Opposite the Palavakkam mosque on East Coast Road, a narrow lane runs past Nayab Stores, a specialist in Basmati rice. Yet, behind the counter that is lined with packets of vermicelli and spices, a man named H.M. Fazlullah, is a specialist in his own right.
Better known by his artist name Fazlur Rehman Kanchwala, this 70-year-old man continues to uphold the tradition of a rare art form called ‘Kanch Tarang.'
Sitting in a half- kneeled position, Mr. Fazlullah, holds two thick glass slabs in each hand to demonstrate the notes which he says mimics the notes of the tabla. The dimension of the glass slabs is what sets the rhythm. “For a single rhythm, a very thin instrument is enough”. Fazlullah was 12 years old, when he first played this instrument. “The glass slabs did not fit into my small hands then. If I held one, the other would fall,” he laughs, adding it took him six months to get used to it. However, since he hailed from a community that did not encourage the arts, he says he used to hide the slabs in-between his books in his school bag. “When I reached the school, my classmates used to bang the desks to set the rhythm and that is how I used to practice,” he recalls.
After several years of such clandestine practise sessions, Mr. Fazlullah, was caught one day when a neighbour called him by his artist name in front of his father. “That night, my father asked me about my hobby and surprisingly, encouraged me to pursue it by learning from a tabla player,” he says.
After watching a live performance by Ustad Abdul Rehman Kanchwala at the Raja Annamalai Mandram, Mr. Fazlullah decided to become the Ustad's disciple. “During the ‘50s and ‘60s, there were altogether only six people learning from the Ustad,” he says.
This art, which he calls his hobby and not his profession, has taken him through the length and breadth of South India. “My most memorable performance, though, was in the Dargah in Ajmer in November 1992,” he says. “I was permitted to play in a venue in which only harmonium, dholak and tabla players were allowed to perform,” he says proudly. His penchant for playing with different glass types recently took him to a locomotive shed to collect discarded glass. “The best part about this instrument is that I can wrap it up in a handkerchief and put it in a small bag and carry it around,” he says., as he makes his way back into his shop.