Kamal Music Center

Month: June 2010

Dilruba / Esraj

Dilruba or esraj, which one should I get?

You only have a certain budget and you want to know whether to get a dilruba or an esraj.  Well the simple answer is that it really does not make much of a difference.  You will probably find that just as flute players have multiple bansuris of different sizes to suite different keys, and tabla players have multiple tablas for a similar purpose; you will probably find that this is not going to be your only purchase, but that it is merely your first purchase.  You will probably find that before too long you have purchased both dilrubas, and esrajs.  This is simply to allow you to have different instruments in different keys that allow you to handle the variety of solo and accompaniment jobs that fall your way.  You can get by with one instrument by switching out the first couple of strings; but this gets tiresome pretty quickly.

Ok so now you have modified your question to be “Which one should I get first”.  Although I cannot pontificate as to which one you should go for, I will give you some information to help you decide.

First of all, there is very little difference between the sound, or the playing of the two instruments.  There is not really enough difference to give one a clear advantage, still there are a few pros and cons.  Let us go over them:

There is really only one “pro” of getting an esraj, but it is a big one.  The esraj is easily modified to become a tar-shehani.  The tar-shehanihas a very distinctive sound quality that may be very useful to you in stage and recording.  Furthermore this modification is not permanent; you can put it on, or take it off at will.  Therefore, for just a small amount of extra money for the sound box attachment, you really are getting two instruments.

There are several cons of the esraj.  Since the resonator is smaller in the esraj as compared to the dilruba, the volume of the instrument is somewhat lower.  This places greater demands upon you when micing it for sound reinforcement.  Another disadvantage of the instrument is that the sympathetic strings attach directly to the pegs.  This is a much cruder arrangement than is found in the dilruba, and is often the source of minor problems.  Such problems can be a buzzing resulting from the string rattling against itself where it wraps around the peg.  The string can also rattle or bind against the neck or the last fret, if it wraps either too high or to low around the peg.  These are minor inconveniences, but they must be attended to if you have an esraj.

There are also pros and cons concerning buying a dilruba.  Let us look at these right now:

There are a few advantages to buying a dilruba.  The attachments of the sympathetic strings is more “pakka“, and not nearly as crude as theesraj; therefore there are very few problems inherent to the design.  The dilruba also tends to be louder than the esraj.  This makes it a much easier to deal with in both recording as well as stage situations.

There seems to be only one disadvantage of the dilrubatar-shehnai attachments are not available for them.

As a practical matter, the decision as to which one to buy is usually determined by availability and cost.  In other words, whatever you can find, and whatever you can afford, that is the one you are going to buy.

Who should I purchase it from?

That is impossible for me to say.  Dilrubas and esrajs are definitely not commodities; each one is unique.  A particular shop might have a good selection, good quality and reasonable prices now, but in six months it may only have junk.  All I can say is to look at the obvious things such as the reputation of the shop or maker and see whether you can establish some type of rapport with them.

Should I get it from the West or India?

A lot depends on where you are.  Obviously if you live in India, or even if you are planning to visit India, then purchasing it there is definitely the thing to do.  However, if you are living outside of India and are thinking of purchasing one from there by way of the internet, then obviously there are some concerns.  But on the other hand, purchasing from a non-Indian sources has concerns too.  Let us look much more closely at some of these factors:

There is only one advantage of purchasing from India by way of the internet; that advantage is cost.  You will pay substantially less money than purchasing instruments from non-Indian retailers.

However we must remember that there may be serious disadvantages associated with buying from India.  This process has been compared to “choosing a mail order bride, by looking at a picture of her sister.”  Anything can go wrong.  If things do go wrong, then the shipping costs involved in sending instruments back and forth, can quickly erase any cost advantage.

There are many reasons why things can go wrong.  One common reason is because many unscrupulous retailers use international sales as an opportunity to unload poor quality instruments that they know the cannot otherwise sell.  Twenty years ago, this was the norm.  Fortunately these days it is less common.  The nature of globalisation (I generally do not like to use the term “globalisation”.  It has become a euphemism for neo-imperialism) is such that retailers today are conscious of their international reputation.  If they want to keep selling their instruments in the international markets, they know that they must maintain a certain level of quality.

There is another reason why you may be hesitant to buy from form an Indian retailer from abroad.  This one is not a reflection of dishonest business practices, but is a reflection of fundamental differences in musical culture.

When you go into a music store in India, the instruments are generally in a somewhat unfinished state.  Invariably they are untuned, the strings are the wrong gauges, the frets are in the wrong positions, etc.  In India, when you purchase an instrument from a shop, there is seldom the expectation that you are going to walk out with it “as is”.  It is a normal part of the negotiations to specify the finishing touches that you want done.  This is very different from the West, where instruments purchased from music stores are ready to go.

