Tablas are harmonically complex and tonally rich sets of drums used in a variety of musical genres ranging from the devotional music of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims to film, folk, and fusion. They are perhaps most famous for their role as accompaniment and also as a solo instrument in Hindustani classical music. The drums’ unique design has developed through close interactions between performers and instrument makers since the drums began to be widely circulated approximately 200 years ago[i].
While South Asian music grows in international popularity, tablas are also increasingly incorporated in musical genres unrelated to South Asia creating a further rise in the demand for the instrument and consequently changes in local tabla economies.[i] As Appadurai (1990) noted, globalization results in neither the “triumphantly universal” nor the “resiliently particular,” but rather the movement of people, money, and objects through various flows he refers to as “scapes.”[ii] As the tabla moves through these various and increasingly global flows over the course of its “social life,” it changes from specialized item to commodity and back,[iii] constantly forging and influencing new relationships with and between humans.[iv]
Tabla Technology and the Role of Maker/Player Interaction
All tablas are not created equal and variations in materials and craftsmanship can have important impacts on the sounds they are capable of making. Banarasi tablas are famous for having thicker skins and thicker tuning paste, which helps to give them their signature sound—usually described as being “full” and “resonant” in contrast with tablas made on thinner hides, whose sound is often called “bright”.[i]
Patron/client relationships vary, with some players being extremely loyal to a particular tabla maker while others think of them as inconsistent, fraudulent, and deceitful. Whether friendly or strained, the relationship between maker and player involves an intimacy that comes from close listening to the instrument, intense discussions of sound, and negotiations of price and quality.
Wholesaling has played the primary role in facilitating the drastic increase in tabla makers employed in Banaras. In the last twenty-five years, Banaras tabla makers have grown from about seven or eight makers in a few shops, to seventy-five or more makers today, with not enough sons born to meet the growing demand for the instruments.[i]
Two cousins who worked together in the same shop twenty-five years ago now have a total of twelve sons who each have their own tabla shops staffed primarily with family members, but also hired help.[ii] Two grandchildren of those same cousins are now going to college to get business degrees and are shifting away from artisanal craftsmanship towards import/export management, because their family’s wholesale business has grown so much that they do not need to make tablas themselves.[iii]
Whether they are oversimplifying the past or lamenting the current state of affairs, two tabla makers with whom I worked closely suggested that in previous generations, success depended on the quality of the drums one produced rather than the quantity.[iv] This transition can be seen as part of a larger pattern of “detraditionalization” as outlined by Beck, Lash, and Giddens in which new opportunities lead individuals away from traditional modes of production.[v] When I asked one wholesaler, Niyaz Ahmed, about that choice, he told me that he would rather make drums than spend the afternoon haggling with a customer. While the profit margin per drum is less, he argued that he can make more drums/day because he is free from having to deal with customers.[vi]On separate occasions, four different Banarasi tabla makers accused wholesalers of “making jalebis”which is applying tuning paste in concentric rings to make the drum head look attractive without putting any effort into balancing the drum’s harmonics, opening up its voice, or otherwise trying to improve its sound quality.[i]
Artisanal Craftsmen and International Markets
Foreign visitors and students passing through town offer tabla makers a different kind of opportunity than local customers. Since they know that these customers are unlikely to return to the shop, there is little incentive for them to spend exorbitant amounts of time tuning their drums. Furthermore, the students themselves often do not have the skills or experience to evaluate drums for sound quality. Those who have ever tried to learn to play tabla will know that it takes weeks if not months of training before new students can even make some of the basic tabla sounds, and even then they would not be consistent enough in their hands to know whether variations in sound were related to the drum or to their playing. As Anwar told me, “If the customer is happy, I am happy” implying that the customer was the ultimate arbiter as to whether or not the instrument was “finished” and that there was no need to work towards improving the sound of an instrument if the customer was satisfied.[i] This rubric is the same for advanced players as it is for novices; however, with novices it seems to take on a different meaning because it is presumed that they won’t know what to listen for or how to do it.[ii] New markets mean new opportunities and many tabla makers learn to adjust their business practices in order to benefit from these new markets as much as possible.
