A miniature damroo that once belonged to R.D. Burman, Raj Kapoor’s pet dafli, gongs from China, rain sticks from Africa, temple bells from Pune—every drum in Pratap Rath’s collection comes with a story. And if you can coax a single interesting beat out of a contraption, he is in the market for it. A bamboo tong from Indonesia, for instance, or a toy tube from a one-dollar store that coughs up an eerie sound if it is waved around.
Rath has now been playing percussion tracks for Bollywood film songs for three decades. He has played for Laxmikant Pyarelal’s orchestra-heavy songs, Khayyam’s melodic tunes and A.R. Rahman’s grand scores. But Rath is more than just a tabla player or a drummer. Early in his years in Bollywood, he realized that to stay on top in his line, he had to go beyond the classical tabla he was trained in. That is when he decided to scour the countryside for percussion instruments.
“I have travelled the length and breadth of this country in search of different sorts of drums. I have been to Delhi, Jaipur, the Northeast, and the interiors of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. When I travel abroad, all I do is shop for drums. The last I bought was a tumba from the US; it cost me Rs8,000 and gives me the kind of beat no other instrument can,” he says.
In his home in Mumbai’s suburban Borivali, Rath has barely enough space to park his collection of over a 100 percussion instruments. He has to hire a flat in the neighbourhood to store them.
Not all of Rath’s drums are really exotica sourced from unknown corners of the world. His favourite among the lot is a commonplace folk drum from Uttar Pradesh, called bagalbacha (literally, a child cradled in the arm).
It is a snug drum that fits into the nook of the arm. It has a lively resonance that Rath discovered, to his great glee, bears close resemblance to the talking drum of West Africa. He coaxes unusual sounds out of the ordinary madal of Assam and the morsing of Tamil Nadu to add extra flavour to songs and background tracks.
“I love to extract offbeat sounds out of these drums. For instance, no one believes that a huge Chinese gong can be used to convey a soft, sibilant sound. I use a brush and create the effect. I have even used Tibetan cymbals to create a softer effect,” says Rath. His drum effects are very much in demand, even among digital-savvy younger music composers such as Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Shantanu Moitra.
Rath’s search for sounds sometimes ends up with him putting together his own drum. Gut strings, goat skin and a piece of tin are all he needs to assemble a quirky drum of his own.
Rath cannot put a value to his collection. But, very often he wakes up, he says, in a sweat after a nightmare in which he has lost his drums.