I was in Karachi till just a few weeks ago, and this time, I opened my tampura case and touched the wood. I hadn’t even been able to do this much since leaving, and never asked myself why, though of course I knew, and still know, that it represented, and still represents, all the reasons it had been so painful to leave. But on this trip, I touched the wood and the strings (flat, of course). My tablas were in Lahore; if they’d been in Karachi, I’d have touched them too. Perhaps I’d never been ready to say goodbye, but I was ready to say hello again.

A few days after returning to the US, I went to Zakir Hussain’s Masters of Percussion tour in Boston. I’d been wanting to hear him live for so long I couldn’t believe it was him as he stepped onto the stage, and I’m still breathless. It is not humanly possible to do with only two hands what he does – I know each finger gives birth to 10 more in secret, which is why he waves them around so quickly. After the concert, I had to stanchly remind myself that there was a lot of life still left to live, because for the first time ever, I indulged a very arrogant thought, ‘I’ve seen everything.’ And for the first time ever, it was enough.

Then, two days ago, I went to the tabla lecture and demonstration at Amherst College. It was enormously enjoyable, till the end. The pandit, a buoyant man from the Benares tabla gharana gave us, his very small but eager audience, time and care as he described the tablas – how they’re made, what the left and right is called, etc.

He then urged us to count with him while he played increasingly intricate permutations of each composition. At the end, we asked him questions. I was curious about the differences between his Benares gharana and the five others – Delhi, Ajrara, Lucknow, Farukhabad, and Punjab, Zakir Hussain’s gharana. An intriguing divergence is that the Benares style does not use the dark center of the right drum often, and when it does, the bol is ‘open.’ It resonates. (In Lahore, both my ustads would play it open and closed.)

Someone else asked about his emotional journey with the tabla, which led to amusing stories of being forced to play as a child. (Of course I was thinking, if only I’d been forced!) Yet another person asked him to play a different composition. He responded patiently and enthusiastically throughout. The atmosphere was relaxed, so I decided to share what had been going on in my head:

‘Why do you think women are still not playing the tabla, at least not publicly?’

He grew very serious, if not a little irritated, and said, ‘Oh, you can’t do it. It is just too difficult.’

I tried to say that of course now it is too difficult, for me, but what if girls were urged to play from a young age, the way he was? The way a few are encouraged to play other instruments, or to sing?

He again said, ‘You can’t do it.’ And then, ‘I had to practice for 14 hours each day. Could you do that?’ It was obviously a rhetorical question. He didn’t pause. ‘My fingers would grow bloody. You couldn’t.’

At this point I began to notice what I’d never noticed in those months of learning tabla in macho Lahore, in a room full of testosterone. Disapproval. Around me were only about six or seven adults – men and women, South Asian and Caucasian – plus two children. No one else spoke.

I kept on. ‘In Pakistan there aren’t even many women learning how to play.’

He scornfully cut me off. ‘In India there is no restriction. Women can do what they want. But they can’t play professionally. They can do it only for fun. I have two women students. They are good. But they will never be professionals.’ He seemed to think about this more for a moment, and I foolishly grew hopeful. What he added was this, ‘Dance is difficult too, but it is soft!’

I did not know what to say.

As a last point he offered, ‘The tablas weigh over 20 kilos. For how long are you going to ask someone to carry them for you?’

By this time, there were too many thoughts raging in my brain to know which one to speak, or even how.

For instance, when or how did this turn into ‘India is free but Pakistan isn’t’? Really, in India there are no restrictions on women? Do you not know that you create can’t by saying it – that can’t is a restriction? And your poor women students! If you already know what they will never be, what can you teach them? Do it for fun. You mean, the fun you are having is more than fun – but their fun is somehow less?

The host declared the time was up, and then the only other South Asian woman in the room stood up to offer the pandit baklava, and to introduce her children to him. But not before giving me a look – definitely not a friendly one.

I wondered how much of the tension in the room had to do with a certain etiquette that I, myself, had struggled to maintain, as I’d ventured with the question. He was a pandit. A master. He’d shown us that he could do what none of us could (certainly not the women).

A pandit must be shown deference, no matter what. The pandit/ustad/teacher-student relationship is entirely different in the subcontinent to that in the West. It is one of respect, intimacy, and absolute obedience. Here I was, a South Asian, a woman no less, asking pesky questions. The white women in the room did not acknowledge these questions at the end either; they went straight to the master to thank him, without looking at me.

In the car, my exasperation only mounted. Bloody fingers? Really, pandit ji, women are afraid of that? Ask all the carpet weavers who work for at least 14 hours each day, with astonishingly dexterous, bloody fingers. Or the shrimp peelers. Or the textile workers. Or the cotton farmers. They are women too.