Of course not all foreign customers are tourists just passing through. Many students in Banaras return year after year to further their musical training and often buy multiple drums with each visit. Some stay for weeks, others, months.[iii] I met two such students who are now teachers in their home countries and import tablas for themselves and their students with some regularity. In situations like these, the players prefer to check their drums during the fine-tuning process just like serious local performers do, but often they do not have the opportunity.[iv]
While relatively few artisanal tabla makers regularly ship drums overseas, doing so has forced them to adjust their business practices to include various electronic media for communication and to account for bureaucracies surrounding international shipments, money transfers, and customs. One such tabla maker is Mohammed Anwar, whose attempts to ship drums to a customer, I will refer to as John Smith, in Australia have also led to changes in the instrument’s design and ultimately the creation of an “Australia Model Tabla” with synthetic component parts that can pass through the Australian Quarantine without irradiation. While globalization has affected tabla technology obliquely through the growth of the wholesale market and changing dynamics between tabla makers and visiting foreign musicians, the intervention of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service impacts tabla technology directly through forced incorporation of new materials and structural changes to the instrument.
The Quarantine has very strict, yet vague, rules about the types of animal products that can be allowed into the country and whether or not these products must be subjected to gamma irradiation treatment before they can enter.[i] Irradiation ruins tabla heads. They can no longer hold tension, the straps often disintegrate, and the heads may simply fall apart or crumble to dust. Since 1998, Smith has tried a variety of methods to get around irradiation. When he accompanied his luggage, he could occasionally talk his way into getting them through customs, though it was always a risk and he has been denied entry on multiple occasions. He began sending the metal and wooden shells separately and hiding the leather goods in bed sheets and other textiles so that they might pass unnoticed. One tabla player on an online forum deliberately ordered his drums from Canada because he thought that shipments from Canada would be less scrutinized (even though the drums were still made in India).[ii] Similarly, Smith would sometimes ship his drum heads from Japan.[iii]
Based on his experiences of some tablas passing inspection and others not, through the years, Smith surmised that tablas were more likely to pass through customs if the heads were white, clean looking, and devoid of any hairs. For a brief period, Anwar tried painting the top layer of the drum head with white nail polish to see if it would help. It didn’t. Since the Australian Quarantine’s website did not specify what criteria would allow untanned animal skins to pass, Smith researched a report that outlined the types of diseases which concerned the Quarantine and discovered that these diseases would only travel on thick pieces of rawhide rather than thin ones. Subsequently, the main goat-hide heads were safe; it was the woven ring of buffalo hide and the straps that were the primary problem. It took several incarnations of “Australia Model” drum heads made with various types of synthetic materials before Anwar finally found a combination that would both pass through the Quarantine without irradiation and produce satisfactory sounds.
Anwar used plastic straps from shipping large appliances and imitation-wood window-frame molding, drastically altering the tabla’s design. He also developed new manufacturing methods in order to incorporate these materials that deviate from traditional practices in significant ways. The “Australia Model Tabla” is a unique invention by Mohammed Anwar driven exclusively by the increased international market for tablas and Australia’s trade and quarantine relations with other countries. There are no intellectual property laws that he would be able to enforce should someone copy his design, and his primary protection is the fact that these drums do not circulate in Banaras – only in Australia. Consequently, he has asked me not to publish the details of the techniques involved in producing these instruments.
