Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tabla Pusher

Robin Sukhadia has been in India for the past 6 months on a Fullbright Scholarship exploring the role of music education for street children in Kolkata and Ahmedabad. Last week he hosted an intimate evening at the MBL headquarters where he shared his personal journey, what art means to him, history and primer on tabla, and of course some riffs on the tabla from the man himself.

Robin took us through the history of Project Ahimsa, which he has been a part of since its beginnings. The project's mission is to empower youth around the world through music. Robin showed some videos of various projects in which disadvantaged youth came alive when introduced to creative expression through music, especially tabla. Also I learned that Project Ahimsa planted seeds for future music projects in Manav Sadhna, starting with a simple project to bring instruments to students of a local blind school. Later folks would be inspired to put together the Ekta show, which toured around the world. That laid the foundation for the latest incarnation, Ekatva.

In his own journey, Robin has been deeply influenced by tabla. Always musically inclined, he got into tabla after a chance encounter with Zakir Hussein 8 years ago. Backstage at his concert, Zakirji told Robin to seek out another renowned tabla master, Pundit Swapan Chaudhuri as his teacher. Robin obeyed, and has been practicing intensively under Swapanji ever since. But of course as Robin related, the tabla is a very subtle instrument and can take a lifetime, or even multiple lifetimes to master.

Tabla has its own language, the dha-dhin-dhin-dha that you often hear tabla players sing during a concert. The alphabet if dha's and dhe's and dhin's is what teachers use to transmit to their students. Tabla is taught completely orally, nothing is written down. Same goes for tabla making, which I learned is an ancient art. Tabla is one of the few modern instruments (and I mean really modern, it has really only gotten wide exposure since the art was opened up to the masses since Independence) that does not have a satisfactory synthetic version. No one has been able to capture the sound of symmetrically stretched calf and goat skin. The black middle part of the tabla is what gives it the sweet sound. The two drums represent the male and female, and making them dance together in different combinations is what makes tabla beats diverse and alive. My burning question from Robin's talk was a two-parter: a) Do famous tabla players grow out their hair on purpose so they can fling it around during performances, since their hands are occupied? and b) How does he cope with his own inability to do so?

Robin also talked about and quoted from the Artist's Way, and emphasized the benefits of making room for artistic expression in life. But also it's important to encourage artistry in others, especially youth. He linked art to social change and said Gandhi was himself a great artist, and how deeply he was influenced by the work of the artists Tagore and Tolstoy.

Robin is a really cool cat. Although we only overlapped in Ahmedabad for a couple days, it was great getting to know him and bonding over childhood love stories (tetherball!), Clay Shirky, and Mario Bros. I'm not sure when our paths will cross next, only that they will.

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