Asian Music and Dance

The Instrument and the Musician – Kamalesh Maitra and the Tabla Tarang

Musician and composer Kamalesh Maitra was the globetrotting master of the melodic percussion instrument, the tabla tarang. In the second in our series of articles about a particular instrument and a particular maestro of that instrument Ken Hunt considers the complex and seldom-heard tabla tarang and the musician who left the Prudential Insurance Company to play with Uday Shankar.

There are a handful of exquisitely-voiced instruments, the sonorities of which every music lover should experience before dying. One is tabla tarang, an instrument that trounces expectations. No caveat or equivocation is needed when naming its foremost exponent of recent times as the Bengali master musician and composer, Pandit Kamalesh Maitra (1924–2005), a one-man gamelan orchestra of a man. A true globetrotter, he left his mark in many places from Hungary to Egypt to Japan and the States, but most notably in Germany where he settled in 1977 and in 1980 founded the Ragatala Ensemble. 

“The tabla tarang…. turns percussion into an awe-invoking instrument of melody”.

Tabla tarang is what is classified as a melodic percussion instrument. Capable of wondrous sophistication, it consists of a half-ring of individually-tuned dayan and bayan hand drums. These are, respectively, the tabla’s treble and bass drums, with the majority in the dayan tonal range, each tuned to the particular raga’s notes. The word tarang means wave. Since tabla already conveys a sense of tuned percussion, ‘a wave of tabla’ signals a refinement of that principle. More importantly, it turns percussion into an awe-invoking instrument of melody. Kamalesh Maitra’s tabla tarang generated light rather than heat.

“Live, tabla tarang presents inordinate impracticalities like staying in tune…”

The fact that tabla tarang is seldom heard in concert and very few musicians play it is an indication of its complexity. Kamalesh Maitra’s overwhelming achievement was to elevate it to a vehicle for full-length raga expositions in Hindustani recital contexts as well as shorter ones in theatrical presentations. Dependent upon the raga, he would set up between ten and sixteen drums. Live, tabla tarang presents inordinate impracticalities like staying in tune – pardon, particularly in situations in which the awfully human humidity of humanity and temperature fluctuations may play havoc with pitches. 

In rhythmically-orientated expositions, fewer drums are needed. For example, on Ravi Shankar’s Tenth Decade In Concert – Live In Escondido DVD (East Meets West, 2012), Samir Chatterjee’s tabla tarang consists of five drums – a bit of a cheat by Maitra’s raga standards.

Some history… A rare performance featuring tabla tarang in raga mood appears on World Pacific’s superlative and never-reissued boxed set The Anthology of Indian Music Volume One released in 1967. On it Janardan Abhyankar – a senior musician and tabla tarang specialist who between 1934 and 1936 had toured in Europe with Madame Menaka and her Menaka Indian Ballet and who later provided tabla tarang for the Bombay-based film composer R.D. Burman – played Kaushik Dhwani with Arjun Shejwal accompanying on pakhawaj. Having another percussionist supporting is a convention Maitra also subscribed to. Examples might be tablawallahs Kumar Bose on Masters of Raga: Kamalesh Maitra – Ragas On Drums (Wergo, 1993), Trilok Gurtu on Tabla Tarang – Melody on Drums (Smithsonian/Folkways, 1996) and Sankha Chatterjee on Tarang (Kamalesh Productions, 1998).

The playing of Maitra – and Abhyankar – represented a relatively uncommon aspect of tabla tarang performance. When most percussionists performed tabla tarang in concert or in the recording studio, it was generally as a percussion novelty, an inserted five- to fifteen-minute cameo, before returning to playing tabla. For several generations of listeners, it was Ravi Shankar’s early breakthrough album Portrait of Genius (World Pacific, 1964) that spread word of the instrument. On its imaginative Tala-Tabla Tarang, set in the nine-beat matta tala cycle, Harihar Rao’s tabla tarang provides the introduction before playing the repeated lehara figure – ostinato melody to rhythm – against which Alla Rakha improvises on tabla. 

“Like any good Indian narrative, the course of our hero’s story did not run smooth”.