The reasons for the unfinished state of Indian instruments in the shops are varied.  Most of them result from valid technical, business, and musical considerations.  In general we can say that the stringing and tuning of Indian instruments is very much an individual thing.  Since the craftsmen have absolutely no idea who is going to purchase their instruments, or what their particular style may be, they just sort of get the instruments roughly “into the ballpark” and leave it that way.  We must remember that unknowns of stringing and tuning spill over into fret placements and jawari contours as well.  Therefore incorrect placement of frets on new esrajsdilrubas and unfinished jawaris are common.

The result of all of this is that if you get your instrument directly form India, it will likely be in an unplayable state.  If you are a rank beginner you are in a quandary.  This is the time when you need the maximum knowledge and experience, yet this is the time of your life, when you know the least.  At this point you absolutely must have a good teacher to assist you in these practical details, otherwise you will be attempting to teach yourself on an instrument which may be completely unplayable.

This is where there can be advantages in dealing with non-Indian shops.  Many of the better shops in North America and Europe pride themselves on “tweaking” their instruments before they are sold.  They attend to all of these details before sending them out.  Furthermore, these shops are often the only reliable quality control step in the whole chain.  You may not see how many “dogs” they have had to quietly dispose of just so you can be certain that you get a decent instrument.

Now there is an obvious cost disadvantage to dealing with non-Indian retailers.  Their tweaking and quality control naturally adds to the price of the instruments.

This brings us to the bottom line.  If you are living outside of India, and you are not sure about your ability to “tweak” the instrument yourself, then you may be better off spending a little extra money and buying from a reliable non-Indian retailer.  However if you are confident in your ability to work on the instruments, then you will probably find that it is better to deal with Indian retailers.

Some esrajs have a resonator on the top; is this preferable?

It does slightly change the sound in a way that many people find pleasing.  However its influence is negligible when compared to more important considerations such as to the quality of the skin, the reinforcement pati (tasma), and the bridge.  Since its influence is minimal, you might be inclined to just consider it decoration.

I have a new instrument, but it seems that the frets are in the wrong position.  What do I do?

If you have a new instrument, then almost certainly your frets are in the wrong place.  But then if you move from a wet climate to a dry climate your frets are probably out of position.  Or if you go from dry season to wet season, your frets are probably in the wrong position.  Repositioning the frets is just part of the normal duties of owning a dilruba or esraj

The fact that the bridge rests upon taught skin has tremendous ramifications.  The strings will press the bridge down, while the tension from the skin will press the bridge up.  This system is in balance; but there are a number of things that will cause this balance to change.  Changing the pitch of the instrument changes the downward pressure exerted by the strings.  Changing the gauge of the strings also changes the downward pressure exerted by them.  But there can also be changes in the upward pressure from the skin.  For instance, changes in humidity affect the ability of the skin to exert an upward pressure against the bridge.  Age causes the skin to stretch, thus changing the skin’s ability to exert an upward pressure.  Temperature also changes the skin’s characteristics.

The bottom line is simple, as you own your instrument, there are any number of factors which will effect the precise position of the bridge.  Therefore, this will be reflected in the position of the frets.  These effects are most noticeable in the high pitch frets (e.g. high Sa, high Re, and high Ga).

Now that we realise that repositioning the frets is just part of owning a dilruba or esraj, the obvious question is how do we do it.  To begin with, your eyes will be of very little utility.  You must depend upon your ears.  If your ears tell you that a particular fret is off, then it probably is.  One word of warning; before you go messing around with the frets, you need to make sure that your strings are perfectly in tune.  If you have any doubt about your ability to hear the correct pitch, you can use an electronic tuner.  Remember that Sa, Ma, and Pa quite conveniently, are the same whether one is dealing with a tempered or untempered scale.  Therefore you can quite confidently uses an electronic tuner for your main playing strings without having to worry about the particulars of Indian intonation.

Should I move the Rishab fret or the Dhaivat fret whenever I want a komal Dha or komal Re?

If you are a rank beginner you might try this, but I don’t really recommend it.  It is better to just do a little extra practice and get the correct “feel” as to placement of the fingers.  Remember, although the frets may look like the sitar’s, they do not function in the same way.

Do I pull the string sideways to make a meend like one does with the sitar?

No, slide your fingers vertically like a sarangi.  Again, just because the frets look like a sitar’s, they do not work in the same way.

What kind of rosin should I use?

This is generally a matter of taste, but most people prefere a dark sticky bass rosin.  See Rosin (A.K.A. Biroza, Biroja, Baroza) and Indian Bowed Instruments” for more information

Should I use oil on my fingers like sitar?

Generally yes, it does make things easier.  However in the case of the sitar, the oil is obligatory; in the case of the dilrubaesraj it is purely optional.  You will be able to tell from the feel whether you need it or not.

