Anuradha Pal, the country’s first professional woman tabla artiste, who is performing in the city today speaks to Chitra Swaminathan about her struggles and successes
She hurriedly bites into a cold sandwich as she brushes her long tresses to get ready to face the camera. “I have had no lunch and I need to catch up on some sleep too,” she says adjusting her glittering bindi. “After a concert in Nasik I drove back to Mumbai late in the night to fly to Chennai and make it to a press conference here. Add to this a much-delayed flight and chaotic traffic. It’s been quite crazy,” says Anuradha Pal with no trace of fatigue though. “Music gives you that energy to keep going,” smiles India’s first professional woman tabla player.
Clad in a maroon silk salwar kameez with a hint of make up, Anuradha’s feminine elegance belies her power-play on the tabla. “Grace and grit can co-exist beautifully. You don’t have to dress and behave like a man to survive in a male bastion. I am not here to prove a point. Playing the tabla is my passion and I haven’t let anything, not even gender bias, come in between,” stresses Anuradha.
Handling admiration, fame and cynicism with equal ease, she is today a front-ranking solo artiste who also accompanies seasoned musicians such as Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and most importantly, the rhythm wizard, Ustad Zakir Hussain. Her classical outings with the aces in the field began when she was in her teens.
“It wasn’t easy to convince them about my dedication, win their confidence and gain audience acceptance. But I was mentally prepared for the challenges and struggles when I took to learning the tabla at age 10 after realising my flair for rhythm. My parents, scientist-father Devinder Pal and painter-mother Ela, always encouraged my brother and me to follow our hearts but they also cautioned me about the difficult choice I had made. But when nothing seemed to deter me they lent complete support,” says Anuradha, who has also found an understanding soulmate in Shyam Sharma. “After my marriage some people commented ‘now she will have to stop performing’. Fortunately, my constant travel and long practice sessions have never irked Shyam. I performed a concert on the day of my wedding! I have never let domestic issues come in the way of my musical commitments,” says Anuradha, known for her dynamic percussive patterns.
She is as comfortable with following the tradition of her Punjab gharana (she has imbibed the nuances of all the five gharanas) as she is with indulging in genre-free music. For Anuradha creativity is about extending frontiers, thinking beyond divides and being honest to the art. Through years of my interactions with veteran artistes I have learnt to take and give music with an open mind.”
The youngest and the only female Indian musician to have performed at the prestigious Woodstock festival, this tabla virtuoso has collaborated with several international artistes. “Such mergers have helped me understand sound in its entirety and different musical cultures,” she says. In her upcoming album that she plans to release by the end of this year, Anuradha is trying to showcase the melodic quality of the tabla and her prowess at playing various instruments such as the darbuka, uduku and the drums.
“The tabla is a physically demanding instrument for a woman but I think it’s more about mental discipline and hard training. I never expected my gurus to be lenient towards me because I am a woman. I remember telling Ustad Alla Rakha ‘please treat me like you would your sons when teaching’. Of course, I always had to make an extra effort to prove my sincerity and skill to my seniors and audiences.” Anuradha recalls a concert at Kota when she could hear disapproving murmurs when she entered the stage with the tabla to accompany sarangi exponent Ustad Sultan Khan. “I was just 15 and extremely nervous. Sultan Khan saheb looked at me and said ‘Karishma dikha do tum kya cheez ho’ (Wonder girl, show them what you are). But when the concert ended, I was gheraoed by admirers.”
Such challenges inspired Anuradha to form Stree Shakti, a band of woman artistes. The band has travelled across India and performed at several international music festivals. “I remember how this six-member band managed to be heard loud and clear against a strong 56-member African band at a festival in London. We looked like midgets in front of those towering men. Yet we stood out…musically,” she smiles.
(Anuradha Pal performs today as part of Chathurbujam by 21 Events at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall, 7 p.m.)