As for not being strong enough, I couldn’t even carry a five kilo bag of rice, let alone two tablas. But that’s just me. My particular body at this particular stage of my life. And though I wish it weren’t so, I’m also lucky that I don’t have to throw my back out several times a day. What about the women who do carry heavy loads – and have to? Those who labour in the fields? What about the bags of crops and fodder they heave, often along with their children? Would you call that fun, or would you call them professionals? Would you clap for them, or stand up for them?

My mind was churning in a dozen other directions, including anger at myself – because, did I have to ask the woman question and spoil it all? – followed by anger at myself for anger at myself. In all my years of loving the tabla, listening to it, and admiring those who play it, I’d never once, not once, seen the player by his gender. I’d only seen him by his music. The same is true for any artist or student of any art form – ceramics, photography, fiction. Why, oh why can’t it be the same when the artist or student is a woman?

Why does the question of why she isn’t even in the picture have to be raised in order for it to be noticed that she isn’t even in the picture?

And then, when the question is raised, why does it put her in the gender box – when the whole point was to get her out of it! As a writer, I know this cycle very well. Yet, when the statistics are always the same – when men still get published more, get higher advances, and win more literary awards (thus getting higher advances and more reviews and more awards) – what is to be done except to keep asking: where are the women?

I am reminded of the story of Shakespeare’s sister in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Woolf writes,

The indifference of the world which… men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her (Shakespeare’s sister’s) case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, “Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me.” The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?

Or play tabla – what’s the good of your playing tabla, when you can’t?

Woolf goes on to say,

Surely it is time that the effect of discouragement upon the mind of the artist should be measured, as I have seen a dairy company measure the effect of ordinary milk and Grade A milk upon the body of the rat. They set two rats in cages side by side, and of the two one was furtive, timid and small, and the other was glossy, bold and big. Now what food do we feed women as artists upon?

A question I’d wanted to ask the pandit ji but could not, concerned his diet. In Lahore, my ustads followed a very special one. Regretfully, I’ve forgotten most of their tricks, for they might help me today, but I remember nuts and milk, humour and kindness, and that it was shared.

I still require it to be shared. Perhaps, I was not fed grade A milk; perhaps only the best student, the cocky one, was offered this. But I was at least invited to the table, where, for a few blissful months, I enjoyed the space, though not the time (there is only so much a muscle can make up for lost time), to grow a bit bold, a bit big.

A final quote from Woolf.

There would always have been that assertion — you cannot do this, you are incapable of doing that — to protest against, to overcome… for painters it must still have some sting in it; and for musicians, I imagine, is even now active and poisonous in the extreme.

And she wrote this nearly a hundred years ago. How does a woman who isn’t being fed a nourishing diet keep finding the energy to demand a nourishing diet? At what point will her reserves run out? It is precisely this point of exhaustion that the pandit was speaking of when he said can’t – when he said she can have ‘fun’ but not be ‘professional.’

The boundary he reinforced is not physical, but psychological. He knew that, like her, he’d grow discouraged in the face of repeated scorn and condescension – that there is only so much grade A milk to go around. And so she must be prevented from claiming her share. She must believe that she can’t but he can.

If we accept that the problem is not that the women can’t but that women must not believe they can, then how long will it take her – let’s say, Zakir Hussain’s sister, let’s call her Sohra – to not only master in private one of the most difficult musical instruments ever created, but to take the stage in public? How long before she performs alongside other professionals? To become one of the ‘Masters of Percussion’ we hear in Boston, Delhi, or Lahore?

As far as I know, in Pakistan at least, all tabla ustads are men. Sohra will have to learn from them. They hold the secrets, literally, in their hands. They will have to share, as my two ustads did. But my ustads knew I was too late – if they thought I could not be a professional, they were entirely right.

So before she even approaches them, a young Sohra will have to be approached, the way boys are: by her family. Like them, she must belong to a gharana, which means her lessons must begin in the ghar. Her parents will have to shed the notion that girls must either not play, or only play daintily. That it is unnatural for them to bang on skins, with bare fingers. Because, isn’t there the promise of the primal in every drum? Wind and string instruments, and, yes, keyboards too, tap into something fundamental and pristine in all of us, but let’s face it, not with the same raw thrust. The one many men and plenty of women would prefer not to have unleashed in girls.

I remember the boy in the sleeveless mustard sweater. His head tilt. His enthusiasm when I got something right. His willingness to share. Will he, will he, do the same for his daughter? And when she wants more, will both her parents give their blessings with a kiss and a lifeline of grade A milk, so that she may find it wherever she roams?

If we accept that the problem is not that women can’t, then, it may happen sooner than we dare to hope.

To Sohra, with hope.



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