The use of oil on the strings does have some caveats on the dilrubaesraj.  The most important thing to remember is that you should never get any oil on the area that you bow.  If you do, then the oil will transfer to the bow, thus making your bowing unreliable.  As a practical matter, it is a good idea not to go above the Pancham in the upper octave.  Although you can easily hear the pitch and control it up to the upper Sa, this places your fingers in positions which are uncomfortably close to where you bow the string.

You must also remember that if you use oil, you must occasionally clean the strings, I prefer alcohol; but remember not to get any alcohol on the finish of your instrument or it will spoil the finish.

My bowing sucks, am I doing anything wrong?

This is the eternal question.

First look at your bow.  Is it properly “broken in”.  New bows are notorious for being unresponsive.  Use a lot of rosin until the bow is broken in, then you can back off a bit.  Is the bow hair dirty?  If so, clean the hair.

Are your strings too heavy a gauge.  Many people like to use heavy gauges because it makes the instruments louder.  Unfortunately heavy strings make the instrument less responsive and harder to bow.

Is your rosin too hard.  The hard, light coloured rosins that many violinists use is generally too hard to work well for a dilruba or an esraj.  A softer bass rosin generally makes bowing easier.

After all of these points are considered, it brings us to the most common factor.  PRACTICE-PRACTICE-PRACTRICE!!!  Bowing is not easy and it takes a lot of practice, so have at it!!!

June 29, 2010     0 Comments  

Hindustani and Carnatic Taals

How are Carnatic and Hindustani tals different?

Carnatic and Hindustani tals are fundamentally different.  They differ in their approach to the clapping and waving as well as their approach to the“theka”.

The Carnatic system adheres to a very ancient approach to the tal.  In this approach, the tal is actually defined by the clapping and waving of the hands.  Therefore, it is extremely rare to find two tals with the same vibhagtalikhali structure.  Consequently, it is also the norm to have totally different “grooves” used within each thalam.

Conversely, the Hindustani system defines the tal by the theka.  The theka is a basic “grove” or pattern of bols.  It is very common inHindustani sangeet to have the different tals share the same pattern of clapping and waving.  For instance, punjabi thekatintal, and tilwada talsall have an identical vibhagtalikhali structure.

Are the responsibilities of the mridangam player the same as those of the tabla player?

No, there are major differences between the duties of the mridangam player and the tabla player.  The tabla player’s primary duty is that of timekeeper.  It is the tabla a player’s job to keep the whole performance together.

The mridangam player is generally not the timekeeper.  In a typical performance, the main musician, as well as half the first row of the audience, will be there to keep the tal.  This frees the mridangam player to explore elaborations that a tabla player is generally not free to do.

Is there an equivalence between Hindustani and Carnatic tals?

The fundamental differences between the Hindustani and Carnatic tals make an exact correlation between the two systems impossible.  However the following table is a rough approximation.

Carnatic and Hindustani Tals
Carnatic Hindustani
Chatusra Jati Ata Chautal, Ektal
Adi tal Tintal, Tilwada, Kaherava, Dhummali
Mishra Chapu Tivra, Rupak, Pashtu, Dipchandi
Khanda Chapu Sultal, Jhaptal
Rupakam Dadra, Khempta

Can you play tabla with Carnatic sangeet and mridangam with Hindustani sangeet?

You can play the instruments in this manner, but it is generally not done.  This would be somewhat like playing bassoon in Country-and-Western music or pedal steel guitar in a classical symphonic setting.

Do Carnatic tals have thekas?

No, Carnatic tals do not have a theka in the Hindustani sense of the word.  However, there are a number of fairly standard accompaniment patterns that are used; but these patterns do not have the same level of theoretical importance as one finds in the North.

Tal, Tala, Thalam, Talam – Which is correct?

They are all correct.  We must remember that India is a land of many languages.  Although all are derived from the Sanskrit word “Tala”, differences in pronunciation have contributed to the different spellings.

One other reason for the different spellings is the differing approaches to transliterating different Indian languages.  Identical words may be transliterated differently.  The relationship between “t” and “th” is a common example.  For instance rathna, kantha, and lalitha in the South are transliterated as ratna, kanta, and lalita in the north.


Western Musician concerning Indian Music

like that.  What you should listen for will depend upon what genre of Indian music you are dealing with.

If you is listening to North Indian classical music, there are several things that you should listen for.  The easiest component for a Western musician is to become familiar with the mode.  Beyond this mode there are certain melodic requirements and limitations.  These melodic components transform the simple mode into the rag.  Each rag has its own identity.  It is also helpful to understand how these melodic entities are set against a rhythmic framework; this is known as the tal.

What types of Indian music are there?

There are two systems of classical music (North Indian and South Indian), there are semiclassical forms such as gazal, and rabindra sangit, there are the popular forms such as filmi sangit and bangara, as well as countless varieties of folk music.

What is the difference between North Indian music and South Indian music?