While Smith is now relatively satisfied with the performance of Anwar’s latest “Australia Model,” he still prefers the look, feel, and sound of traditional Banarasi tablas.[i] As you can see, there are thin wisps of plastic that stick out from the top ring of the drum that is the primary intervention of the Australia Model. Some of Smith’s customers have complained that the plastic sheds and can cause splinters when you play for extended periods of time. Smith advises them to be careful not to touch the outer ring while practicing, which consequently affects the way they approach the instrument, as most beginners and even many advanced players are likely to rest their palms on this part of the instrument during performance.[ii]
Smith is actively looking for a long-term solution that will allow him to import traditional Banarasi tablas on a regular basis without subjecting them to irradiation. From his research, he believes that he can convince the quarantine that the drum heads are safe for import if he can prove that the hides have been treated with calcium hydroxide (lime water) at a ph level of 12.5 or higher. After several failed trips to government offices in Kanpur and Lucknow to meet various export authorities in Uttar Pradesh, he was finally put in contact with someone on the veterinary board in Banaras who should be able to certify the safety of the products. As of October 2012, he has received two small test parcels with the new certification; however, neither was inspected by the quarantine, which only performs random searches. It remains to be seen if the veterinary board seal will prove sufficient. It could mean the end of the partially plastic tabla; which would then become a rare entity known only to Australian tabla players of the last few years.
Tabla making has always followed the needs of tabla players and the market. Regional variations in design reflect similar variations in performance practice.[iii] As the world of tabla performance grows beyond India’s borders, makers continue to innovate and adjust to the specific needs of their customers taking advantage of new business opportunities whenever possible. It is difficult to say what these trends portend for the future. The demand for increasingly cheaper drum sets shipped all over the world is growing, while the number of players who wish to participate in the construction of their instruments and maintain a personal relationship with their makers stays steady. Tabla makers like Anwar and Ekhlak complain that their customers want them to spend extra time fine-tuning their instruments, but then pay a wholesale rate.[iv] If they are unable to raise rates sufficiently to compensate for the extra effort it takes to fine-tune their instruments, they may be forced to work towards producing a higher quantity of lesser quality drums in order to earn a living wage.
Increasing direct engagement between tabla makers and foreign customers may help them maintain a sufficient client base at high enough rates to stay in business; however, doing so complicates business practices drastically. Anwar, for example, depends heavily upon his seventeen-year-old son, Salman, who has learned some English in school and (through interactions with the author and Smith) has a working knowledge of computers and the internet. While communication technologies now enable the long-term personal relationship between players and makers to extend beyond local customers, there are still limitations. Computer-aided telecommunication services, like Skype or Google Hangouts, cannot replace the multi-sensory experience of listening to a new drum being played by one’s own hands.
Appadurai, Arjun. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” Public Culture, 2(2) (March 1990): 1–24.
——-. “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in a Cultural Perspective. Arjun Appadurai, ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service. “Import Case Details – Public Listing.” http://www.theQuarantine.gov.au/icon32/asp/ex_casecontent.asp?intNodeId=8198614&intCommodityId=13334&Types=none&WhichQuery=Go+to+full+text&intSearch=1&LogSessionID=0(accessed on April 3, 2012)
Bates, Eliot. “The Social Life of Musical Instruments” Ethnomusicology 56(3) pp. 363-395, 2012
Beck, Urlich, Scott Lash, and Anthony Giddens. Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press 2009.
Bushberg, Jerold T. “Radiation Exposure and Contamination” Merck Manuals. http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries_poisoning/radiation_exposure_and_contamination/radiation_exposure_and_contamination.html?qt=&sc=&alt= Last modified June 2009 (accessed 3 April 2012)
El-Ojeili, Chamsy, and Patrick Hayden. Critical Theories of Globalization: An Introduction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Khan, Salman “Anwar Tabla Maker” http://www.anwartablamaker.blogspot.com (accessed 17 October 2012)
Kippen, James. “The History of Tabla” In Hindustani Music: Thirteen to Twentieth Centuries. Joep Bor, ed. Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 2010.
Kopytoff, Igor. “Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” In Social Life of Things, Arjun Appadurai, ed. 64–91, 1986.
