Mantra (Lecture Excerpt)

Mantra (Lecture Excerpt)

Mantra is a sound formula. It is a vibratory composition. Commonly people understand stutis and shlokas as mantras, but real mantras do not carry any dictionary words.


A mantra is just a sound graph.
There are three types of mantras: female, male and eunuch. Each type of mantra creates its own effect.

What will you realize by mantra? First, it will take you out of the tormentation you suffer due your thoughts and you will have a new vision. The new vision will be that the cosmos is not anything but Shiv and Shakti; sat and chit; station and motion.

State of Today’s Indian Classical Music Concerts

State of Today’s Indian Classical Music Concerts

A musician needs two types of people in the audience – those who really understand the depth of the music and those who may not understand its full depth, but offer financial support for the musician.


Commercial music concerts of Indian classical music have changed over the last two to three decades. On the good side, it is becoming more financially possible to be a classical musician, on the bad side, audiences with a deep understanding of music are decreasing.

There was a time, when the first five rows of commercial concerts were filled with people who understood music, the people in suits and rich kurtas were behind these rows. Only then did the artist get into the mood to play real music because there were people who understood it.

I remember one concert that happened in Ahmedabad 20-30 years ago. It was a concert of a well-known musician who was travelling abroad. A short time into the concert, the audience had stopped the concert. Five people were on stage. They asked the musician not to play paltas. If he was to play, he had to play real music or there was no need for the concert. This was the strength of the audience. There was no room for gimmicks. The audience understood Indian classical music and did not accept anything less than true playing.

Today, things have changed. Today, in many commercial concerts, the financial supporters, who often do not have a very deep understanding, are the ones who occupy the front rows, while those who understand music, the students and connoisseurs end up sitting in some corner. The demand for high-quality has decreased and the artist consequentially does not play that music as it is not required.

You can clearly see the changes in commercial concerts. Commercial concerts of a single artist used to begin at 8pm and end at least 3-4 hours later. Now they finish in a span of 45 – 90 minutes. The alaap alone used to last 1 – 2 hours. Now, we hear perhaps a 5 minute alaap and 2-3 raags in that time period. It’s not necessarily that the artist is not able to give these long concerts. In the younger generation there might not be many (as the concert demand has changed), but we still do have artists who can perform these real concerts. The audience though is not ready or trained to listen to and enjoy these concerts.

The training of an audience will not happen overnight. It requires regular exposure to high-quality musicians. Those who have an understanding should not be afraid to demand high-quality music, while those who are developing an understanding should not simply accept whatever the market is giving them to be the best.

The development of an audience takes time and commitment, but if it is not done, there will be a very small chance of hearing a real Indian classical music concert in the future.

Runa Mukti

Runa Mukti – A Beautiful Concept

In Indian culture, the concept of indebtedness or obligation plays a strong role. As humans, we are being obliged by God, children have an obligation towards their parents, students are indebted to their teachers.

In Guru-shishya parampara*, it is a student’s right to learn and the teacher’s right to teach, but the student is always being obliged by the teacher. In the true form of guru-shishya parampara, there is complete surrender on the part of the student, this allows for the teacher to do their best work. A good analogy is that of a diamond. A student is like a raw diamond, completely in the hands of its maker (the teacher). If the diamond yields completely, then the cutter can do his best job in bringing out the true beauty of the gem through his careful cutting and polishing. In the guru-shishya parampara, everything is left in the hands of the able guru. He is the creator. This creates an enormous obligation on the student – how is the student to repay the teacher? Each student does what they can. Some give money, others do seva, etc, but in Indian culture, this is not enough to relieve oneself of the obligation towards one’s teacher.

That is where the concept of runa mukti comes in. Runa Mukti literally means liberation/ release from obligation (or runa). There are two ways of Runa Mukti. The first, if your guru feels you are capable, is to teach 1000 students what your guru has taught you. The second is to go one step further than your guru in that vidya.

*When I speak of guru-shishya parampara and runa mukti, I am referring to serious students who have spent many years of very close contact and training with their guru

Rhythm in Plants, Laya in Everything

Rhythm in Plants, Laya in Everything

I always tell my students that music has to be digested. Laya (variations of rhythm) have to become a part of you. The experience that one gets when music becomes apart of your being is incredibly beautiful.