Both North Indian and South Indian music are based upon common concepts such as rag (raga) and tal (tala), however there the similarity ends.  North Indian music, also known as Hindustani sangit, has many elements in common with the music of Afghanistan and Persia.  The South Indian music, known as Carnatic Sangit, shows many regional influences peculiar to the deep South.  In the last hundred years there has been a lot of mixing of rags and other musical elements, but still they are separate systems.

What is Bollywood?

Bollywood is the Bombay version of Hollywood, and relates to the film industry.  Indian movies are generally musicals and the film song is a very popular form of entertainment.

Is there Indian music notation?

Indian music is always said to be an oral tradition; this is only partly true.  Indian musical notation stretches back to the Samaveda, which is several thousand years old, so it is arguable that India has one of the oldest traditions of music notation.  Even today, notation is heavily used in education.

However, since the classical music of both North and South is so heavily dependent upon improvisation, then a strict notation is somewhat irrelevant.  Indian classical music resists notation for the same reasons that Western jazz music resists it.

Musical notation is somewhat analogous to taxidermy. Indian music tied to notation has the same relationship to the actual performance as a stuffed animal does to a living one.

Can I get sheets of Indian music in Western notation?

As of the time that I am writing this, I am unaware of any music available in staff notation.  There are however, a lot of music in traditional Indian notations.  You may wish to check out “Elementary North Indian Vocal”.

Can I enjoy Indian vocal even if I don’t understand any Indian language?

Even in India, not everybody understands the lyrics.  The singers themselves do not always understand the words that they are singing.  There are simply too many languages.  Since this is not an impediment to the enjoyment of vocal music in India, it need not be an impediment to you.

Is all Indian music in a minor scale?

Concepts such as major or minor are totally irrelevant to Indian music.  Every mode is an entity in its own right .  True, both North and South Indian systems have a concept of a “natural scale” which is referred to as “shuddha swar saptak”.  However in practice, this is simply a means to provide a base for notation and for purposed of instruction.  It does not imply in special importance in performance situations.

What is sargam?

The sargam is the traditional Indian solfege.  This is the conceptual framework around which singers and instrumentalists will function.

In North Indian music, why is Ma the only note that has a sharp?

The tivra Ma is the augmented 4th.  This difference in terminology is a recognition of some very important harmonic relationships that exist in the area of the 4th and 5th.  This is a subject that is perhaps best suited to discussions of psychoacoustics rather than traditional musicology, and is beyond the scope of this simple web page.

Why is the key not specified in Indian music?

The absolute pitch at which a performance is rendered is merely a practical detail and is not considered of any musical significance.  Whatever pitch the performers agree upon is the key.  It will vary from artist to artist, and even the same artist may change it according to his/her mood.

Does Indian music have chords?

This is rather difficult to say. In a strict academic sense the answer is yes.  There is invariably a melody set against a drone (usually a tanpura) that includes the tonic and the 5th.  By definition, the first, fifth, and anything else is a chord.  But for all practical purposes the answer is no.  Do not try and listen for chord progressions in any classical music.

However, the situation may be different with the popular genres.  Film songs have absorbed many Western influences.  For such Western inspired genres, there may be a heavy reliance upon chords.

Are the pitches in the Indian scales the same as in the Western scale?

Popular genre such as film songs may use the standard Western tempered scale.  However, traditional Indian music is definitely not based upon the tempered scale.  It is instead based upon some type of just intonation.  Therefore, the “semitones” will sometimes be more than 100 cents and at other times they will be less than 100 cents.

Although there are constant debates as to exactly what the intervals should be, we may make a few general observations.

  1. The 4th, and 5th correspond to their Western counterparts.
  2. The natural 3rd, and 6th correspond to their UNTEMPERED Western counterparts.
  3. A minor 2nd is slightly flatter when descending compared to when it is ascending.
  4. A natural 7th is slight sharper when ascending and slightly flatter when descending.
  5. The minor 3rd and the minor 6th have different intervals depending upon other scalar characteristics.

These are just rules of thumb, so they may not always be applicable.

I keep running across different spellings of musical terms, what is going on?

The variations of spelling make internet searches very difficult. After all, does one look up “rag”“raag”, or “raga”; is it “swarup”“svarup”,“swaroop”, or “svaroop”?  These variations in spelling create many practical difficulties.

There are several reasons for such wide variations.  These include such diverse factors as variations in pronunciation, limitations and inadequacies of the Roman script, and the multilingual nature of India.

Variations in pronunciation are a major factor.  For instance, is potato pronounced “po-tay-toe” or is it pronounced “po-tah-toe”.  In a similar way, different parts of India pronounce things differently.

