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  • Meher Nigam

India's 7 Greatest Tabla Players of All Time

An integral part of Indian Classical Music, Tabla is one of the most popular musical instruments worldwide. Because of its diversity in many other music styles, today Tabla is one of the most used percussion instruments. While the history of tabla is unknown, modern research suggests that it was invented around 1738 by poet, singer, drummer, and scholar Amir Khusro. This led to invention of a new music style called Khayal.

Over the years, tabla has had various Gharanas like the Delhi Gharana, Punjab Gharana, Benaras Gharana, and the Lucknow Gharana. But do you know who all are the most loved, respected and celebrated Tabla artists in the world?

Not to worry, we bring you our favourite tabla players of all time. So, go on, read, learn and get inspired!

1. Ustad Allah Rakha (29 April. 1919 – 3 Feburary 2000)

Ustad Allah Rakha, popularly known as Abbaji by his loved ones and close disciples, was a tabla maestro hailing from Jammu and Kashmir. He was 12 years old when he had his first encounter with the Tabla while he was visiting his uncle in Gurdaspur. His love for Indian Classical Music led him to Lahore, where he became a Shagird (disciple) of Ustad Mian Khadarbaksh Pakhawaji and learned the style of the Punjab Gharana. Later, Mian Khadarbaksh called him the next head of the Punjab Gharana of tabla players. Not many people know, but Ustad Allah Rakha also had a strong connection with theatre, and worked with a theatre company for several years. In 1930, he started working with All India Radio station in Lahore. Later in 1940, he moved to Bombay and became that station’s first solo tabla player. He has also composed music for Hindi Films under the name A.R. Qureshi. His partnership with Pandit Ravi Shankar began in the 1950s and they presented Indian Classical Music to a wide audience in the west. His performances at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and the Woodstock Festival in 1969 are fondly remembered, and the duo performed in many festivals later on. Other than Pandit Ravi Shankar, he also worked with renowned Kathak dancers like Smt. Sitara Devi and Pandit Birju Maharaj. In 1986, he established the Allah Rakha Institute of Music in Bombay and was later awarded with the Padma Shree in 1977 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1982. Talking about his personal life, Ustad had 2 marriages and 5 children. His son and disciple Ustad Zakir Hussain is one of the most celebrated Tabla artists in the country today. He was extremely close to his daughter Razia. The news of her death caused a fatal heart attack to Ustad Allah Rakha, leading to his death in the year 2000.

Follow this link to hear some of his music on YouTube - Ravi Shankar, Alla Rakha - Tabla Solo in Jhaptal

2. Ustad Zakir Hussain (born 9 March, 1951)

A tabla virtuoso, Zakir was a child prodigy and started his career at the age of 12. He is the eldest son and shagird of Ustad Allah Rakha. Noted as an international phenomenon, in 1970 he went to the United States to accompany sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar which led to a never-ending series of concerts and performances. Zakir has performed at several music festivals and been a part of prestigious projects like Shakti, Planet Drum and Global Drum Project with Mickey Hart, Tabla Beat Science, Sangam with Charles Lloyd and Eric Harland. and CrossCurrents with Dave Holland and Chris Potter. A Grammy award winner, Zakir has been a recipient of several awards and honors like the Padma Shree and Padma Bhusan, the Sangeet Natak Academi Award, Kalidas Samman to name a few. He resided as a fulltime professor for the 2005-2006 semester at Princeton University. In 2019, he received 2 doctorates, one from the Berklee College of Music, and the other from Indira Kala Sangit University in Khairagarh, India. Zakir does not perform at private gatherings and corporate events as he believes that music should be the only purpose of an event, and not a sideline.

Check out these highly rated tabla set on Amazon

3. Pandit Shankar Ghosh (10 October 1935 – 22 January 2016)

A tabla maestro from the Farukhabad gharana of Hindustani Classical music, Pandit Shankar Ghosh is noted as one of the greatest artists of all time. He had a number of gurus he trained under, namely Pandit Anath Nath Ghosh of Bengal, Ustad Feroz Khan of Punjab Gharana and under Pandit Sudharshan Adhikari of Lucknow. In the year 1953, he started his training under Pandit Gyan Prakash Ghosh who founded the Culcatta Gharana. Over the years, he accompanied several artists in their tours including Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Girja Devi, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee and Smt. Akhtari Bai. He is specially remembered for his unique all drum orchestra called the 'Music of Drums', formed in 1970s. Later, it was renamed the 'Culcatta Drum Orchestra'. His collaboration with the overseas group 'The Grateful Dead' marks his interest in fusion music. He is a recipient of ITC Sangeet Research Academy award and Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan award. Also known as a teacher, he has educated several students in Kolkata, Paris and Bon. He married Sanjukta Ghosh, a Hindustani vocalist and together they had a son – Bikram Ghosh. Later on, Bikram Ghosh went on to become a great tabla artist himself. He died in January 2016, after staying in coma for 40 days. Deeply missed by several musicians and music lovers, the fraternity lost a great accompanist, a solo performer and one of the most brilliant artists. His son, Pandit Bikram Ghosh carries his legacy forward.

