Women and their instruments
Meeting the ‘princess of tabla’ and others breaking gender barriers in the male world of Indian classical percussion
At the age of 5, when Rimpa Siva told her father Pandit Swapan Siva, a respected tabla player in Kolkata, that she wanted him to teach her, he suggested she try vocal music or the sitar. But she watched him teach others, and imbibed the techniques and rhythms from afar.
“He saw how interested I was and began teaching me (at age 6),” the 24-year-old said in Bengali-accented Hindi on the morning of her concert, which opened the Saz-e-Bahar festival, featuring women instrumentalists, on 10-11 April at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai.
Siva progressed rapidly under her father’s tutelage, debuting at 10. She was hailed as a child prodigy, and in 1998 became the subject of a French film, Rimpa Siva, Princess Of Tabla. Today, she is known for her technical virtuosity and mastery of compositions unique to the Farukhabad lineage, to which her father’s guru, the late Ustad Karamatullah Khan, belonged. While vocal music has gharanas (schools), it would be more accurate to speak of lineages for tabla, according to James Kippen, a Canada-based scholar of Hindustani music and an expert on the history of the tabla. Delhi is the oldest, followed by Lucknow—both originated in the 18th century, soon after the tabla came into being. The other main lineages, all of them dating to the 19th century, are Farukhabad, Ajrara, Banaras, Qasur and Punjab.
In a solo performance at the NCPA festival, Siva demonstrated her virtuosity, playing different pieces in the 16-beat teen taal, including one composed by her father and one by Khan. Ahead of the Mumbai show, Siva had just completed a six-concert tour in Punjab and was headed to Amravati in eastern Maharashtra to conduct a two-day workshop along with her father.
Siva’s accomplishments should not lull us, however, into believing that gender barriers in Indian classical music have tumbled. Gender bias and stereotyping are topics that need much more airing in this field, where only a clutch of women play instruments that are considered to be masculine.Rajna Swaminathan, although the latter is based in the US, which has a vibrant Carnatic music scene. Sukkanya Ramgopal plays the ghatam, Lata Ramachar, the kanjira, and Bhagyalakshmi M. Krishna, the morsing. This is not an exhaustive list, but offers a ballpark number.
If the number of women percussionists is to increase, more girls need to begin learning, since only a few students will have the ability, tenacity and diligence to make it professionally. Few girls show an inclination for percussion instruments, however, and of those who do, some are discouraged by parents.
For instance, of the 40 students who learn the tabla from Pune-based Savani Talwalkar, only four are girls. Savani, 26, who learnt from her eminent father, Suresh Talwalkar, was his only female student.
This stems at least partly from gender stereotypes suggesting that women are not strong enough to handle percussion instruments or not suited to mastering complex rhythms. “It is still a novelty to see a woman percussionist,” says Swaminathan, 24, on email. She learnt from maestro Umayalpuram Sivaraman, has accompanied top musicians, and will begin a PhD in music at the US’ Harvard University this autumn. “This definitely has its roots in what society considers to be feminine and masculine. Musical practice is gendered, even if the music is not.”
“About rhythms, we’re dealing with a masculine idea of complexity, i.e. virtuosic, mathematical and difficult to execute,” she says. “But musical complexity can also be found in tonal nuances, subtle shifts in feel and intentional silence. These are no less difficult to achieve, but are not marked as masculine. And it probably takes much more strength and stamina to dance than to play the mridangam, and we know that women can do that. But dancing fits into society’s idea of what’s feminine, so no one questions it.”
Even after the Brahmanical turn, some women mridangists, such as K.V. Kanakambujam and V.S. Janaki, managed to remain on stage until the 1950s. But this was ironically because of another bias: Brahmin women who were taking to vocal music for the first time could not find men to accompany them. “But once men started playing for women vocalists, opportunities for women percussionists diminished,” says Swaminathan.
The first professional woman mridangist who made a name for herself, in the 1980s, was Dandamudi Sumathi Ramamohan Rao, a trailblazer who learnt from her late husband and continues to play.
In Hindustani music, too, paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries showed women playing many instruments, including drums, Kippen says on email. In fact, the earliest image of a tabla player that Kippen has seen is of a woman, from the 1730s. “Tabla was the domain of the Dhadhis, who had access to male performance spaces in the Mughal world; female Dhadhis, also widely known as Domni and later on as Mirasan, played in the private Mughal spaces of the harem and zenana.”
At the same time, tabla and sarangi players had a lower status than vocalists because they came from the ranks of rural folk musicians and then became associated with tawaifs—dancer-singers with whom they had family ties, and whom they taught and accompanied. These distinctions persisted even after the modernization of Hindustani music in the 20th century.
“The prejudice (against women playing the tabla) perhaps stems from the lingering stigma associated with tabla’s proximity to the tawaifs,” says Kippen. “Attitudes are slow to change. I’d liken this to India’s attitudes towards its great female athletes which, though admiring, is also asking why these young women aren’t taking up more quiescent domestic roles.”
In the 20th century, Mumbai-based Parsi musician Aban Mistry, who died three years ago at the age of 72, was likely the first professional woman tabla player—the Hindustani counterpart of Sumathi Ramamohan Rao. But she was largely a soloist—one kind of tabla playing—the others being accompanying instrumentalists and supporting vocalists. All three carry their challenges and prestige, but regular accompaniment provides the most exposure.
Even though Siva has accompanied top artistes—a few years ago, she went on a two-month tour of the US with flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia—she is largely a solo artiste. She is still young and will undoubtedly grow, but the question of whether her path might have been different had she been a man, is worth asking.