Inadequacies in the Roman script are also a factor.  During the colonial period there was a tendency to transliterate words according to English concepts.  One may still see these tendencies in old spellings such as “tabala” or “thabala”.  With the rise in modern linguistics, there was a shift towards Germanic rules of pronunciation.  Therefore “thabala” became standardized to “tabla”.  Some Indian phonemes resist being placed into the Roman script.  For instance in India there are various shades that exist between the English “d” and “r”.  This will be expressed in confusing terms such as jod vs. jor or mukada vs mukara.  These are just a few of the difficulties that plague attempts to come up with consistent and clear transliterations.

One other reason for ambiguity stems from the multilingual nature of India; there are a lot of languages and dialects.  This will show up in things such as Been (Bengal and Northeast India) vs. Vina or Veena (South and Northwest India).

The result is absolute confusion in the spellings.

I play guitar, will it be easy to learn sitar?

They both have strings and they both have frets; there the similarity ends.  A guitar is generally thought of as an instrument for playing harmonies and chords, while a sitar must be thought of as a melodic instrument like a flute or an oboe.  If you attempt to play chords like a guitar, you will be missing the entire concept of the instrument.  How easily you make this fundamental shift in the way you conceptualize the instrument will determine how easily you can pick up then sitar.

Where can I purchase Indian instruments?

Check out the “Suppliers of Indian Music Instruments” Page.

Where can I find a teacher of Indian music?

Check out the “Performers and Teachers of Indian Music and Dance” Page.


Learning the Tabla

Do I need a teacher?

It is STRONGLY recommended.  Basic things, such as tuning the tabla, are almost impossible to learn on your own.  The technique may be learned to a limited degree by books, CDS, and videos, but there is still no substitute for a qualified teacher.

Where can I find a teacher?

A lot depends upon where you live.  If you live in India, you should have no problem finding a teacher.  If you live outside of India, it is sometimes difficult.  Here are some steps that may help.

  1. Check the “Teachers / Performers Database”.  This is an extensive list of musicians around the world. You can see if someone is listed in your area.
  2. Place a query in the “Tabla Forum”.  You can ask if someone on the forum knows of a good teacher in your area.
  3. Ask among friends.  Perhaps one of your friends might know of a good teacher.

Where can I find a set of tabla?

tablas may be purchased several ways.  If you live in India it is no problem to find a good pair.  However, for those who live outside of India, this is sometimes difficult.  Go to the “Suppliers of Indian Musical Instruments” for a list of retailers.

How much do tablas cost?

The cost is variable.  At the time of writing, the cost is roughly $175-$300 US dollars.  If you live outside the US, you should check for local pricing.

Should I get a cheap pair or should I go for a professional quality instrument?

I advise getting a medium priced pair.  Here are the reasons why.

The quality of the instrument must be high enough or you will have a hard time learning.  Production of a correct tone is sometimes impossible on instruments that are substandard.  Therefore, avoid buying a cheap pair.

However, if this is your first tabla, you are going to bugger it up.  People just do not automatically know how to tune and care for their instrument.  This is something that must be learned.  Unfortunately, this usually means that you will damage the instrument due to mishandling.  Don’t feel too bad about it, because this is all part of the learning process.  Unless you have no qualms about spoiling a good pair of tabla, try not to get the most expensive pair.

The bottom line is that a medium grade tabla is a good choice for a beginner.  It should be of high enough quality so that one can learn, but it should not be so expensive that if it is damaged you will feel so bad.

How long does a tabla last?

I have run across instruments in India where people have told me “This tabla belonged to my Great-Grandfather”.  What they are actually saying was that the wooden or metal shell belonged to their grandfather.  The lacing and heads have been replaced many times.

The lifespan of the tabla is the period that starts when it is new and goes to the point where it costs more to repair than to buy a new one.  Therefore, the lifespan is dependent on local economic conditions.  In India, the shells may be reheaded and relaced indefinitely because there is a considerable amount of cost tied up in the shells themselves.  Furthermore, labour for repairs is very cheap.  Therefore in India, the lifespan of atabla is indefinite.

Things are considerably different in the West.  As a general rule, head replacements are an economical form of maintenance, but head replacement plus replacement of the lacing cost about what a new instrument will run.  If you have a Bengali (Calcutta) style tabla, you can plan on replacing the head on average of once every 1-2 years of heavy use with an overall lifespan of 3-8 years.  A standard tabla on the other hand, will give you 2-4 years between head replacements and have an overall lifespan of 8-16 years.  These are just rough estimates.  If you misuse your instrument you can break it on the first day.  Conversely if you never tune it up and never play it, then it will last a long time.

The situation is altered tremendously if you take the time to learn how to replace the heads and lacing yourself.  In such cases the shells may be used indefinitely.  You can get a basic overview by reading “Repair and Maintenance of Tabla”.  Better still, you can pick up a copy of”Manufacture and Repair of Tabla” for the most information anywhere.

I find addresses for music stores in India, can I order directly from there?

