Interview with David Courtney - III

1st interview | 2nd interview | 3rd interview

by T.A. Reddy, MD

image of tabla

T. A. Reddy conducted this interview with David Courtney in July 2003.

TAR: - David, now I would like to pick your brains about the theoretical aspects of learning and playing tabla.  To start with, why is it that the tabla student's instruction always starts with tintal.  I feel that for a beginner, memorizing the bols of dadra and learning to play the dadra tal would be easier than the 16 beat teen taal.

DRC: - It is a combination of musical and social factors.

Musically there is a symmetry in tintal which makes many things easier.  dadra has a fair amount of symmetry, but not nearly the same amount.

However, there are also social reasons.  Tintal has been played among classical musicians in India for centuries; it has a social connotation of class.  dadra on the other hand, has a social connotation which is linked to the semiclassical traditions, especially of the tawaif (a system similar to the Japanees Geisha).  For many years, many artistic elements of the tawaif have been suppressed.  There has been a concious or unconcious attempt to distance themselves from this system.  It is for this same reason that forms such as Amad are generally not taught in ones formal training.

It has only been in my lifetime that the image of the tabla player has shaken the stigma of the tawaif.

TAR: - How did the need for so many different tals emerged?

DRC: - These things are in constant flux.  New tals are formed, old ones disappear, tals merge and also differentiate.  When one talks of their being many tals, it is like saying that there are so many words.  A quick glance at any dictionary shows that most of these words are archaic and have fallen out of fashion.  In the same manner, if you look at all of the tals in the appendix of "Fundamentals of Tabla", you will find that most of them are no longer in use.

TAR: - We have symmetric tals, asymmetric tals, and also asymmetric plus or minus a half beat taals.  How are these plus or minus half beat tals utilized and what is the advantage?

DRC: - We must remember that there is not a consensus concerning the existence of tals with fractional matras.  Many musicians are of the opinion that a 5 1/2 is actually just an 11 matra tal, or that an 8 1/2 matra tal is actually a 17 matra tal.  With this caveat in mind, let me just say that they are generally used as a novelty, sometimes for tabla solos and sometimes for vocal, or instrumental purposes.

TAR: - What is the literal meaning of the following terms and where and how are they used?  I apologize for so much in one question but if possible, please describe each one in few sentences in a simple way!  Mohra, Mukhada, Tukada, Gat, Laggi, Paran, Tihai, Chkradaar, Rela, Qaida, Palta, Peshkaar.

DRC: - No problem:

Mohra is basically synonymous to a Tukada.  Sometimes the bols are slightly different.

Mukhada is a small flourish culminating on sam.

Tukada is again nearly synonymous with mohara.

Gat is a term that is hotly debated.  Every tabla player will tell you for sure that they know what gat is, but when they get down to the definitions, they may vary widely.  I do not wish to get involved in these often acrimonious debates, so let me just say that they are a class of fixed composition within the purbi (i.e., Farukhabad, Benares, Lucknow) traditions.

Laggi is a light, fast paced improvisation in lighter forms such as kaherava or dadra.

Paran is a fixed composition very similar to mohara, but based upon heavy pakhawaj bols.

Tihai is a phrase repeated three times that usually, but not always, ends on the sam.

Chakradaar may come in several forms, but in it simplest, it is a tihai in which each individual phrases itself contains a tihai.

Rela is a very fast exposition of bols that may be played at extremely high speeds.

Qaida (kaida) literally means "a system of rules".  As such, it is a system of rules by which one may generate a very formal theme-and-variation.

Palta is a variation within a kaida.

Peshkar is a type of theme-and-variation that is used to introduce tabla solos.  It flows in a manner that is quite different from the kaida

TAR: - Now David, I have another loaded question which addresses every student's nightmare - accompaniment.  I understand this to be essentially a matter of practice and depends on the ability of the player.  For a novice, what are the fundamentals of accompanying a singer or another instrumentalist.

DRC: - I would say that there are several things:

First, one must be very familiar with the theka.  If you have to think about it, you will probably not give an interesting performance.  It should be totally automatic.  Furthermore, the prakars (variations) should also be automatic.

One should also have a visceral understanding of the music.  Indian music, although highly improvised, flows in a surprisingly predictable fashion.

It is also very helpful to have a rapport with the vocalist / instrumentalist.

It is extremely helpful to know the piece that is being performed.

TAR: - How does the tabla player pick up the singer's tal right in the beginning? What are the things to look for?

DRC: - Again, it always helps to have a rapport with the singer.  Other than that, it is just practice and experience.

TAR: - How does the tabla player join the singer on the sam, how the ornamentation is done and how to finish with the tihai etc.,

DRC: - Again it is rapport, training, practice, and experience.

TAR: - What is the function of Kaida.

DRC: - Kaida has several functions,  Kaida is one of the main components of the tabla solo.  Kaidas are also a disciplined approach in learning.  Finally, the kaida acts as a arsenal in which one may delve to find bits and pieces that one can use in accompaniment.

TAR: - When I observe the tabla maestros accompanying a singer or an other instrumentalist, I cannot make out the tal they are playing.  Why is it?  It appears to me that they rarely play a straight theka, and the rhythm does not sound cyclical but cadential type.  Can you please clear my mind on this issue.

DRC: - Your observations about the theka are correct.  I think it is safe to say that one never plays the straight theka, one always ornaments it.  Unfortunately I cannot tell you how to do it.  Again it is all a question of practice and experience.

TAR: - David this is the last part of the interviews for the time being.  I sincerely thank you for your time and patience in doing this interview with me.

DRC: - No problem.





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