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: Introduction to Actor Network Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
——-. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993
Myers, Fred. “Wizards of Oz: Nation, State, and Production of Aboriginal Art,” In Empire of Things: Regimes of Value and Material Culture, ed. Fred Myers pp. 165-204. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2001
“Reemixx” Anonymous user on the popular tabla forum: chandrakantha.com http://forums.chandrakantha.com/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=6306&hilit=Reemix#p37296 Posted on 11 August 2009 (accessed 14 October 2012)
Ritzer, George. The Globalization of Nothing 2. Pine Forge Press, 2007
Roda, Allen. Resounding Objects: Musical Materialities and the Making of Banarasi Tablas. Ph.D. diss., New York University, New York. (forthcoming)
World-of-Tabla.com. “Tabla Teachers in USA” http://world-of-tabla.com/tabla_teacher_usa.php (accessed 17 October 2012)
[i] Banarasi tablas are famous for the use of thicker, heavier tuning paste to get their characteristically full, resonant tone. The synthetic ring around the drum head is not as strong as the traditional buffalo hide ring, and consequently Anwar must apply less tuning paste and adjust his tuning methods to compensate. As a professional performer and tabla teacher, Smith is very sensitive to these changes.
[ii] Smith Personal Communication June, 2012
[iii] Regional designs also influence performance practice as players adjust their techniques according to the needs of the instrument as well as request instruments that suit their performance needs. For example, Banarasi tabla players are well known for hitting their drums harder and playing more energetically than players from other traditions, and Banarasi tablas are similarly known for having thicker, more durable heads with heavy amounts of tuning paste that facilitate this style. The instrument design and performance style reinforce each other as beginners learn to strike harder while playing Banarasi tablas and then later require Banarasi tablas in order to strike harder.
[iv] In my dissertation, Resounding Objects, I discuss at length an episode at Ekhlak’s shop where a customer refused to pay him his standard rate and literally shoved a lesser amount of money into Ekhlak’s shirt pocket before grabbing his instrument and running away.
[i] According to permits issued Smith and Anwar under the Australian Quarantine Act Section 13 2AA, and Important Case Details – Public Listing by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, gamma irradiation treatment for untanned hides and skins (all species excluding crocodile skins) is at a minimum of 50 kilogray (kGy). Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service. “Import Case Details – Public Listing.” http://www.the Quarantine.gov.au/icon32/asp/ex_casecontent.asp?intNodeId=8198614&intCommodityId=13334&Types=none&WhichQuery=Go+to+full+text&intSearch=1&LogSessionID=0 (accessed on April 3, 2012)
Merck Pharmaceuticals suggests that human exposure to 30 gray (30Gy) gamma radiation results in 100% chance of death within 48 hours. Jerold T Bushberg, “Radiation Exposure and Contamination” Merck Manuals. Last modified June 2009 http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries_poisoning/radiation_exposure_and_contamination/radiation_exposure_and_contamination.html?qt=&sc=&alt= (accessed 3 April 2012)
[ii] Username “reemixx” on the popular tabla forum: chandrakantha.com (posted on 11 August 2009) http://forums.chandrakantha.com/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=6306&hilit=Reemix#p37296 (accessed 14 October 2012) His drums ultimately traveled three-fourths of the earth’s circumference before reaching him in Perth.
[iii] Multiple interviews with Smith (February and March 2011) and ongoing electronic communication via email, skype, and facebook (April, June, September, and October 2012)
[i] Mohammed Anwar (March 2011)
[ii] One tabla player recounted tales of watching his tabla maker deliberately hide the defections of a particular tabla in order to sell it more quickly to less knowledgeable customers. (Interview March 13, 2011)
[iii] Having spoken with ten international tabla students, both at Banaras Hindu University and undertaking private tutelage, I learned that there is actually a rather vibrant ex-pat community of primarily music students who return each year for the “season,” which is roughly from September to April. Many of them know each other, practice together, and often live in the same guesthouses. One sitar student told me that he can earn enough picking fruit in France each summer to pay for his accommodation and lessons for nine months in Banaras.
[iv] I met one foreign tabla player in the United States who usually orders several tablas at once, chooses the one that suits him the best and then passes the others on to students. He has even asked me to help him adjust the instruments he receives to see if they can be made more suitable, because he is frustrated by the unpredictability of the shipments. He will remain anonymous, because I would not want his students to get the impression that they are playing inferior drums.