I used to strongly recommend against this.  There were too many things that could go wrong and it was almost impossible to send it back if there was a problem.  However over the last few years, the business culture in India has progressed where it is now possible. Research your dealer on the internet, and if they have a good reputation, you might consider it.  Still ALWAYS EXERCISE GREAT CAUTION!

I have talked with other students from different teachers and their technique is different. Who is correct?

Most probably everyone is correct.  There are different styles of playing, and different techniques.  For example, a guitarist must show proficiency in various styles such as classical, rock, or flamenco, to be deemed a competent musician.  In the same way it is essential that a tabla player have proficiency in the various styles.  These styles are usually dependent on the gharana of their teachers.  Typically a teacher will start teaching in one style, then later introduce other styles.  However, there is no consensus as to which style will be taught first.

What is a Gharana?

Gharana was a system that developed in the last few centuries.  It is essentially a school or approach to tabla.  Travel used to be very difficult in India, so different geographical areas developed their own techniques.  (see Gharana)

Today the concept of gharana has become an impediment to musical training.  The system tends to promote a feeling of “our gharana is the best”.  Such a feeling, even when it is not verbalised, is crippling.  I have seen many potentially good students who have been hamstrung because they either did not know, or did not care to use, the techniques that were developed from gharanas other than their own.

The different gharanas provide different sets of tools to the musician, yet no gharana has all of the tools.  This situation was acceptable 100 years ago because audiences and musicians alike could not easily travel. You could function within a single style because your audiences were also unaware of other possibilities. Today things are different.  Audiences have heard many musicians from many gharanas.  If you only have the tools provided by one gharana, the audiences will sense your limitations, even if they are not knowledgeable enough to articulate it.  A tabla player who only performs in the style of a single gharana is like a carpenter who only has one tool.  Would you hire a carpenter who only had a saw, but no hammer or screwdriver?

How much should I spend on lessons?

This depends upon local conditions.  Check your local music store and you will get an idea as to what is average for musical instruction in your area.

How much should I practice?

You should practice as much as possible without burning out.

It is sometimes difficult to know when you are at the burnout stage.  We have all gone through periods where we were practising and making progress.  At some point we feel some difficulty.  It is normal to think that if we just practice some more, then we will get through the difficult period. Although sometimes this works, in many cases we find that we start to become tense and apprehensive.  It is important to realise that when you reach this point, you have to just stop and walk away.  Sometimes we must put our instrument away for days or even weeks.  It all depends upon the level of burnout.  When you return fresh, you will be surprised at how much easier things are then.

Is musical progress continuous or discontinuous?

Learning tabla, like learning any musical instrument, is very much a discontinuous process.  There are periods where one makes good progress.  At other times, it feels that we are not making any progress at all.  This alternation continues indefinitely.

For one who has never learned a musical instrument, the first obstacle is the most critical. It usually occurs between 1-3 months.  It is at this point that the initial enthusiasm has worn off and there is the aching realisation that learning tabla is not going to be quick and easy.  This is when a very large number of students drop out.

If one realises ahead of time, that it is a long and difficult journey, and that the first block is just one of many, it often reduces the dropout rate.  This “six week slump” is just one of many difficulties in the long road to learning tabla.  Many students mistakenly interpret this first obstacle as an indication that they are unfit to learn tabla.

I recently switched teachers.  My new teacher is telling me that everything I learned is wrong. Now I am confused.

Unfortunately this is a reflection of the political sentiments that are part of the system.  There is nothing wrong with starting over according to the new teacher’s particular style of teaching.  Relearning the basics is necessary, both so that the teacher may have a clear idea of where you stand, as well as to make sure that there are no gaps in your background.  But the common Indian habit of belittling the previous teacher is a great disservice.  If you find yourself in this situation, just take all the statements with a grain of salt, and move on with your training.


Study In India

Should I Go To India?

The first consideration is whether you should go.  This involves a number considerations such as the details of the trip, ones expectations, and even one’s state of health.

When I was living in India, I was sick for much of the first year.  It was only in subsequent years that I had built up enough immunities to function properly.  If you spend time in India you will get sick!  This “down time” will certainly adversely effect your ability to study.  If you are a healthy individual and have figured a certain amount of time lost due to ill health, than by all means have at it.  However, if you feel that it is a risk you cannot take, then you had better not go.

Can you handle the details?  These details are ordinary things as: do you have the money? Do you have the time?  Are you willing to run around taking care of all of the little details for the trip?  Although these may seem like obvious points, they are the ones which keep most people from making the journey!

The next step is to consider is what you want out of the trip; are your goals attainable in the period that you are planning.  Obviously if you have never touched a sitar, you are not going to go over and come back in a month playing like Ravi Shankar.  This is a totally unrealistic expectation.

What Are The Advantages and Disadvantages of Study In India?

