By Neha Kirpal
While high-schoolers usually look forward to spending their summer vacation enjoying with their friends and family, Anuradha Pal’s heart would beat to another rhythm. Throughout her school and college days, she would do a chilla during her summer holidays – a backbreaking routine of practising the tabla for 10 hours daily for 40 days at a stretch.
The many years of hard labour evidently paid off. Recognised by the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Limca Book of Records as the first woman tabla player in India, Anuradha is the recipient of 108 awards and citations.
She won the ‘First Ladies award’ by the President of India in 2018 for being the first female and youngest Indian musician to have performed at two among the world’s biggest music festivals, Woodstock and WOMAD. Till date, she has performed in 5,000 concerts in prestigious festivals in over 30 countries.
Anuradha’s parents were both accomplished professionals who urged her to excel in studies and sports as well as learn Indian classical music. Many great musicians who regularly visited her home noticed her rhythmic flair and encouraged her to learn the tabla. So, she began learning both Indian classical vocal and tabla at the age of six.
As a child prodigy at the age of nine, she started giving solo tabla performances on Doordarshan and All India Radio, accompanying vocalists and instrumentalists.
As she grew older, she was deeply influenced by tabla maestros Ustad Alla Rakha and Ustad Zakir Hussain, who once even applauded Anuradha as one of the earliest female percussionists to break out without worrying what the social repercussions might be.
To further her understanding of the historical, theoretical and developmental nuances of raag sangeet and the contribution of the traditional gharanas in music, Anuradha completed a Master’s in Indian music with a specialisation in tabla.
Further, with much self-study, introspection and several hours of daily riyaaz, she mastered the six gharanas of tabla and Carnatic tala shastra. This firm foundation helped her to innovate and create an interactive tabla Jugalbandi (instrumental duet) with herself as well as three bands.
Needless to say, coming from a non-musical background and being a female in a male-dominated field and society was not easy. “I had to develop the gall and conviction to defy all odds, discrimination and societal prejudice with grit, hard work and talent,” she recalls. “I was determined to be strong, focused, disciplined, courageous and committed to my goal of convincing the sceptics with the quality and depth of my talent.”
However, she feels there are several reasons why many women have traditionally not been tabla players. According to her, it is a physically demanding instrument that requires a lot of energy, perseverance and focussed riyaaz to be able to seamlessly accompany different instrumentalists, vocalists and dancers.
“Moreover, the tabla player needs to be able to practise, travel and work with a variety of male musicians, dancers and singers, which may not be allowed for girls from restrictive families,” says Anuradha, whose song Dancing Rain marked India’s 75th year of independence, and was spiced with a multi-layered collaboration of 18 percussion instruments from Africa, Latin America, India, and the Far East, all played and composed by Anuradha.
While the tabla instrument usually provides the beat and sets the rhythm in the traditional Indian orchestra, Anuradha managed to bring the instrument front and centre too. She presented the first background score using only tabla and voice in artist-filmmaker MF Husain’s film Gaja Gamini (1999), which was greatly appreciated at the Cannes Film Festival.
She’s paving the way for other women in the field too. Anuradha’s band Stree Shakti, the first-ever all-female percussion-based, instrumental-vocal music band, has provided a valuable and supportive platform to upcoming and deserving women artists from the folk and classical genres as well as concerts in prestigious festivals.
Having travelled the globe to teach Indian rhythm and tabla at prestigious universities in the US, Europe, Japan, Australia and India, Anuradha was inspired to form a world fusion band called Recharge!, which combined Indian and jazz music with African, Latin and Indian percussion, and another band, SuFoRe, which combines Sufi, folk and classical music.
Research has shown that music has healing properties and playing or learning classical music can help evolve life skills. Through her own first-hand experiences, Anuradha introduced and created the concept of ‘rhythm rider’, meaning ‘inculcating certain values and methods to use rhythm/tabla to ride through life with ease’.
She teaches this to her students at the Anuradha Pal Cultural Academy through its regular and online classes. Further, she has contributed to research on the effects of music and the brain at universities such as Harvard.
Anuradha believes that the tabla has gone global today and has immense potential. To prove her point, she has also collaborated with painting, poetry, Jazz, African, Latin, Flamenco, New Age and other world music genres as well as composed numerous fusion, classical and folk albums and instructional video training modules, films, documentaries and music albums.
“Music is my life, my oxygen. It is an ocean and no matter how much you learn or practise, you are forever a student,” she concludes.
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