Like any good Indian narrative, the course of our hero’s story did not run smooth. For chunks of his professional musical career, he had to live with a clerical error, the repercussions of which still linger. Many sources, including Smithsonian Folkways: Webster’s Timeline History, 1923–2007 (2009), give 1928 as his year of birth. Kamalesh Kumar Maitra was actually born on 28 April 1924 near Tagail Town in East Bengal in British India. “The name of the village was Gala,” he clarified in October 2002. “It’s about 5 kilometres north from Tagail Town.” In modern terms, Gala – also Gāla – is east of the Brahmaputra River and west of Bangladesh’s N4 highway, a 150-km stretch of road that links Joydevpur, just short of the capital Dhaka, and Jamalpur. In the 1920s Gala was, to use the Indian colloquialism, definitely village. While he was still young, his family moved to Calcutta.

His family trade was the ayurvedic system of traditional medicine. Around the age of 18 he found his heart and head healed better with music. A neighbour in Calcutta, Phani Sen, taught him the rudiments of tabla-playing. As threats from Japanese bombing grew between 1942 and 1944, the family moved to Benares where he continued his tabla studies with Vasudev Chatterjee. A pragmatist, he joined the Prudential Insurance Company in Lucknow where he was able to study further with Sudharsan Adhikari (who would subsequently finagle Maitra an audition with Ravi Shankar). Through Lucknow’s musical community he came into contact with the sarod’s rising star Ali Akbar Khan of All India Radio’s Lucknow station.

After the war ended in 1945, the Prudential relocated to Calcutta and Maitra returned too. In 1946, after winning a first prize at the Shivpur Musical Competition – exactly which prize he never told me – a new teacher accepted him: “I ‘concluded’ my study of tabla with the great master Keramatulla Khan of the Farukhabad gharana.” Over the next years, two artistic highlights further energised Maitra creatively. In 1947 and 1948 Ravi Shankar staged productions of his ballet-drama Discovery of India. More importantly, Uday Shankar’s Hindi-language art film Kalpana (Imagination) hit selected cinemas in February 1948.

“Maitra passed the audition on the condition that he learned to play tabla tarang. He took the leap and left insurance behind.” 

Uday Shankar, Ravi Shankar’s eldest brother, was the torch-bearer of tradition-based, modern Indian dance and Maitra unsuccessfully applied to join his company. However, by 1949 Uday Shankar was up a gum tree. His mainstays, even his music director of many years’ standing, the ever-variably-rendered Vishnudas Shirali had departed – to be replaced by Lalmani Misra. In 1950 Shankar’s wife Amala returned to Calcutta to seek musicians. Maitra passed the audition on the condition that he learned to play tabla tarang. He took the leap and left insurance behind. 

From their earliest days in Paris in 1931, the Uday Shankar company had featured the show-stopping instrument. The programme for Uday Shankar et Simkie avec Orchestre Hindou (where ‘Hindou’ denotes ‘Indian’) at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in March 1931 – reproduced in Mohan Khokar’s His Dance, His Life – A Portrait of Uday Shankar (1983) – includes a handwritten emendation that Timar Baran and Vishnu Dass’s Malkosh Raga was a ‘sarode et tabla taranga’ interlude. Similarly, on the Victor label’s 78-rpm album The Original Uday Shankar Company of Hindu Musicians, Recorded During its Historic 1937 Visit to the United States Vishnudas Shirali’s track Tabla Taranga, Raga Adana maintains the troupe tradition. In Kalpana – co-produced by Shankar and Vishnudas Shirali – Karendikar was the featured player. Maitra took up the instrument under the tutelage of Sishir Sobhon Bhattacharya, Timir Baran’s brother. 

“Maitra was one of an exalted company of musicians . . . for the Indian package part of a George Harrison-Ravi Shankar tour of North America and beyond.”

Maitra first toured the States and Canada in 1951–52 and would remain a mainstay and an increasingly central figure within the company for more than two decades. Wishing to further his knowledge of melody, he studied sarod with Ali Akbar Khan and Hindustani music’s ultimate mystery wrapped in enigma, Annapurna Devi – Ali Akbar Khan’s younger sister – at the Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta. In 1956 he became the Shankar troupe’s musical director. Despite critically-acclaimed foreign tours, the Uday Shankar Ballet was frequently in fraught financial straits. During one lean period in 1958, Maitra joined Jog Sunder’s Indian Revival Group as sarodist, tabla player and music director and toured internationally with them.