Today, I was re-designing the layout of my garden. I have over 200 potted plants in my garden. As I worked with my gardener sorting the plants, I was examining each of my plants and was mesmerised by the rhythm that each plant had.
Each plant was unique, each had its own laya. One had a straight branch that had three offshoots at the end; in it I saw adi-laya. On another plant, there was seven leaves, a flower and then seven leaves again; in it I could see a laya of 8 beats. The leaves represented the laya and the flower represented the sum. The cycle of 7 (leaves) came to the sum (flower) and continued on. Each branch of one of my palms was split into 13. The plant had a laya of 13. In this way, I saw the rhythm in each plant.

Everything is rhythm. Everything has its own natural rhythm. The disruption of natural rhythm leads to things breaking down, but when something runs in its natural rhythm, it is in harmony, with itself, with its surroundings, with nature.

Music and rhythm are to be digested. When it is, one can see it in everything.

Finding a Tabla Teacher

Finding a Tabla Teacher

Today, a young man and his father came to my music school. The son wanted to take tabla lessons at our institute and he had been referred to me by a music friend of mine. At Rhythm Riders, we take very few new local students as a quality control measure more than anything else. I told him this, yet the father persisted saying that his son wanted to learn more seriously . His son had been learning from someone else for 4 years, but now finding a tabla teacher who could take him forward was very important. I could see that the boy was talented and very interested in music, so I conceded and gave him a chance to play.

Once our general class has thinned out, I called the boy to me with a pair of tabla. What happened afterwards on one hand, saddened me and on the other hand, invoked no response as I had seen this so many times over the years.

The boy’s basic hand was incorrect, meaning that his hand placement and movement to play basic bols was incorrect. Four years of carelessness or incompetency on the part of his teacher and potentially the boy had led to damage that is essentially irreversible. If I took this boy as a student at our school, we would first ask him to forget everything he has been taught and start from the absolute basics, that too though, would never led to a perfectly set hand (like that of our other students, who began their training with us) as it is near impossible to forget what has become ingrained in the hands over the course of 4 years.

This scene is not new to me, I have experienced it time and time again. It angers me and saddens me – the lack of effort/ research that is put into finding a tabla teacher.

Indian classical music has the potential to spiritually uplift the musician and listener. It is a vidya (art/ knowledge) whose learning is said to carry forth from one birth to the next. It has the ability to heal and empower and do so much more, yet when someone seeks to learn this art, they often spend less time on finding a teacher than they do on buying a shirt.

For example, I have seen people start learning from a particular teacher simply because their neighbour also learns from them. They start without asking any questions and doing any research. When we choose what school to send our child to, we look at the quality of the education, the caliber of its graduates, etc, so why not for training in Indian classical music?

Quality should not be excused for the sake of convenience. I understand that in today’s day and age, time is viewed as an increasingly limited commodity, but does that extra 30 minute drive take precedence over you losing the opportunity to reach a certain level of mastery? (as in the example at the start, the young man has now has no or very limited options to learn from a genuine tabla teacher as his hand is damaged).

The caliber and qualifications of a teacher are crucial considerations. One does not necessarily have to begin learning from a maestro. (In fact, most maestros do not take beginner students, but rather take students of their students once a certain level of competency is displayed). Maestro or no maestro, one has to look at the level of competency the teacher has in their own playing and/or knowledge. The caliber of a teacher can be gauged by the caliber of his students. If a teacher does not have any (or very few) students that play very is well or have a good grasp of the art, how can one assume that your training will be any better?

An often overlooked question – How long have they been learning?

In my years abroad, I have seen countless tabla players come to me who learnt tabla in India (or elsewhere) for a few years (most likely, not seriously but as a hobby) and then migrated abroad. One of the first things they do upon migration is teach tabla. Why? Because with a few hours of work in the evening, they can cover their basic expenses at the least. To me, this is an absolute crime. They are not necessarily even qualified performers, let alone, qualified teachers. But they do it and get away with it because they can find the students – people who did not do their research and decided to learn from the person closest to them.

How long have they been teaching? If they don’t have many years of experience, do they have someone who is monitoring their teaching? Teaching Indian classical music is not an innate capability, but one that has to be developed.