There are numerous advantages to study in India; the biggest advantage is the total immersion in the culture.  Indian music is a complex interplay of fixed composition and improvisation.  This requires a certain cultural sensitivity which is difficult to get outside of India.  An analogy would be a comparison between studying the “Blues” in the Southern U.S. vs. studying them in Europe.  Although the technical side of the training may be ever so good in Europe, there are numerous musical aspects that simply do not make sense outside of the cultural framework of the rural American South.  In the same way, it is really impossible to separate Indian music from the culture of India, and the only way to really “get it” is to stay in India for some period of time.

The financial considerations for study in India are mixed.  If one has outside funds, an extended period of time in India can be very economical.  This is especially true if one is able to devote years of time to the study.  This is due to the low cost of living in India.  However, if one is only going over for a few weeks, the high cost of airfares negates the advantage of a lower cost of living.

One would think that the technical quality of training in India is superior.  This is not necessarily true.  Most of India’s top artists have a permanent presence abroad.  For example Ali Akbar Khan, Zakir Hussain and Ravi Shankar all live in California.  Other Indian artists may officially live in India but may be available for classes abroad.  It is certainly easier to take classes from them abroad than to try and track them down in India.  Furthermore, there has been a presence of Indian music in the West for around 40 years now.  In this period there has developed a small cadre of well qualified non-Indian teachers.

Still not everyone lives in places that have qualified instructors.  If your only access to a teacher is through a local expatriate Indian who does it as a hobby, then the quality of your training may not be up to your wishes.

Where Should I Go?

A major consideration is where to go in India.  The best place to go is anywhere that you have some connections.  These may be old classmates, relatives, relatives of friends, in short almost anybody that is known to you.  Such connections will make your stay easier.

You should also decide if the instruction that you are looking for is available in the place that you are considering.  Many instruments and styles have strong geographical associations.  For instance if you wish to learn Manipuri dance, then you would not wish to go to a small town in Maharashtra.  In general, you should go to places in the north for kathak, sitar, tabla, pakhawaj and Hindustani vocal.  Conversely the South is the best place to learn bharath nathyam, veena, mridangam, or Carnatic vocal.

You should also consider the local political situation.  Periodically certain areas are designated as “disturbed areas”.  Visas normally will not even allow you into such areas.  Do not go there, you certainly will not get any musical study done.

How Do I Find a Teacher?

Finding a teacher is not as easy as one may think.  It is certainly not as easy as one may wish.  Still, with perseverance, and a little luck, this is not a major obstacle.

The lack of an accessible infrastructure is the major obstacle in finding a good teacher.  The role of infrastructure is easily seen with the following example:

Let us say that you arrive in New York City and decide that you wish to take a few lessons in guitar.  You go to the local music store, ask around, check the shop’s registry, read the bulletin boards and find a dozen guitar teachers.  You then go, home make a few calls, enquire about prices, get a basic idea as to the personality of the teacher, make an appointment and start training.  The whole process can be accomplished in one morning.

It is fast in the West because there is an infrastructure in place to facilitate such activities; unfortunately there is no such infrastructure behind the study of Indian music.  You do not just walk up to musician in India and say “I want to study from you”.  If you are a non-Indian, such an approach may get things started, but certainly not on the right footing.  Such an approach will invariably cost you either money, time, or peace of mind.

Finding a teacher in India must be accomplished by way of an intermediary.  (Virtually everything in India must be accomplished by way of an intermediary.)  You need to have a person who is known to both you, and the teacher.  You and the intermediary both go and meet with the teacher and discuss the matter.  It is very important to have the intermediary make the financial arrangements; do not even attempt to do this yourself.

There always arises the question of whether to go for the big name artists or the lesser known ones.

There are advantages and disadvantages to studying under a well known artist.  One advantage of a well known artist is that you can presume that they are good and know their subject.  Another advantage of the well known artist is that it is always a plus to say that you have studied under so-and-so.  The disadvantage is that they are often so busy that they are not able to give you the attention you need.

Learning under a lesser known artist also, has advantages and disadvantages.  First of all, being less well-known does not necessarily mean not skilled or knowledgeable.  Being a famous artist is more a question of business acumen and luck rather than skill or knowledge.  Therefore, it is common to find less well known artists who are more skilled at their music, more knowledgeable and better teachers than some “big name” artists.  Finding such an artist who will teach you may be your best bet.  However, many less well-known artists are unsuccessful because they are not very good.  You do not wish to waste your time with an artist who does not come up to the mark.

What Are My Obligations As a Student?

There are numerous obligations as a student of Indian music.  Some of which are social and others are financial.