[i] These two retailers will remain anonymous because I would not want to publicize that they periodically receive inferior quality products, and potentially harm their business.
[ii] George Ritzer, The Globalization of Nothing 2. Pine Forge Press, 2007
[iii] Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things”
[iv] Fred Myers, “Wizards of Oz”
[i] Fred Myers, “Wizards of Oz: Nation, State, and Production of Aboriginal Art,” In Empire of Things: Regimes of Value and Material Culture, ed. Fred Myers pp. 165-204. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2001
[i] Anwar, Ekhlak, Mumtaz, and Imtiyaz all specifically referred to these concentric rings derogatorily as jalebis, which is the name of a ubiquitous spiral shaped sweet in North India. Imtiyaz said, “Here we don’t make jalebis, we make the lov (the center of the drum head) and the chati (the edge of the drum head) balanced. Take jalebis if you want beauty. If you want voice, don’t take jalebis.” (March 4, 2011) Whether or not a drum head has concentric rings is not a reliable indicator of its sound quality, as there are well known tabla makers outside of Banaras who do so while also balancing and opening the drum’s voice. Banarasi tabla makers, however, suggest that this is also a technique that tabla makers use to sell drums that have not been tuned. For more detail on the structure of tabla sound as it relates to construction practices, see chapters four and five of my forthcoming dissertation.
[i] The oral history I have gathered surrounding tabla making in Banaras comes from multiple formal and informal interviews conducted between 2010 and 2011 with six tabla makers (Anwar, Ekhlak, Munna, Shamshuddin, Waseem, and Mumtaz) representing Banaras’ well-established tabla making families. I cannot confirm for fact; however, I would suggest that with very few potential exceptions, nearly all of Banarasi tabla makers today are related to members of these families through marriage, kinship, or mentorship. I have cross referenced their statements about previous generations to put together a genealogy of tabla making that demonstrates the interrelatedness of the industry in Banaras. As khandāni kām, or “family work,” tabla making is traditionally passed from father to son, with tabla makers only reluctantly contracting laborers from outside the family. While women do contribute substantially to tabla making, they do so from their homes, as many maintain pardah and avoid encounters with men to whom they are unrelated. Consequently there are no female tabla shopkeepers in Banaras. For more information about the relationships between Banarasi tabla makers see chapter six in my forthcoming dissertation, Resounding Objects.
[ii] Bashir-ud-Din and Shams-ud-Din
[iii] Interview with Iqbal and his two sons Arif and Arshad (March 13, 2011)
[iv] Mohammed Anwar and his brother Mumtaz on separate occasions expressed frustration that the practice of wholesale was keeping both the quality and the price of tabla down and making it difficult to raise their rates. They suggested that this practice is relatively new and that in their father’s generation no one could make a living by shipping large orders to Delhi. (Interviews conducted in March, 2011)
[v] Urlich Beck, Scott Lash, and Anthony Giddens. Reflexive Modernization
[vi] Niyaz Ahmed, personal communication February 2011
[i] In local parlance, wholesale karna has become a verb which refers to working towards mass production for large clients, rather than small scale production for individuals. Consequently, wholesale karnewala is the expression used to describe someone who works in this way. The experience of Banarasi wholesalers can be compared to those in other cities; however, there are no cities in India that have as many tabla makers per capita as Banaras. Consequently, the Banarasi situation is also unique in many ways.
[i] These observations come from apprenticeships with Mohammed Anwar and Ekhlak Ahmed from 2010 to 2011, during which time I learned to make my own instruments and also closely monitored interactions between customer and client while working at the tabla shop. I provide an extensive discussion of the fine-tuning of tablas in chapter five of my dissertation. This relationship is also the focus of an article which is currently under review in the journal Asian Music.
[ii] Of the eighteen Banarasi tabla players I interviewed during my fieldwork, all of them owned multiple sets of drums and all but one of them had at least one drum currently in a shop somewhere for repair.
