He went to school in Essex ‘in the middle of nowhere’ but the love for the tabla that was nourished at home led to a commitment to playing and Gurdain Rayatt is now in demand as an accompanist to musicians and dancers, and also as a solo performer. Seetal Gahir found out more.
Tabla player Gurdain Singh Rayatt has been in the limelight recently, touring with sitarist Anupama Bhagwat, accompanying dance performances and giving solo renditions in India.
Gurdain had an unusual upbringing compared to his classmates. Both his grandfather, Bhai Gurmit Singh Virdee, and his father, Harkirat Singh Rayatt, promoted tabla extensively and it was with these influential figures that Gurdain took his first musical steps. (His uncle, Sandeep Virdee, founded Darbar with its grand annual festival in memory of Gurdain’s late grandfather.) But was growing up in a house of tabla players and Indian classical music enthusiasts a blessing or a curse? For Gurdain, it was an exciting environment that played a huge part in the development of his natural ability.
“I have fond memories of my father’s Sunday-morning riyaaz. I would drag my tabla next to his, still half asleep, and see what I could join in with. I guess all that tabla surrounding me was the reason I knocked a set of baby tablas to the floor when my father decided to buy me a set, preferring to have a large set like his.”
An inquisitive child, Gurdain remembers being fascinated by musical exchanges between family members. He would also sit next to the record-player, listening to Indian classical music played on LPs and CDs. Music permeated the household: Gurdain’s mother sings kirtan, devotional hymns, at the Gurdwara and always made sure that Gurdain would practice when his father was away. His sister, who now works as a freelance photographer and film-maker, also dabbled in various musical instruments.
Gurdain went to school in rural Essex or ‘the middle of nowhere’, as he calls it. His friends liked his tabla and music was appreciated as part of his life. With a grammar school education under his belt, he went on to study English with Film at King’s College, London but unlike many students, Gurdain didn’t find that academics caused a blip in his musical progress. “I crammed a lot for exams and course work so never really faced any issue with managing the two. In fact, I probably did more practice around that time.” This encouraged Gurdain to complete a BA in Music Performance with Composition at the University of West London, where he was able to specialise in tabla.
Between school and university, Gurdain made a bold move and flew to India for his gap year to learn from his Guru, Pandit Shankar Ghosh. Many take this route and it raises the question of whether successful professional training in Indian classical music is possible here in the UK.
“I guess training in the UK and becoming successful is definitely possible; it depends more upon the teacher and his or her guidance, as well as the student’s willingness for riyaaz. Being in India allows you to be in the correct musical and cultural environment to flourish further and immerse yourself in the music. It definitely challenges you and forces you to push boundaries further.”
Gurdain’s family certainly created a special environment here, as his father would arrange concerts with world-famous tabla players from whom Gurdain would learn. “My father approached Zakir (Hussain)ji initially for my future training and he said, ‘Why do you want him to learn from a good performer? Take him to a good teacher!’ He mentioned Pandit Shankar Ghosh, as I had been learning from Bickram Ghosh around that time.” So during his gap year, Gurdain lived in Kolkata and took lessons from his Guru over three times a week. Since then he has made three more trips back to Kolkata. Consistent training and dedication to riyaaz have certainly paid off, as Gurdain has performed extensively in many prestigious venues as a group member, accompanying other musicians and perfecting his flair as a tabla soloist. But does the fact that he has had most of his training in India mean that he is really ‘Brit – Born and Trained’? Many young British Asians travel ‘back’ to India to find what they may not here in the UK but one thing is certain: Gurdain is committed to developing work in Britain.
Most recently, he has been lending his hands to kathak. Gurdain’s father originally started collaborations in the London area with his organisation Chakardar. Over time, the circle of connections grew and eventually, many dancers began calling upon Gurdain for his skills.
Two of his recent collaborations were performances that highlighted contrasting elements of kathak. Mentored by Fasih Ur-Rehman of the Lahore gharana, Navodit showcased three male dancers and combined poetic lyricism with elegant compositions. It was an unusual style that Gurdain hadn’t accompanied before but he thoroughly enjoyed the dancers’ sensitivity, flair and speed and was moved by their immersion in the moment.
Another collaboration was with Mukti Shri, who after training with Pandit Suresh Talwalkar has what Gurdain describes as a “hugely powerful sense of rhythm”. Not only was her solo item rhythmically challenging with complex calculations but the expression of the thumri called upon the tabla to improvise with the mood. “You have to glue yourself to what’s going on,” says Gurdain. “It takes a high level of concentration, pace and memorisation.” It seems that there is a high risk factor involved as everything could go wrong at any moment, if the tabla is not in sync with the dancer.
Gurdain has many plans for teaching, project and performance work but he’s adamant about maintaining his versatility and not being artistically labelled. He is still working towards the title of a ‘full-time tabla player’. “The great thing, as with any artistic or creative lifestyle, is the fact that you truly are living your dream and passion, allowing you to improve and become more and more creative. Office jobs offer a consistent schedule and pay, whereas any self-employed musician has to work a little harder to ‘get out there’ and make his or her mark.”
From the boy who sat in front of the speaker, a passion and curiosity has stayed with Gurdain from stage to stage. But what really sets him apart are the eloquent nature, unmistakable humbleness and innocent pursuit of what he loves. It is these qualities that have been the key ingredients in his musical success so far. With an exciting career ahead, hopefully Gurdain will impart some of his curious qualities to Britain’s next generation of tabla players too.