Us­ing an In­dian drum to cre­ate mod­ern mu­sic

The News-Times - - FROM THE FRONT PAGE - By Justin Papp

NOR­WALK — Mi­lan Gana­tra is at once a tra­di­tion­al­ist and a pro­gres­sive. For much of his life, the 21-year-old Nor­walk man has striven for mas­tery of the tabla, an In­dian per­cus­sion in­stru­ment com­prised of two drums used in Hin­dus­tani clas­si­cal mu­sic dat­ing to the 18th cen­tury.

He be­lieves the in­stru­ment should be played in the con­ven­tional style, while sit­ting cross-legged on the floor, rather than stand­ing up — a style some soloists have be­gun to em­ploy.

“Peo­ple are for­get­ting the clas­si­cal mu­sic side of it. It’s not just tabla, it’s sitar, there’s sarod (a gui­tar-like stringed in­stru­ment) there’s bansuri (In­dian flute),” Gana­tra said. “There are so many in­stru­ments that are be­ing for­got­ten that we re­ally need to bring them back.”

On the other hand, Gana­tra wants to see tabla uti­lized more, not just in clas­si­cal In­dian mu­sic, but in con­tem­po­rary and Western mu­sic and he wants to hear its sound spread into the main­stream.

“I want to jam in Wash­ing­ton Square Park with a sax­o­phone. That’s my dream,” Gana­tra said. “I love to ex­per­i­ment with other in­stru­ments. Why not col­lab­o­rate? Why not ex­per­i­ment?”

Gana­tra’s two de­sires seem­ingly work in op­po­si­tion to each other — he ad­vo­cates for preser­va­tion, but also sees a need to push for­ward. And he be­lieves both are at­tain­able.

Born in the western In­dian state of Gu­jarat, Gana­tra be­gan play­ing the in­stru­ment when he was 7, after his grand­fa­ther, him­self a singer, no­ticed his ap­ti­tude for mak­ing beats on the kitchen ta­ble.

He was hooked up with a teacher, called a guru, who lived down the road from his fam­ily, and he be­gan tak­ing in­tense daily les­sons. For hours, Gana­tra would play un­til his fin­gers, which are used to strike the in­stru­ment’s goatskin mem­brane, be­came cal­lused and strong.

“I had blis­ters, my hands were bleed­ing. But that’s the fun of it,” Gana­tra said. “I asked my guru, ‘What do I do about this?’ He told me, ‘Go out­side, find a rock, go play on it. That will make your fin­gers stronger.’”

Though he lived far from the cap­i­tal city, Gana­tra was taught in the Delhi gha­rana in which his guru spe­cial­ized. Gha­ranas, or “schools,” are ways of play­ing tabla that vary ge­o­graph­i­cally.

“They play dif­fer­ent, they sound dif­fer­ent, the way they hit the drum is dif­fer­ent, but at the end of the day you can still sit down with that per­son and fig­ure out what he or she is play­ing,” Gana­tra said. “It’s kind of like our food, it’s kind of like our cul­ture.”

The Delhi gha­rana is the old­est in all of In­dia, and was the first to in­cor­po­rate im­pro­vi­sa­tion, which Gana­tra said he uses of­ten.

Aside from a few month break in the months fol­low­ing his fam­ily’s move from In­dia to Nor­walk when Gana­tra was 14, he’s played in the style with­out pause.

In the last seven years he’s made a name for him­self in Fair­field County and in New York — where works as an in­tel­li­gence an­a­lyst at the Bronx County District At­tor­ney Of­fice and is study­ing for his mas­ters in en­ter­prise an­a­lyt­ics at Pace Univer­sity — in the small world of In­dian mu­sic as a per­former and teacher.

One of his stu­dents, Des­mond Hussey, 58, of Wil­ton, first got a taste for the sitar and tabla lis­ten­ing to Bea­tles songs like “Within You, With­out You” and “To­mor­row Never Knows,” that drew on In­dian sounds. He was later ex­posed to record­ings by leg­ends like Ravi Shankar and Ali Ak­bar Khan and be­came en­am­ored.

“What I don’t think a lot of peo­ple un­der­stand is the com­plex­ity of the drums. They have a lot of dif­fer­ent parts and you can cre­ate a lot of dif­fer­ent sounds,” Hussey said. “It’s a highly mu­si­cal in­stru­ment in a way most drums aren’t.”

The tabla is ac­tu­ally two drums. The daya is smaller, higher pitched and played with the fin­gers of the right hand, and the baya. Typ­i­cally, the daya is made out of shee­sham and mango tree wood and, like its larger and bassier coun­ter­part, the baya, can be tuned by ad­just­ing leather straps that con­trol the taut­ness of the drum’s mem­brane.

“At its sim­plest form, you can just hit the drum in a cou­ple places and make very res­o­nant sounds that can be very med­i­ta­tive,” Hussey said. “But it’s an ex­tremely dif­fi­cult in­stru­ment to mas­ter, be­cause the mas­ters of tabla have to have re­ally fast hands and have to play in­cred­i­bly com­plex se­quences.”


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