As a student you will naturally be expected to pay for the classes.  The financial arrangements with the teacher involve two things.  There is an initial offering, known as guru dakshana and then there are the usual fees.  The costs are generally higher in the big cites and lower in the smaller towns.  Costs are also higher for well known artists and lower for lesser known ones.  Often times, the teacher is reluctant to come right out and tell you how much it will cost for fear of appearing mercenary.  In such circumstances your intermediary should be able to help

There is a basic musico-political and social structure in which you will be placed.  In the North, this structure is known as gharana.  The wordgharana literally means “The house of the teacher”.  When you are studying you are expected to look upon members of your gharana, especially the other co-students, as though they were family members.

There are obvious advantages and disadvantages of this relationship.  The obvious advantage is that you will have people who can help you in day-to-day activities.  They will also help you in your studies and share their musical experiences with you.  However, this relationship has certain obligations that you must be prepared for.  For instance do not be surprised if they show up on your doorstep some day.  Remember, if you accept help, you must be prepared at some point to give help.  This relationship also implies certain restrictions, for instance, after some time if you feel that you wish to study under someone else, you will not be allowed to.  This would be the ultimate insult to your teacher.  The only acceptable conditions for changing teachers are the death of ones teacher or a shift in ones residency.

It is obvious that as a student you should always be respectful of both your teacher as well as your co-students (guru bhai / bahin).

There is an unfortunate tendency in India to deride other musicians and students of other teachers.  Do not fall into this trap.  It will do you no good and will most likely come back to haunt you later!

All in all, if one knows the etiquette involved and one has a good teacher it can be a very good experience.

What Problems May I Encounter?

There are a number of problems that you will encounter.  There are the obvious ones of time-management, health, and finances; however the most major ones are cultural.

One cultural difference concerns the teacher / student relationship.  In the West this relationship is very simple.  One pays the fees, one then gets instruction and that is the extent of the relationship.  But in India, the relationship is extremely complex and you have to know how to “play by the rules”.  The non-Indian is rarely conversant with the customs involved.  (see “What are my obligations …” for more information)

One other cultural difference which may create problems is in the different approach to time.  This will be a major problem if you are only going to be in India for a few weeks.  If you do not have strong contacts in India, it is likely that it may take 1-3 weeks simply to make connections with the teacher.  At his point you are probably getting uncomfortable because you are very aware that you must leave India shortly.  You must not forget that although you feel a tremendous pressure for time, your teacher does not.  As the time continues your discomfort turns to panic as you know you must leave and you do not feel that you have received enough material.  It is very common to see students who have left India under such circumstances feeling very discouraged.

If you find yourself in this situation do not blame the teacher; it is not his/her fault.  There are basic cultural differences here that you were not able to bridge.  Your teacher may feel that he was giving you material very fast while you may be totally convinced that he was going too slow.

Another cultural difference is in the concept of the nature of your study of music.  You may feel that you need as much material as possible.  Your teacher, on the other hand, may feel that it is the relationship that is important.  He may feel that the period of study is so long that it really does not make any difference whether you learn one bandish or five.  For that matter, he may feel that it really makes no difference if in your entire stay you learn nothing more than a few exercises.  (Actually I think that you will find that your teacher is right!)


Raag Tilak Kamod

The structure of Tilak Kamod is quite pleasant.  Some musicians maintain that the vadi is Sa and the samvadi is Pa.  Others claim that Re is thevadi.  It is Shadav-Sampurna due to the omission of Dha in the arohana.  It is performed in the second part of the night. Continue Reading →

June 26, 2010     0 Comments

Raag Purvi

Purvi is considered to be the fundamental rag in Purvi That.  It is performed around sunset (Sandhi Prakash).  There are two philosophies concerning this rag. Continue Reading →


Raag Mian Ki Todi

Todi, also known as Mian-ki-Todi (Miyan-ki-Thodi), is a very common morning rag.  However, there is a certain disagreement as to its structure.  According to some, all seven notes are used in both the ascending and descending structures; according to this approach, this rag is sampurna – sampurna. Continue Reading →


Raag Marwa

Rag Marwa is considered to be the most fundamental rag in Marwa That.  It is an evening rag that is quite popular.  This rag is unusual in that the tonic is not harmonically well defined; there is no pancham (5th) and the madhyam is tivra rather than shuddha (i.e., there is no natural 4th).  It is this harmonic imbalance that gives marwa its peculiar character.  Considering this imbalance, rag marwa has a surprisingly simple structure.  Reis the vadi and Dha is the samvadi.  It is shadav – shadav due to the total exclusion of pancham (the 5th).  One well known song in this rag is “Payalia Banwari Bhaje“.  Marwa’s characteristics are:




Shadav – Shadav




Marwa That


Sa – Dha


Raag Malkauns

Rag Malkauns (A.K.A. Malkosh) is a very popular rag in the North Indian system (Hindustani Sangeet).  In the South it is known asHindolam.  It is a pentatonic rag that has has the five notes Sa, Komal Ga, Ma, Komal Dha, and Komal Ni. Continue Reading →