The cadence of a frolicking deer.
Brash disputes between husband and wife—the husband’s domineering voice almost drowning out the wife’s plaintive lament.
The roar of a tempest and thundering clouds.
A horse galloping to freedom through a vista of unpunctuated space.
These are not images from pages of poetry, but metaphors to help the audience understand the syntax of tabla, running motifs often deployed by the greats such as Ustad Zakir Hussain to help bring meaning to the tabla's classical language.
According to the gifted tabla player Yashwant Vaishnav, Sangeet Natak Academy’s ‘Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar’ winner, recipient of the ‘Bal Shree’ award and a musician who is often referred to as ‘Pride of the nation’ by many, such imagery also helps anchor one’s imagination.
“The tabla’s bhasha (language)...it’s understood better when you explain it,” he says.
His appreciation of the educational aspect of tabla makes sense, as Vaishnav is a classically trained musician undertaking two types of talim (education). He trained under Dr. Hemant Sachdeva and Pandit Mukund Bhale for over a decade, and is presently under the tutelage of tabla player Pandit Yogesh Samsi. Simultaneously, he is also pursuing a PhD in tabla, the dissertation topic for which he is currently deciding, and has already completed his Master’s in tabla from Indrakala Sangeet Vishwavidyalaya in Chhattisgarh, India.
But the talim from his gurus is more challenging and all-consuming than textbook education or research, he believes.
“That vidya (education) will continue until my dying breath,” he says, “The more I learn, the more I realise how little I know.”
The depth of his musical mastery—which, as a child prodigy who started his initial learning at the age of three under his father Shri Rajendra Vaishnav—has always far surpassed his years, stems from his own unflinching pursuit of the art form.
Growing up, Vaishnav didn’t have a typical childhood routine. His father, noticing his son’s love for the tabla, first taught the art and science to his wife—an endearing move to ensure Vaishnav could continue to receive appropriate training even if his father had to be away for work. At 3:30 am sharp, little Vaishnav would be up for his riyaz or practice, which he continued until 6:30 am until it was time to get ready for school. At 3:30 pm, after returning, it would be time for another session before homework. “Lunch and PE were my favourite classes to sleep in,” he laughs, admitting that, “Until twelfth grade, I got very little sleep.”
But his passion was all-consuming. “I could skip academics for a day, and sometimes deferred my exams. But I can never skip my riyaz.”
While the 3:30 am session sounds extreme, it’s actually a popular time for musicians to hone their craft, explains Vaishnav. “The whole world is shant [calm] at that time. Whatever’s going to happen will happen after 7 am,” he says, “And elders say that the gods have their most dynamic energy then. It’s a beautifully serene time for meditative thought.” The holistic nature of the artform leads to a deep, almost trance-like and fixed pursuit of education, and the mastery that results is unparalleled.
Essentially, in keeping with Indian classical music tradition, the music is improvised, requiring great dexterity and uncompromising command. “It’s not the type of music you can just memorise and perform,” Vaishnav states, “Each qaida [fixed composition] could have ten vistaars [improvisations]. You encounter a problem and there could be multiple solutions. And the discerning audience? They come along with you for the journey, noticing the seeds you’re sowing…the breadcrumbs you’re leaving…and anticipating the final harvest when the disparate strands will culminate and be reaped right in front of their very eyes.”
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