“I hardly play tabla!” he chuckles. “But I am indeed a scholar and a passionate composer,” Pt Sushil Kumar Jain, 76, humbly adds. Known to have been a formidable tabla player in his youth, he accompanied many luminaries. Engrossed in the blissful world of tabla bols, musical theory, linguistics and scholastic interpretation, the cheerful maestro appears perpetually intoxicated with his sublime subject. A discussion with him is an enchanting journey that unfolds many fascinating avenues.
'Partition has not affected the music of the two countries. The core of Punjab gharana remains the same. But, it is unfortunate that the finest of its masters lived and died in Pakistan.'
Pt Sushil Kumar Jain, tabla stalwart
Pt Jain, based in Mohali, was recently conferred with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Amrit Award. The one-time award was given to 84 artistes from the field of performing arts who are above the age of 75 years, and haven’t been accorded any national honour in their career so far, to commemorate India’s 75th year of Independence. “Breaking the protocol, in an unusual gesture, the Vice President personally greeted all of us and touched the feet of the awardees,” he smiles.
Though famous for its sumptuous cuisine, folk music and home to many Bollywood celebrities, Punjab’s ancient musical heritage remains little known to many. The Punjab gharana of percussion is shrouded in complex and contradicting theories surrounding its origins. Many owe it to the Pakhawaj master Pt Lala Bhavanidas, whose powerful playing overpowered and subdued the then percussionists of the Delhi Sultanate.
Essentially a formidable and difficult Pakhawaj-based style, it gradually entered the tabla domain and produced stalwarts like Miyan Faqir Baksh, Miyan Qadir Baksh, Ustads Nabi Baksh Kalrewale, Baba Malang Khan and the mysterious and hedonistic genius Firoz Khan, who popularised it in Calcutta.
From his gurus — Pt Naurata Ram Mohan, a theatre personality, the revered Ustad Bhai Lachhman Singh Seen and Ustad Iqbal Muhammad Khan from Miyan Faqir Baksh’s direct lineage — Pt Jain inherited an oceanic repertoire of this vast and ancient tradition. “We derive pakhawaj from pakh-baaj. Pakh originates from the Sanskrit ‘paksha’ meaning shoulder and ‘baaj’ refers to style. No wonder it is such a difficult instrument as the power to play it is produced right from the shoulders down to the hands,” Pt Jain explains.
Acknowledged for his immense contribution to the Punjab gharana, he spends most of his time penning a pothi (comprehensive and voluminous treatise) with numerous traditional as well as his own compositions that run into thousands. An erudite scholar of Sanskrit and equally fluent in Urdu, he explains the essence of each composition illustrated in his book through eloquent self-composed shlokas written below it. Pt Jain proudly attributes the ultimate origin of Indian music to the Vedas and of the tabla to the damroo, an assumption, which he says, is both symbolic and scientific.
Reciting a famous Punjab gat composition, ‘Dhaana katak dhene katakata dhe dhe’, he illustrates the thrilling surprises Miyan Qadir Baksh, his grand guru, would spring up during its rendition. “Spontaneity and exquisite texture are the specialities of my tradition,” he shares.
Although the idraak or intrinsic strain of thought remains the same, he says that each maestro throughout Punjab gharana’s history has contributed to what it is today. “The Punjab baaj (playing style) is a guldasta, a fragrant bouquet in which the contribution of each great figure is like a flower with a unique colour,” he shares.
The jovial and affable maestro shares rare knowledge generously, even with children, though he detests being called ‘ustad’ or ‘pandit’. “Tabla learning is unfortunately on the decline today. The younger generation is increasingly westernised,” he says.
Divided between India and Pakistan, the Punjab gharana continues to flourish in both countries. However, he believes that its traditional repertoire needs to be more frequently rendered. “Partition has not affected the music of the two countries. The core of Punjab gharana remains the same. It is unfortunate that the finest of its masters lived and died in Pakistan,” laments Pt Sushil Kumar Jain.
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