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Chapter 32: Accompanying


Welcome to the field of real tabla knowledge. Everything you learned from this guide in conjunction with a qualified teacher were absolutely relevant. However, simply knowing how a “ta” is played, or when to use a mukhra, or what “tintal” is won’t help. Using English class to learn grammar, spelling, and vocabulary won’t help alone. One must use the grammar and spelling to write correctly, vocabulary to sound sophisticated, and using these three to write papers and read books in order to understand as well as express ideas. There are many applications of the tabla. Firstly, we will discuss the most important application first. That is the role of accompanying an artist.


Many years ago, tabla players were so restricted that they were only allowed to play theka. They were not allowed to deviate from the theka. They may learn nice qaidas or mukhras or perfect tods, however, they were not allowed to use them when performing. Throughout time, artists like Ravi Shankar gave more importance to the tabla player. Rather than be the main performer who is getting all of the attention, the tabla player get some attention by playing with the melody. If a melody is going to a climax, then the tabla player will act accordingly to fit the feel.


Of course, every artist has their own tastes and beliefs. Thus, methods of accompaniment will differ in various degrees. Nonetheless, there are some ground rules to cover when playing the tabla to accompany an artist. These are not set in stone, however, these come from my experience from the standpoint of a solo artist or a tabla player.


1) If you are asked to play, then play. If you are not asked to play, then do not play.


It is a pretty straightforward rule. If you can clearly see that there is no rhythm or meter being shown or played, then do not play anything. It will distract the main performer. Instead of worrying about hitting the right notes, the artist will worry if the tabla player is causing a distraction. The same holds true for the other extreme. Keep your eyes and ears alert for the signal that the artist wants you to play. If you don’t, you’ll miss that beautiful strike and the moment will be spoiled.


2) Before hand, find out what tala the artist is going to sing in.


Sadly, some tabla players will not too well prepared. When a dadra composition is being sung, the tabla player will shift to a tintal and the whole song is messed up. Better to ask the artist for a program schedule before-hand or take notes and write down which tala is the song being performed. If there will be a tala change or speed change, then discuss how and when they will occur. Be prepared, as Indian musicians are very spontaneous, and they’ll do something out of the ordinary.


3) Stick to the theka; unless otherwise posted.


The main artist is the instrumentalist or vocalist; not the tabla player. The tabla player is just there to help the vocalist or instrumentalist out. Be humble and do not play anything beyond the theka. Prakars are good too, only if they can be played with ease and not too complicated to confuse the main artist. This holds true if the artist wants to do a special melodic feature or fast vocal ornamentation. Playing fast notes on an instrument or singing seven notes ornamented really quickly are really difficult. That requires full concentration granted that rhythm is provided in its best form. The amazement will die too quickly if the rhythm is broken or too ambiguous too tell what matra is being played. This holds especially true for tintal! Even more when the composition is vilmabit or drut speeds! This brings out another good point! Stick with the tempo!


4) Easy with the mukhras!


Mridanga players in majority are notorious for this. After every phrase, there is some sort of mukhra. Mukhras are like spices. If used sparingly, then it enhances flavor. If used in excess however, the food becomes uneatable and distasteful. Mukhras should be used wisely.


5) Maintain eye contact with the main artist!


Your eyes may look at the audience to see your friends cheering for you, but your eyes should really focus on the artist. Indian musicians are spontaneous! They’ll change something like speed and you won’t know it until you are still having poor aim of your beats. Also, if the artist is trying to communicate with you and is unable to get your attention, they’ll be upset as their new and improvised piece is ruined.


6) Practice makes perfect!


If you have a chance to practice with the artist, practice as much as possible. Of course, the artist will be busy with his or her own riyaz. So, arrange in advance with the main artist to discuss how the program will run and what to look out.


7) Be prepared with properly tuned tabla!


The tabla should be appropriately for the artist performing. You haven’t learned how to tune a tabla, so this might not make sense. You will learn this in Chapter 34.


8) Don’t drown out or don’t be drowned out!


Don’t play too loud to drown out the main artist. The audience came to hear the main artist. Conversely, don’t play too softly that neither the main artist can hear you; neither will the audience.


Following these eight simple rules will help one have a positive and wonderful experience in playing the tabla for an artist. Of course, each of these eight rules will vary between artists to some degrees. Overall, the position of the accompanying artist is about being humble and flowing with the artist and following his or her lead. Of course, some artists will also allow the tabla show off his or her skill in a certain point of the presentation.

UPDATED: June 20, 2009