The past decade has been one of struggle for Retnasree as she travelled far and wide in search of gurus and systematic training
Percussion is may no longer a bastion that is exclusive to men. However, in South India, perhaps there is only one female professional tabla artiste – Retnasree Iyer from Vaikom, As of today, who plays the tabla in the Hindustani style. The past decade has been one of struggle for Retnasree as she travelled far and wide in search of gurus and systematic training. She is now a regular performer for solos at festivals and as an accompanist to Hindustani vocalists and instrumentalists. Retnasree was all set for a ghazal accompaniment in Ottappalam when she spoke at length about her tireless pursuit to soar high in the field of her choice. Excerpts:
Tabla, a fascination
I was exposed to music at a young age as my elder brother was a dancer and rehearsals were common in our house. Among the instruments, the tabla appealed to me. I would try playing it without anyone noticing me. However, sans any systematic training, I won prizes in the district school youth festival competitions, representing Government High School, Thalayolaparambu. My father, Ramachandra Iyer, took note of my interest and took me to Karikode Chellappan Master at Vazhur. He taught me the basics.Chellappan master was a disciple of Nayik master of Kochi.
Chellappan master was instrumental in directing me to Hyderabad for higher studies. There I joined a three-year diploma course at Koti Sriramulu Telugu University. I also did my graduation in Chemistry at the Devaswom Board College, Thalayolaparambu. My guru in Hyderabad, Jayakant master, was a disciple of Pandit Aravind Mulgoankar of Farruakhabad gharana. I was lucky to participate in many concerts during this period, thanks to my guru.
In search of varied styles
There are around six gharanas in tabla-playing and each school has its own style. I was determined to learn all the six gharanas as it would make it easier for me to accompany artistes from different schools. It also enables me to play for any musical form such as Dhrupad, Thumri, Tappa and so on. I went to Anuradha Pal in Mumbai, who belongs to the Punjab gharana. She is a disciple of Ustad Alla Rakha and Zakhir Hussain. Thereafter I joined the Akhil Bharatiya Gandharva Maha Mandal of Mumbai that had an examination centre at Thiruvananthapuram. The course is for senior Visarad. I also joined a post-graduate degree course in tabla at the Shivaji University, Kolhapur. I have completed my first year now.
Equipping for solos
It is not just the bols,but the modes of playing are different for different schools. While some insist on open hand technique, as used in the playing of Pakawaj, gharanas like the Delhi, for instance, are very particular about the use of fingers. I am now learning the tabla under Ustad Faiz Khan of Dharward. He is well-versed in varieties of compositions, especially those that belong to the old traditional styles. Compositions are like narratives with special themes. This style is yet to get popularised in Kerala. In the Banaras gharana, there are compositions of mantras specially composed for the tabla. In most of the gharanas, the compositions begin with ‘peshkar’ that is like an alap. But in the Banaras style, it begins with ‘Utan’ which is very forceful. ‘Kayda’, comes next. Knowledge of these enables one to expand the solo performance to two to three hours.
In fine company
So far I have accompanied quite a few stalwarts, including my guru Ustad Faiz Khan, T.V. Gopalakrishnan, Dr. Sree Ram Parasuram, Abhradita Banerjee, Shenkottai Harihara Subramaniam , Haridas (santoor), Krishnakumar (sitar), Paulson (sitar), Kudamaloor Janardanan (flute) and Soundararajan (veena), to mention a few. Yes, some of them are for Carnatic music concerts. And that is the advantage of the instrument: its adaptability. I have also accompanied Utsava Lal from Ireland who was on a tour of India a few years ago. He plays Hindustani music on the piano. In India, he played in four major cities and was accompanied by Anuradha Pal except in Kochi, where I was selected to accompany him. This was really memorable. I have been performing at the Soorya Festival, Thiruvananthapuram, for the last three years. There have been many invitations from Chennai, Meerut, Miraj (Maharashtra) for solo and accompaniment too.
In Kerala, the opportunity for pure Hindustani concerts are limited. Ghazals are common. Even at the All India Radio, I am invited to accompany light music. But many youngsters are opting for Hindustani music these days, though.
In the role of guru
I have 10 regular students at Vaikom. I am proud to say that at the recent CBSE festivals and Keralotsavams my students won prizes.