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THE DIVA OF THE TABLA

August 06, 2017

Tafoo is a jinn on the tabla and possibly Pakistan’s most famous tablanawaaz. Other tabla players would be awestruck into silence by his dexterity and speed. Now at 77, he still practices for hours on stone slabs to strengthen his fingers. “Like Bruce Lee,” he says. Nobody can still match his speed. His kinar bols are mesmerising. His tirkit is transparent and thunderous. But he is also the architect of his own reputation; he is certainly not one to shy away from boasting about himself. One often gets the feeling that his obsession with speed and his vanity are sometimes at the cost of his music.

“Now I will be playing tirkit of two fingers. Nobody can play such a tirkit despite practicing for thousands of years!” Tafoo loves to make such exaggerated claims knowing full well that even the kids of Delhi gharana play two-finger tirkit dexterously.

“Don’t talk behind my back, if you have the guts, come and play with me, I will play your things in your style, and if I fail, I will quit tabla and vice versa!” Tafoo made this challenge 32 years ago. The challenge remains unaccepted. Nobody dares accepts it in Pakistan; nobody cares about it in India because they feel Tafoo is not serious.

But Tafoo is nothing if not contradictory. In Kolkata in 2007 he announced to a small audience “I am not a tabla player anymore, I am a music director. I have given up tabla!” But to me he says “I want to be remembered as a tabla player rather than a music director!”

Tafoo’s greatest contribution to films, perhaps, is his tabla sangat. His creativity is infinite in making mujrai ang jhols that are often copied by Bollywood. If Tari is the prince of ghazal sangat and Zakir is the king of classical sangat, Tafoo is the raja of mujrai ang sangat.

Born into destitution in Heera Mandi, Tafoo had a God-gifted skill of playing any instrument. By age seven, he was the most sought after tabalchi for the localities’ dancing girls. Still in shorts, he would step out of his house for errands and end up accompanying the dancing girls who would be waiting for their turn to have him on the tabla. Within a few years, he was composing music for films and making a fortune. As a composer Tafoo is known for hit songs such as Sun Way Bilori Ankh Waleya, Ki Dam Da Bharosa Yaar, Doorun Doorun Ankhian Maray Munda Patwari Da and Zalima Coca-Cola Pila Day. All were sung by Madam Noor Jehan.

Tafoo’s greatest contribution to films, perhaps, is his tabla sangat. His creativity is infinite in making mujrai ang jhols that are often copied by Bollywood. If Tari is the prince of ghazal sangat and Zakir is the king of classical sangat, Tafoo is the raja of mujrai ang sangat.

But Tafoo’s brashness is his worst enemy. He ridicules every tabla player including legends such as Ahmad Jan Thirikwa and Allah Rakha. I had to repeatedly ask him who he was impressed with in tabla-playing. “None, I don’t recognise any tabla player, whether living or dead!” Though he did not say it, the implication was he did not recognise even his guru Mian Qadir Bux.

“I would complain to my guru, why he was giving me such lessons that he had given to others,” he says by way of explanation. “I would play a peshkar like dha kad dha dhin na dha dha dhin na … and the listeners would start reciting the rest of the bols, which would irritate me. That is why I have changed the entire tabla. My guru never approved of it. I don’t recognise the traditional compositions, formats and styles. I play only my tabla that can’t be copied.”

Critics allege that Tafoo’s tabla is a blatant negation of centuries-old compositions and the tradition of tabla. How can you call it a solo tabla performance if it has no peshkar, no farashbandi, no theka and no parhant (recitation of bols), they say. Tafoo often starts with rela (a short composition in fast tempo) and keeps repeating it like a loop. He won’t play continuously for more than five or 10 minutes. When the momentum would be built, he would stop and start ranting. He would draw attention to his skill or ridicule others without naming them.

Dhir dhir is the test of any tabla player. I have never heard it from him, though friends such as sitarnawaaz Nafees Ahmad and tablanawaaz Shahbaz Hussain say that he has played it, but briefly and that it was very good! One can assume his dhir dhir is not as good as his kinar or tirkit! However, he can easily disprove it by uploading a full dhir dhir composition.

Tafoo does not accompany practitioners of classical music. “I am willing to accompany them but they don’t want me to,” he says. “They know that if I accompanied them, nobody would listen to their music. Everybody would be lost in my tabla!” Tafoo never wastes any opportunity for self-praise.

In his performances, Tafoo would also be accompanied on stage by an army of flatterers whose role would be to utter wah wah incessantly throughout the recital. The most obsequious spectacle would be when they would take out stacks of 10 rupee notes from their pockets and start showering them on him as if the stage were a kotha and the artist performing a mujra. But Tafoo adores such scenes.

His detractors say that Tafoo never learned from Mian Qadir Bux. Qadir was near death when Tafoo became his student and they claim Tafoo had no time to learn, that he was too busy in films, that he simply used Qadir’s name to intimidate others.

Tafoo’s harshest critic and competitor was Ustad Shaukat Hussain because he had been given the title of ‘Mian’ by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Ustad Salamat Ali Khan which, in Tafoo’s opinion, should have been his by right. But beneath his bombast, Tafoo has a kind heart as well. When Ustad Shaukat was taken ill, Tafoo visited him in the hospital and offered to pay for his medical bills.

It’s a shame that Tafoo’s vanity overshadows his talent. But perhaps Tafoo would not be Tafoo without his diva-like antics. When he told me that he was 60, I said to him, “Khan saheb, Zakir Hussain is junior to you and even he is 67. How could you be 60?” He just smiled back at me.

The writer is a journalist/researcher based in Islamabad. He is also a student of tabla and classical vocal music. He can be reached at yamankalyan@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, ICON, August 6th, 2017