[i] In chapters four and five of my forthcoming dissertation, Resounding Objects, I detail each of the processes involved in tabla making, the pitfalls caused by inconsistent materials that tabla makers must frequently overcome, and the creativity, dexterity, and musicality of tabla makers to improvise solutions to problems that almost invariably emerge in tabla making. I also analyze the craftsmanship of different makers through recordings and spectral analysis to try and articulate quantifiable differences between instruments. Every tabla player and maker I encountered confirmed the notion that all tablas are not made the same and that the materials and craftsmanship involved in tabla making played an important role in the sounds the instrument was capable of producing. For detailed description of these encounters and the processes involved in traditional tabla manufacture, please refer to my dissertation.
[i] Interviews conducted with DMS, BINA, and Lahore Musical Instruments (April 2011).
[i] There are many explanations for why tabla makers themselves have not emigrated overseas, including but not limited to access to travel documents and the financial capacity to travel internationally, subsequent difficulty acquiring the raw materials for tabla manufacture outside of India and competing with Indian tabla makers. Although the shipping costs would go down, the other costs of business, such as rent, would make it nearly impossible for a tabla maker to survive economically in the United States or Europe.
[i] Urlich Beck, Scott Lash, and Anthony Giddens. Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press; and Chamsy El-Ojeili and Patrick Hayden. Critical Theories of Globalization: An Introduction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006
[i] Fusion music was once limited to jazz ensembles like Zakir Hussain and John McGloughlin’s group Shakti and Karsch Kale. However, artists such as Harry Manx and Hindugrass, are increasingly fusing Indian music styles with American folk, country, and bluegrass traditions; Talvin Singh, Buddha Bar, and Thievery Corporation, are excellent examples of performers who incorporate tabla into electronic dance music genres. In 2010, El Repertorio Espanol distributed an advertisement in New York City for an evening of flamenco music, “Amores Quebrados,” in which an image of tabla was featured as “percussion” without any reference to its Indian origins or of its unproblematic inclusion into a proto-typically Spanish musical genre suggesting that beyond “fusion” tabla is simply becoming a standard percussion instrument to be freely incorporated into any musical genre. None of this is surprising, because it was precisely the tabla’s ability to mimic the repertoire of several other percussive traditions that led to its rise in popularity in the mid-eighteenth century. (Kippen 2010)
[ii] Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” Public Culture, 2(2) (March 1990): 24
[iii] Here I refer not only to Arjun Appadurai and Igor Kopytoff’s articles in the edited volume Social Life of Things, but also to Eliot Bates’ recent article The Social Life of Musical Instruments. Bates incorporates more recent theories of material culture (such as actor-network theory and Jane Bennet’s notion of “thing power”) into a concept of “social life” that places greater emphasis on what the objects do to the humans they engage with rather than simply drawing attention to the myriad relationships humans have with objects. For further discussion, see Arjun Appadurai “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value” and Igor Kopytoff “Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in a Cultural Perspective. Edited by Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986. For further insight into the connection between musical instrument studies and theories of material culture, see Eliot Bates, “The Social Life of Musical Instruments” Ethnomusicology 56(3) pp. 363-395 2012; and for an excellent discussion of the “vital materiality” of objects and their ability to influence outcomes see Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press Books, 2009.
[iv] Following the example of Bruno Latour in We Have Never Been Modern and Reassembling the Social, and Jane Bennet in Vibrant Matter, I shift my focus on the study of musical instruments away from what the objects “are” and focus rather on what they “do” and subsequently treat them as non-human actors rather than passive recipients of human agency. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993; Reassembling the Social: Introduction to Actor Network Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
[i] Kippen points out that the extensive iconographic references to other types of drums prior to 1745 and the absolute lack of any iconography of tabla prior to that date suggests that if tablas existed prior to 1745, they certainly were not popular in the courts at that time. James Kippen, “The History of Tabla” In Hindustani Music: Thirteenth to Twentieth Centuries. Joep Bor, ed. Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 2010.