Who did they learn from? If they have learned from 5 unrelated teachers in a period of 3 years, a question should arise in terms of the teacher’s grounding in the art as their own learning has been “all over the place”.

Is there a potential for growth? Once you have reached a certain level, can you access a more knowledgeable teacher – ie the teacher of your teacher? This question is particularly important if you are considering learning Indian classical music seriously. The concept of lineage loyalty, while diluted, still exists to a certain degree.

It is important to note here also that a great performer is not necessarily an equally qualified teacher. Teaching and performing require different qualities to be successful. For example, the smartest student in the class may not be the best tutor. Well-renowned artists also pose a general disadvantage to the student with regards to time.

Time and level of attention or love are also important considerations. How much face to face time will your teacher give you? A frequent performer may not be able to sit with you every week, but when they do sit with you, do they give you their full attention with love and affection? The feelings of love and affection are very important in guru-shishya parampara, which is the way that Indian classical music is supposed to be taught. Also, if the teacher is not able to give you regular attention, does a senior student of his/her sit with you on a regular basis? Regular contact/ supervision is important as that is the way only way to prevent bad habits from developing. I know of many people who took lessons for some time and then practiced on their own for a period of time. That unsupervised practice led to damage in their hand as no one was correcting them.

The level of supervision must also be considered. Even if you sit with a teacher regularly, are you being corrected or simply given more and more material and minimal corrections? By watching videos of maestros, even a beginner, without understanding the complicated patterns, can get a sense of basic practices. You can see how basic notes are played, where hand placement is, etc. For example, in terms of tabla, you can get an idea of how teentaal is played, as it is played with similar movements by all maestros, regardless of gharana. You can make out the difference between tin and tun just by watching videos.

For tabla students, you can find countless videos online of maestros to get an understanding of basic bols and hand positioning, I call this “standard playing”. Some names include: Ustad Allarakha (Abbaji), Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Swapan Chauduri, Pandit Anindo Chatterjee, Pandit Sharda Sahai and many more.

There are many other things one can consider, but I have covered the major points here. In short, learning Indian classical music or any vidya is (or can be) a lifelong journey that can open up many beautiful worlds. When embarking on this journey, your guide or teacher is of utmost importance, so do take the task of deciding upon a teacher seriously. Please do your research and find a good teacher. A good teacher can unlock the doors to a wonderful world. A bad teacher can potentially bar the chances of the doors to this world opening. If a standard or good teacher is not available to fit your convenience, I would not suggest learning that instrument/ form at that time from a substandard teacher. At the same time, once you have found a teacher, it is your responsibility as a student to follow their instructions very carefully. Carelessness on the part of the student also leads poor or slow results.

Self-Realization (Lecture Excerpt)

Self-Realization (Lecture Excerpt)

Man is alienated from himself. He has become that which he is not and that creates confusion. This confusion is the biggest hurdle to his spiritual growth.


Before he begins his struggle to realize God, he must first realize himself.
When man realizes his own self, he will automatically find a way to realize paramtattva – Supreme Reality. That experience will drive him to realize paramanand – Divine Bliss. But you have to prepare yourself for Divine Bliss.

The problem is that man leads two lives – an external life and an internal life. Compared to what he does in his external life, he does three times more activity in his inner life. As such, his real life is his inner life. Every moment, you have to choose, make a decision. Generally, this decision is taken by your mind. Until you do not realize the difference between the mind and the self, there will be continual conflict between the two. This is why understanding the self, self-realization is so important.

A Mango Tree

A Mango Tree

There was a full-grown tree, a mango tree. It was standing alone, being nice to everyone. One day, a young child from a nearby colony came to play under the tree. The tree fell in love with the child at first sight. The tree was happy watching the child play in its full innocence. After some time, the child returned home. Once he was gone, the tree happily recounted the memory of the child and waited for him to return.


The next day, when the child returned to play, the tree bowed down his branches to reach the child so that he could eat mangos. Love blossoms between a big person (be it age, fame, wealth, size) when the big person does not see a difference between themselves. (Moral: love teaches you to bow down and surrender, regardless of one’s size and stature) The child too fell in love with the tree. Slowly, he began to climb the tree, hug the tree, and sleep in the branches of the tree. This way, the tree and child happily spent time together.

