Thursday, May 1, 2014

The (gay) Tabla Player

The most interesting (and thought provoking) question in the essay was are girls free in India (in the way they are not in Pakistan)? This obviously cant be boiled down to hard numbers and everyone will come to the conversation with some inherent bias, thus there would be no satisfactory resolution.

But here is one more provocative thought. Pakistan was created to be a sanctuary for South Asian muslims. How much public acceptance (as opposed to private agreement) is there for atheists? Religion of all colors are inherently patriarchial, also with respect to tabla playing (and generally all music) we would imagine Islam would frown a bit more than Hindu-Sikh-Jain-Buddhism (we have always associated Christianity in India with music, but not with women playing percussions).  

While we cant prove this to be true but we are of  the opinion that freedom from religion gives you freedom of action as well. As the number of atheists will grow so will the number of female tabla players.

One final question which was on our lips: that shy, sweet, subtle boy in a sleeveless sweater, who stood out amongst all the other macho players (and encouraged the author in her playing with a soft smile), in liberal Holywood these would all be signs pointing to his gayness. Read on dear reader and make up your own mind. Though we think the author should not have just stopped with the hints and gone for full disclosure. Why have a barrier in your own mind as you struggle to remove it from the minds of others?
I went to a tabla and lecture demonstration at Amherst College. I went because I love percussion, all percussion, but tabla most of all. I went also in homage to the pair I left behind in Lahore in 2008. The year before leaving, I’d taken the very tentative step of learning how to play this daunting but thrilling instrument in my ‘old’ age.

Music lessons and I have had an uneasy past. My father loved South Asian classical music more than anyone I know, yet he never put a South Asian musical instrument in my hands....Then in 2007, not at age seven but 37, I decided to do it. My ustad’s name was Ustad Ghulam Sabir. He was by his own admission not a professional player, but he had an excellent ear and was often called upon by professionals to tune their tablas.

Ustad Sabir was always patient. He kept adding more compositions (kaida, dadra, jhaptal), while I struggled with counting the beats and urging my fingers to keep up. Often, I did hear the beats. I knew what I should have been doing. If only the tabla had fallen in my hands 30 years earlier, instead of the piano I couldn’t even hear!

After about eight months, he said he couldn’t teach me more, not because I’d learned much, but because he’d passed on all he believed he could. He referred me to a music center where I studied with a professional ustad and about a dozen boys, a lot younger than myself who’d been playing since childhood. Though they never initiated a conversation with me, I never felt any hostility from them. And though they had no reason to be as attuned to my playing as I was to theirs, when I got something right, there’d be a kind of silence in the room.

But there was one boy who did more. He could have been 17 or 27, was always the one called upon to bring the tea, and was generally treated differently. More brusquely, yet also with more familiarity, as though there existed between him and the ustad (and other musicians, for instance, the harmonium player who sometimes accompanied us) an understanding.

I never learned what this understanding was because he was the shiest of us all. However, he was usually the first in the room and would be warming up when I arrived. When I also started to warm up, he’d join me. It was subtle and sweet; we were having a conversation. I remember well the tilt of his head and his sleeveless mustard sweater and how the head would tilt a little more when I stumbled, or else the fingers would wait in the air, and when I found the beat he’d nod quite vigorously and rejoin me at just the perfect moment and with just the smallest smile.

But he would never, ever, meet my eye. I tried to, but backed away when I feared I was crossing a boundary. It was better to stay within the boundary than to risk losing his friendship in music. A music without borders.

Then, two days ago, I went to the tabla lecture and demonstration at Amherst College. It was enormously enjoyable, till the end. The pandit, a buoyant man from the Benares tabla gharana gave us, his very small but eager audience, time and care as he described the tablas – how they’re made, what the left and right is called, etc.

The atmosphere was relaxed, so I decided to share what had been going on in my head:
‘Why do you think women are still not playing the tabla, at least not publicly?’

He grew very serious, if not a little irritated, and said, ‘Oh, you can’t do it. It is just too difficult.’

I tried to say that of course now it is too difficult, for me, but what if girls were urged to play from a young age, the way he was? The way a few are encouraged to play other instruments, or to sing?

He again said, ‘You can’t do it.’ And then, ‘I had to practice for 14 hours each day. Could you do that?’ It was obviously a rhetorical question. He didn’t pause. ‘My fingers would grow bloody. You couldn’t.’

At this point I began to notice what I’d never noticed in those months of learning tabla in macho Lahore, in a room full of testosterone. Disapproval.

I kept on. ‘In Pakistan there aren’t even many women learning how to play.’

He scornfully cut me off. ‘In India there is no restriction. Women can do what they want. But they can’t play professionally. They can do it only for fun. I have two women students. They are good. But they will never be professionals.’ He seemed to think about this more for a moment, and I foolishly grew hopeful. What he added was this, ‘Dance is difficult too, but it is soft!’
I did not know what to say.

As a last point he offered, ‘The tablas weigh over 20 kilos. For how long are you going to ask someone to carry them for you?’

By this time, there were too many thoughts raging in my brain to know which one to speak, or even how.

For instance, when or how did this turn into ‘India is free but Pakistan isn’t’? Really, in India there are no restrictions on women? Do you not know that you create can’t by saying it – that can’t is a restriction? And your poor women students! If you already know what they will never be, what can you teach them? Do it for fun. You mean, the fun you are having is more than fun – but their fun is somehow less?

I wondered how much of the tension in the room had to do with a certain etiquette that I, myself, had struggled to maintain, as I’d ventured with the question. He was a pandit. A master. He’d shown us that he could do what none of us could (certainly not the women).

A pandit must be shown deference, no matter what. The pandit/ustad/teacher-student relationship is entirely different in the subcontinent to that in the West. It is one of respect, intimacy, and absolute obedience. Here I was, a South Asian, a woman no less, asking pesky questions. The white women in the room did not acknowledge these questions at the end either; they went straight to the master to thank him, without looking at me.

In the car, my exasperation only mounted. Bloody fingers? Really, pandit ji, women are afraid of that? Ask all the carpet weavers who work for at least 14 hours each day, with astonishingly dexterous, bloody fingers. Or the shrimp peelers. Or the textile workers. Or the cotton farmers. They are women too.

As for not being strong enough, I couldn’t even carry a five kilo bag of rice, let alone two tablas. But that’s just me. My particular body at this particular stage of my life. And though I wish it weren’t so, I’m also lucky that I don’t have to throw my back out several times a day. What about the women who do carry heavy loads – and have to? Those who labour in the fields? What about the bags of crops and fodder they heave, often along with their children? Would you call that fun, or would you call them professionals? Would you clap for them, or stand up for them?

I remember the boy in the sleeveless mustard sweater. His head tilt. His enthusiasm when I got something right. His willingness to share. Will he, will he, do the same for his daughter? And when she wants more, will both her parents give their blessings with a kiss and a lifeline of grade A milk, so that she may find it wherever she roams?

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