Tabla maestro Anuradha Pal speaks to ANJANA RAJAN about breaking barriers and stereotypes
Ordinary folks may depend on their dose of caffeine to prise themselves out from the embrace of sleep every morning. For tabla maestro Anuradha Pal, though, it is a session with her instrument that gets her moving. The Mumbai-based artiste, passing through the Capital on her way from the Haridas Sangeet Sammelan in Vrindavan, tells her host one groggy morning, “Riyaaz ke baad hi neend khulegi, bhook khulegi.” It only stands to reason. People who have a habit of breaking glass ceilings wouldn’t be expected to harbour your run-of-the-mill pick-me-up.
“I believe in telling the new and doing the new,” remarks Anuradha, who performed at London’s Darbar International South Asian Music Festival in April. “I have started a new thing: Tabla jugalbandi, which is Anuradha Pal in jugalbandi with herself.”
The roots of this intriguing concept lie in her refusal to be straitjacketed. “We all learn in the guru-shishya tradition. But there is a part of me that wants to go beyond the done and explore new vistas.” She plays traditional compositions interspersed with her own new ones.
“I’m a very traditional person by nature, but I’m a very non-traditional person too,” she explains. “So the young and spunky Anuradha combines with the traditional Anuradha.” In these duets with herself, which she started last November, the audience is a party too, so it becomes a three-way conversation, a trigalbandi, she notes.
Anuradha says she wants the audience “to grow and understand the nuances of the instrument.”
If she educates the non-musical audiences, she also educates those born to the art. When her talent for rhythm was discovered while learning vocal music as a seven-year-old, she had to prove herself to her brother’s tabla teacher who refused to teach her in the belief the tabla required “mardana zor (male power)”.
He only began teaching her when he heard her reproduce lessons overheard from her brother.
She started performing at age 10 and was on international assignments by 13, then attracted the attention of Ustad Allah Rakha who offered to teach her further. Under his tutelage she soon shone. But Anuradha, who says she is “very compromising on everything except my own self respect” did not want to be “just a good student of Allah Rakha and Zakir Hussain”. Once she was referred to as a “Zakira in the making”. “That’s when I decided I want to be not just a good student, but Anuradha Pal with my own identity.”
Child prodigy or not, today her name, like those of hundreds of other accomplished women musicians, is not routinely prefixed with an honorific such as ‘Pandit’ or ‘Ustad’. “The moment they hit the respectable age of 25,” she laughs, referring to male musicians, “they take it (the title). TV has made matters worse.” She adds a hilarious footnote. “Some people say ‘Panditayan Anuradha Pal’. I find it so strange!”
But that is an old battle. Storming a male bastion has been about more than honorifics. That is why she founded Stree Shakti, an all-woman percussion-based ensemble, in 1996. It combines Hindustani, Carnatic vocal, instrumental and percussions. Stree Shakti represented India at Woodstock-2008. “It was a big honour. Woodstock is like the biggest festival in the world.” Stree Shakti also toured with the 36-member (all male) Pan-African Orchestra of Ghana.
Born into a highly academically inclined family, she feels the mix of science and arts at home has fired her own artistic explorations. These have led her into theoretical realms as well, and she has been part of research at Harvard University and the San Diego Neuro Sciences Institute into the relationship between the brain, music and the tabla.
Then there is her new album Recharge. Recharge is a world music band, explains Anuradha, and the album has recently been launched by Times Music. “In Recharge, the entire percussion is played by me. I could have had other musicians, but I wanted to explore the percussionist in me.”
As a youth icon, she is brand ambassador for Unicef. Be it her classical compositions or world music, Anuradha endeavours to bridge the gap between today’s listeners and the ancient art, and also to spread the message that “the world is one”.
Anuradha’s mother Ila Pal is a renowned painter and father Devinder a well-known pharmaceuticals consultant. Calling them idealists and “super achievers” who rebuilt their lives after Partition she says they and her educationist grandfather are her inspiration.
GROUPS: She has founded Stree Shakti (Indian percussion-based vocal-instrumental ensemble), Recharge (World Music), and Kala Siddhi (Fusion of Carnatic, Jazz, Rajasthani and Hindustani)
MUSIC COMPOSER: She has composed for documentaries and films including M.F. Husain’s “Gaja Gamini”.
BRAND AMBASSADOR: Unicef