Around this time a gallimaufry of events occurred. ‘What happened was up to the beginning of the 1960s I had a passport with 1924 [as year of birth]. Then in ’61 I was put under acid. It was life-risk [life-threatening].’ (It did not feel right to ask whether this was an accident or an acid attack.) ‘I spent about five months in hospital with lots of grafts and plastic surgery. For a couple of years I was doing nothing. Then I was asked by Jog Sunder’s Indian Revival Group, with the help of the Indian government, [to go on] an East European tour. That was arranged from Delhi. I got permission at Calcutta just two weeks before it started. There someone by mistake – I don’t know whose mistake it was – instead of ’24 they wrote ’28. There was no time to correct it.

‘The system in India was very complicated in those days, and they said that if we wanted to change [the passport] it would take about three months to do the whole thing. The whole tour would be finished by that time,’ he laughed. ‘Plus I was in Calcutta; I was not in Delhi at that time. I had a diplomatic pass, the white passport. But the real date is 28 April 1924.’

During his tenure with Uday Shankar, as music director, he arranged and composed for such major projects as the dance dramas The Great Renunciation – Life of Buddha (1956); Prakriti and Ananda (1966), released on LP as Uday Shankar Hindu Dancers and Musicians – The Dance Drama of Prakriti and Ananda on Columbia in 1968; and Shankar’s swansong work Shankarscope (1970), released on three 45-rpm records on the Gramophone Company of India’s Odeon subsidiary. Increasingly frail, Shankar’s last US tour featuring Prakriti and Ananda took place in 1968, organised by the impresario Sol Hurok who had stuck by him since the 1930s. Shankar had become a top-body dancer dependent on facial expressions and hand gestures. While in San Diego, he suffered yet another stroke on 24 November 1968. Uday Shankar’s star waned, yet Maitra, one of the loyalest of the loyal, stuck by the maestro even if it meant at times he short-circuited his own career.

Summing up their relationship, he said simply: “I was almost like an adopted son. He was a friend and a father. He’s been an inspiration my whole life. I came to know him in ’49 and joined in ’50 and since then I knew him until his death in September 1977. Apart from work, I’ve spent times with him. He was a great man.”

In 1974 Maitra was one of an exalted company of musicians that included flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, mridangam player and singer T.V. Goplakrishnan, sarangi player Sultan Khan, vocalist Lakshmi Shankar, santoor player Shivkumar Sharma and violinist L. Subramaniam for the Indian package part of a George Harrison-Ravi Shankar tour of North America and beyond. A linear descendant of the Uday Shankar Indian orchestra approach, its solitary souvenir, Ravi Shankar’s Music Festival From India (Dark Horse, 1976), remained long out-of-print until reissued as part of the Harrison-Shankar boxed set Collaborations (Dark Horse, 2010), at this point augmented by a concert DVD shot at London’s Royal Albert Hall in September 1974.

A turning-point in Maitra’s career occurred in 1976 when he appeared at Berlin’s Metamusic Festival; the following year he accepted an offer to teach at the West Berlin-based, Indo-German Nataraj dance school. From 1978 Berlin became his base and home – and where he met the New York-born American musician Laura Patchen whom he described as his “life-Partnerin” in English sprinkled with German. In 1980 he founded the Berlin-based Ragatala Ensemble which mixed Indian and Western instrumentation. The extraordinary character of tabla tarang brought Maitra to the attention of jazz, avant-garde and western classical musicians and connoisseurs alike. He performed regularly at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, a venue where Ensemble United Berlin, with Jobst Liebrecht conducting, premiered his symphonic work Raag Symphonia in September 2003.

If homing in on one release, plump for Tabla Tarang – Melody on Drums (1996) with its imaginative Todi-complex concept of Deen Todi, Bilaskhani Todi, Bhupal Todi and Mia ki Todi. It should figure in anybody’s collection of essential Hindustani releases.

Kamalesh Maitra died in Kreischa, near Dresden, in Saxony, Germany on 22 April 2005. We shall never see his like again in our lifetimes. 

With special thanks to Laura Patchen who became his tabla student in 1977 and his partner in 1980. Jürgen Dietrich’s images courtesy of Laura; other images are from the Swing 51 Archives.



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