writer & editor

The Tabla Player

Saam – The First Clap

I whistle raag Bhairavi and rap both tablas, and check the tautness of the rough leather straps, and tap the tablas once and twice, and listen to their tone and echo, separately and together, and using a small hammer I strike the straps and edges of each drum, one at a time, rotating and knocking at the pegs until every stroke gives off an even tone, and with  the heel of my hand I apply pressure to the drums in a rapping, sliding motion so that the pitch changes and matches that of the tanpura humming in the background, and I adjust the wooden block between the drum and the leather strips and move it up and down and along the side to regulate the tension of the drums; she is sitting next to me on the carpet in my living room and I tell her I was attracted to her from the first time I heard her sing and I knew in an instant we were the ideal combination for music and love, and she takes a brochure from her bag, The Remedial Voice, and turns the pages and tells me I can be healed psychologically, emotionally and spiritually and all I have to do is chant mantras with her and together we’d experience musical nirvana, and she shakes her head and her dark hair brushes against her cheek and she pushes its velvety sheen back from her face and asks me to sing with her and I say yes because I’m thinking I’ll do anything if only she’ll let me kiss her, and she says Chant; this moment now is devoid of everything except musical joy, and I do and she asks me to play raag Bhairavi in a fast tempo and repeat the mantra Aum, and it’s already dusk so I flick on the floor lamp and it catches the auburn highlights in her hair and the gold flecks in her brown eyes and I nearly reach out and touch her as she begins to sing the: Saptak, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa.

Taali – The Second Clap

I hit the drums in short, rapid beats and sing Dha Dhin Dhin Dha, Dha Dhin Dhin Dha, Na, Tin Tin, Na,Ta, Dhin Dhin Dha and she shuts her eyes and begins to sway and click her fingers and she’s in a trance, absorbed in me and my music, and I stop drumming and lean towards her and she’s breathing fast and in the background the tanpura is whirring and I want to kiss her lips and caress her silky hair and as she moves her leg it brushes against mine and a thrill goes through me and any minute now she’ll come closer  and kiss me or she’ll put her head on my shoulder and I’m wondering if she can hear my heart pounding to the beat of Bhairavi, and she smiles and lets the beige shawl round her shoulders fall away and as she comes nearer her floral perfume makes me dizzy and she turns her head and gives me a coy, sideways glance and her earrings sparkle and I can see the bones at the base of her neck and she brings her face close to mine and her warm, sweet breath is on my face and my mind drifts and I’m counting the cycle of beats thumping in my brain and she whispers the raag is teen taal, sixteen beats, divided into four cycles of four, and it heightens the mood for love through the minute vibrations of the Saptak, and she says, Play it again, this time in madhya laya, medium tempo two seconds per beat.

Khaali – The Wave 

I reach for the tablas, the smaller one is by my right knee, facing away at thirty-five degrees as it should, and the larger baylan is near my left knee, positioned straight, and I move them so that they almost touch me, and I adjust the pegs to increase the tension and play a taal in bhand bol and khula bol, and tap the drums in madhya laya, and sing a tarana, vocalising, enunciating, repeating, mimicking each beat, consonant and vowel and the sequence of their arrangement, to represent the sounds of the tablas, Dhaa Ga Ge Gi Ka Ke Dhi Dhin, and Tin Tun Tit Ti Te Ta Tr Naa Ne Re Khat Taa Dhaage Ti Ta Tiriki Ta, and swipe my fingertips from the top of the drums to the side and all the way to the bottom, so the floor vibrates, the air pulses, and my voice mirrors and echoes the drumming; I hit the tablas more rapidly, and in the background the tanpura is humming and my fingers and palms are thwacking and thumping and I’m lost in the dhoon, in musical ecstasy, and I tap harder and faster till I finish the bandish, the sixteen-beat rhythm cycle of Bhairavi, and I pull back the strokes to a more restrained pace until I’m tapping lightly, and the melody comes to a close, and she looks directly into my eyes and says, Once more, in a slower beat.

Last Taali – The Final clap

I play the raag in a softer, more even rhythm, and her eyes are on my hands as I thump, rap, thwack, stroke, and tap the drums to show my desire, sixteen beats, teen taal, four cycles of kiss me kiss me kiss me kiss me, and the floor quivers and the air jumps as the beats reverberate in the room and I’m waiting for her to acquiesce to the raag and she sits cross- legged and stares straight at me and as I bring the melody to an end she says, softly, Repeat Aum with me and I say all I want is to kiss you and she leans closer, and I’m about to touch her lips with mine, but she pulls away and says No, I can’t do this, I have to go, I can’t stay a minute longer, and I beg her not to leave and to sit next to me on the rug and listen to the raag and I’ll repeat anything she wants as long as she doesn’t go, and I reach out and grab her hand and pull her to me, and she pushes me away and cries No, no, it’s impossible, leave me alone  and she gets up and dashes to the door and doesn’t look back, even though I’m shouting Wait, let me show you what Bhairavi can do, and I hear her feet running down the steps outside and there is silence till I strike the tablas and sing Dhaa Dhaa Ga Ge Gi Ka Ke Dhi Dhin and Tin Tun Tit Ti Te Ta Tra Naa Ne Re Khat Taa Dhaage Ti Ta Tiriki Ta and play Bhairavi, for yearning, loss, loneliness, and the finale, but the tempo, the laya is wrong, so I stop and hammer and knock the pegs and rotate the drums to adjust the tension and rap the drums again and again, trying to get the beat right and then I see her cashmere shawl lying near my foot and I pick it up and hold it to my face.