Follow this link to hear some of his music on YouTube - Tabla legend Shankar Ghosh in conversation with his son Bickram | Music of India

4. Pandit Udhai Mazumdar (born 28 March, 1970)

Born in a family of musicians and fine artists of Allahabad, Pandit Udhai Mazumdar is a celebrated name in the field of Indian Classical Music today. His father, late Partho Sarathy Mazumdar, was a well-known Indian guitarist. Much like most musicians, Udhai’s first interaction with music was singing. It was in 1981 when he started his taleem in tabla from Pandit Ashoutosh Bhattacharya. Later his love for music took him to Delhi where he became a disciple of Sitar maestro, Pandit Ravi Shankar, under the Guru Shishya Parampara. Udhai has, and continues to, perform at prestigious festivals. His performances include that for the Royal families of Sweden and Britain, Durgalal Festival, Saptak Festival and the International Folk Festival Hungary to name a few. Udhai has also been recorded and interviewed at Radio France, Radio DRS, Switzerland, BBC TV etc. In addition, he has many CDs under his belt. This includes Journey, Kabir, Echoes from India etc. Presently he is based in Switzerland, but visits India quite often for his performances. He is involved in the process of teaching and some of his senior disciples include kathak artist Namrrata Raai, Bhaskar Das and Piu Nandi.

Follow this link to hear some of his music on YouTube - Pankhio e kal shor karyo by Uday Mazumdar at Gujarati jalso Day 3

5. Anuradha Pal

Born to the painter-writer Ida Pal, Anuradha started her tabla training under Shree Manikrao Popatkar and Pandit Madan Mishra, Banaras Gharana and later became a ganda bandhan shagird of Ustad Allah Rakha and Ustad Zakir Hussain of Punjab Gharana. She is regarded as the first professional female tabla virtuoso in the world (by Encyclopedia Britannica & Limca Book of Records). She gave her first performance at the age of 10, and was described as Lady Zakir Hussain by Maharashtra Times at the age of 17. Over the years, she has accompanied musicians such as Pandit Jasraj, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Smt. Girja Devi as well as Jazz, Latin, Folk musicians. Her accomplishments also include her performances at festivals such as the Festival of India (Brazil), BBC Music Live Festival (Scotland), Woodstock Festival (Poland), Theatre de la ville (France) and many others. She has numerous awards and accolades under her name, like the Zee Astitva Award, Taal Ratna by Bhatkhande Lalit Shiksha Samiti, and the Best Musician Award by Pandit Jasraj. Anuradha has completed her masters in music and contributes in research at several Ivy league universities. She takes classes in her institution called the Anuradha Pal Cultural Academy based in Mumbai. She is also the founder-director of Sur-Saaz, a music label. In the male dominated field of Tabla, Anuradha’s journey is inspiring and has been a root cause of encouragement to women tabla players.

Follow this link to hear some of her music on YouTube - Celebrating womanhood: Anuradha Pal performs tabla jugalbandi

6.Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri (born 30 March, 1945)

A phenomenon in the field of Indian Classical music, Swapan Chaudhuri is one of the most respected tabla artists in the world. Swapan’s training in tabla began when he was just 5 years old, under Guru Pandit Santosh Krishna Biswas, an exponent of the Lucknow Gharana. He holds a master's degree in Music and a degree in economics from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Over the years, he has accompanied many artists like Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Jasraj and Pandit Birju Maharaj. Moreover, he has taught tabla at various universities and music institutions. Presently, he serves as the Director of Percussion at the Ali Akbar College of Music in USA and Switzerland. Swapan has been honored with many awards and accolades, including the prestigious Padmashree and the Sangeet Natak Akademi from the Government of India, and a doctorate of Letters from Rabindra Bharathi University, Kolkata. Also, he has been nominated into the International Percussive Arts Society’s Hall of Fame. Swapan Chaudhari is an inspiration for all the budding artists today. He resides in California with his wife and sons. Follow this link to hear some of his music on YouTube - Pt Swapan Chaudhuri: Tabla Solo - Part One

7.Pandit Vijay Ghate (born 18 October, 1964)

Popularly known as the God Gifted Tabla Nawaz, Vijay was born in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. He started learning tabla at a very young age of 3 and completed his Visharad by the time he was 12. At 15, he received a scholarship in National Talent from Government Institute in Delhi. When he was 16, he moved to Mumbai for his training under Pandit Suresh Talwalkar. Truly, he was a child prodigy. Vijay has performed at various festivals nationally and internationally as well as accompanied music maestros like Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ustad Bismillah Khan and international artists like Larry Coryell, Louis Banks etc. He has worked on a lot of Carnatic fusions with M.S. Gopalkrishnan and U. Srinivas. He is also a visiting faculty at Codart University of Arts, Rotterdam. He is a recipient of Pandit Jasraj Puruskar, Saraswati Bai Rane Puruskar and in 2014, he received the Padmasree, the 4th highest civilian award of India. Follow this link to hear some of his music on YouTube - Pt. Hariprasad and Pt. Vijay Ghate BEST JUGALBANDI

So many festivals, so many performances, so many awards. But so much sacrifice, so many hours of riyaaz, and probably so many struggles. We often dream about being superstars in our respective fields, but we must acknowledge the fact that all that glory comes with years of patience. We hope that the stories of these 5 amazing artists make you value and respect your new hobby more and makes you determined to be a tabla maestro one day yourself. Don’t worry, all it takes is sheer determination and who knows, in another few years Skyshot might publish your story as well.

Enjoy your practice a bit more today. And we wish all the best in your journey!

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Written by: Meher Nigam, Skyshot Arts and Entertainment

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Dec 19, 2022

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