But naturally, the child began to grow. It started going to school and had less time to spend with the tree. The tree was still happy, the child was growing and learning. The tree only wanted the child’s presence, no other expectations. He found contentment in the smaller periods of time they spent together.

The child continued to grow, his studies increased. He began to spend even less time with the tree, but he still would come to see the tree. Again, the tree was happy. The child was growing. During mango season, he would keep the best mangoes to give to the child. (Moral: real love is always is happy in other’s growth)

The child continued to grow and became a young man. He fell in love and stopped coming to see the tree. The tree would wait patiently, thinking of the day when he would come and sit on its branches, but the boy did not come for a few months. Once, the tree saw the boy passing on a nearby road.

He called out to him. “I am always waiting for you. Why don’t you come to see me?” he said to the boy.

His answer shocked the tree, “Why should I come to see you? What will you give me?”

The tree replied, “I’m ready to give you everything.”

“Can you give me a million dollars?,” the boy retorted.

“Money is a human invention, I cannot give you that. I can give you everything I have: my fruit, my flowers, cool shade, peace, my branches to sit on, a place to be at one with nature – everything I have. The day that trees have money, that day, we too will have to sit in the temples or search the world to find peace.”

Vijay – one of my first US workshop attendees

Vijay – one of my first US workshop attendees

In my initial years of working in America, my student Sejal and I used to conduct small workshops. At this point, I was a new name to American audiences, so it was usually a small audience (10 – 15). Even though there was small attendance, EVERY workshop I found someone who went onto become a devoted student who did many things for me over and spent great amounts of time with me. It was a sign of how my luck worked so well in America.


Today, I want to recall the story of my third workshop, held in NYC during my first trip to the US. There was a bald, mid-aged guy with a very sweet smile sitting in the front. He took great interest in the workshop and was giving a great response.

After the workshop, he was the first person to greet me. He name was Vijay. He was an engineer living in New Jersey. Originally from India, Vijay had been living in the US for 25 years. As a child, he used to play tabla and continued to play every so often at the local temple, accompanying bhajans or kirtan. We had made ONE advertisement over the radio. Vijay had heard those two lines on the radio and came to the workshop.

“I feel like I have found my guru,” he said to me. “When can I see you again?”

I told him about the workshop that was to be held the next day in New Jersey, where I was staying.

The next day, Vijay arrived with 2 kg of sweets, a huge bouquet of flowers, an Indian outfit and cash to gift to me. The Americans I was surrounded by looked on with surprise and asked if it was my birthday. It was their first introduction to the Indian practice of coming with gifts to offer to one’s guru.

My relationship with Vijay only grew from that point forward. Whenever I went to the US, he was with me every night and he would NEVER come empty-handed. Sweets, fruits, food, gifts, he would always come with something to give. Whenever anything was needed for Taalim, he would be one of the first people to come and help. Vijay has since moved to Atlanta, but we still keep in touch. In fact, a few days ago I received a call. It was Vijay. He was in Ahmedabad. For the first time, after so many years, he got to see my home and all the work we are doing in India first-hand.

The amazing thing is that Vijay is only one of the people that I met during those initial workshops, many more came from those small audiences, but those stories are for another time.

First Meeting with Abbaji (Ustad Allarakha Khan)

First Meeting with Abbaji (Ustad Allarakha Khan)

It was 1975 or 1976. I came to know that Ustad Allarakha was to be in Ahmedabad to accompany Pandit Ravi Shankar. It was a program arranged by Sur Singar, an organization that I was a young youth volunteer for.
I received news of Ustadji’s arrival and that he had checked into a hotel across from Town Hall (I can’t recall the name). I reached to the hotel at 8:30am with a small bouquet of flowers. I knocked on his door. I distinctly remember how he looked when he opened the door. He looked royal and you see his immensive personality. I gave him the bouquet, took his blessings and introduced myself.

He asked me who I was learning from. I gave my Guru’s name – Pandit Sudhirkumar Saxena.

“Yes, I know him. He looks like me,” replied Abbaji.

This all happened at the door of his room. I began to doubt whether or not he would invite me into the room. But with a broad smile, he asked me to come in. He asked me to join him for breakfast. I was very hungry, but was too excited and shy to accept the food he offered. When I said no, he placed the piece of sandwich in my hand and encouraged me to eat. That was the moment when I fell in love with this great maestro.

After breakfast, he asked me to recite some compositions. He listened very seriously as I recited a composition of Ajrada Gharana. After I spoke the composition, he said, “See, in Punjab, we do it like this,” and he started speaking some amazing compositions, which sounded like magic to me, but were beyond my comprehension as I was a junior at that stage.

“I would love to learn this, if you feel that I am competent someday,” I told Abbaji.

“Yes, I will teach you, but the thing is that I don’t spend much time in Mumbai. I spend more of my time abroad.” Then again he started to speak some more compositions.

After an hour and half, I don’t know how, but I asked him, “Can you come to my home for lunch today?”

He started laughing. I was only a young youth. He asked where I lived. I lived only 20 minutes away.

“I would be highly obliged if you come.”

“OK. I don’t disappoint anybody. Let me call Raviji. If he does not have a commitment for me, I’ll come to your house.”

He called up Raviji and said to him,”There is a kid in front of me. He is very sweet and asking me to come to his house. Do you have something for me?”

Raviji wanted to rest, so Abbaji was free to come to my home.

I called my parents, who were very excited to hear the news and insisted that Abbaji have lunch at our home. When I told Abbaji about lunch, he told me that he would see.

Now as I was only a young teenager, I did not drive a scooter, let alone a car. I asked Abbaji if he would be willing to travel by rickshaw, which he kindly agreed to.

A portion of the drive was along a lonely road next to railway tracks. Our luck was such that the rickshaw stopped working right along this lonely road! There was no one around and the rickshaw driver’s many attempts were futile. I was very embarrassed at this point, but to my surprise, Abbaji turned to me and suggested we find another rickshaw.

We walked about 1 km in the hot sun of Ahmedabad before we found another rickshaw and arrived at my home.

After meeting my parents and formalities, Abbaji asked me to get tablas and play for him. After hearing some of my playing, he taught me a Punjab composition, it was my first Punjab composition. I greatly enjoyed our time and it continued as we had our lunch.

After lunch, I had called a neighbour who has a car, so that we could drop Abbaji at the hotel in an appropriate mode of transportation.

The time we spent together that day is something I will always remember. After that day, whenever Abbaji came to Ahmedabad (once or twice annually), I would always be present as his sevak and he regularly visited my home.

About 15 years later, after the demise of my second guru, Ustad Latif Ahmed Khan, I followed through on my desire to learn Punjab and became a gandaband student of Abbaji. I’ll save stories about my ganda-band ceremony and other experiences with him for another time.

Tabla Taalim by Sejal Kukadia

Tabla Taalim by Sejal Kukadia

I am very pleased to inform you about the wonderful tabla textbook that my dear American student, Sejal Kukadia has written. I am very proud of her and wish her all the best. The book is beautifully done and I know it will be a great resource for all. If you wish to purchase it, please contact Taalim School. Information about this guide to tabla is below.

Tabla Taalim takes a comprehensive look at the rich percussive art of Tabla. From the ancestral lineage of the gharanas to analysis of the rules of tabla compositions, this book covers all facets of Tabla. Tabla Taalim serves as a theoretical and practical guide to tabla, describing the fundamentals behind taal, the role of a tabla player and highlighting the distinctions with tabla playing for solos and different styles of accompaniment, complete with compositions. Written in easy-to-follow language, this tabla textbook serves many purposes and may also be used as a study guide for the Sangeet Visharad (equivalent of Bachelors of Music) exam.

Tabla Taalim Offers:
– 70+ color graphics, including rare photographs and gharana lineage charts
– Biographies of great tabla maestros
– Tabla solos in 15 different taals (Teentaal, Rudra Taal, Dhamaar taal, Brahma taal and more)

“Treatment of all topics are to the point and authentic“
– (late) Pandit Sudhirkumar Saxena, Ajrada Gharana
“Very impressed with the work she has done“
– Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, Lucknow Gharana
“Great source of information for all students of Indian Music“
– (late) Ustad Shafaat Ahmed Khan, Delhi Gharana