Interview with Anuradha Pal–a female Tabla Player

On personal notes, it is very rare to find female Tabla players. So, if you, dear reader, are an avid fan of Indian classical music, we have something special for you–a female Tabla player hailed as the “Queen of Tabla”!

Mumbai-based Tabla virtuoso and percussionist, Anuradha Pal, is an internationally acclaimed and popular Tabla soloist and versatile accompanist with top Indian classical, African, Jazz & World musicians in some of the major festivals in UK, USA, Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok & Africa. She is hailed as the Tabla Queen–indeed, a rarity among the Indian classical music scene, playing Tabla.

Anuradha Pal

She got her training from none other than the very Tabla legends Ustad Alla Rakha and Ustad Zakir Hussain. Though, in those days, it was not popular to be a female Tabla player, yet she got incredible support from her parents Devinder and Ila Pal, and later on from her husband Shyam Sharma. She was chosen as one of the 30 leading Women of India & a percussionist par excellence by the India Today in 2006.

Clarity, tonal balance, pinpoint precision in rhythm & an amazing repertoire spiced with spontaneous creativity have made Anuradha ‘the most influential female musician of Indian classical music’ according to the A. V Max Music Magazine, May 2001.

Anuradha Pal is the founder & music director of two distinct Fusion bands:

  • Stree Shakti’ is Asia’s much acclaimed, all female percussion-based, instrumental and vocal fusion ensemble
  • Recharge’ is a unique World music fusion group combining various elements of Indian, African, Latin and Jazz music

Anuradha is the Only Indian woman musician and the youngest Indian musician to perform in the world renowned WOMAD festival in UK to an audience of 1.5 lakh people in 1999. Anuradha holds the unique distinction of performing Tabla solos for dignitaries like the Queen Elizabeth of England, the honourable Prime Minister & President of India. She was awarded the highest cultural award ‘Sanskrutic Puraskar’, by Maharashtra State in 2006 & the ‘Zee Astitva Award’ for musical excellence in 2007.

We had a telephonic interview with Anuradha.


Q1. Please tell us about your childhood, education and how did you start learning?

I started learning classical, vocal and Tabla together at the age of 7. Actually, there is a lot of musical background in my family. A lot of musicians used to visit our house. My mother is a well known painter and writer but she used to sing classical music at that time. We used to have a lot of exposure to classical music and music in general. My Grandfather’s name is M.P. Vyas. He was a great educationist and he founded many schools all over India. He considered music and extracurricular activities, and developing personality very essential part of school education. He had a holistic approach towards education. He was not like study, study and only study. Because of that, I had grown up in a family tradition of music, so I decided to learn classical music.

Firstly, I started learning vocal music. My brother used to learn Tabla. I used to identify the rhythm and a taal of a particular composition etc. Then, somebody said that you seem to be rhythmically inclined towards Tabla or you have an extra sense for Tabla, so why don’t you learn Tabla. But my teacher refused to teach me because he said that you are a girl. So, I decided to learn it on my own by just observing my brother. And after 6-7 months, I played for my teacher and he was stunned. He said that how did you learn Tabla and after that he started teaching me. I became more and more interested in perusing Tabla. It was the time when I was learning from Manik Rao Popatkar and Madan Mishra from Benaras Gharana. I was seven and half year old when I started playing Tabla and I was 11 years old when started doing concerts. And then in 1987, I came in contact with Ustad Alla Rakha ji and Ustad Zakir Hussain Ji. He would have quietly kept listing and observing me in the concerts. One day, he said that why don’t you play for me. First time I met Zakir Bhai when I was seven years old. When my grandmother passed away we had a concert. I admired him very much. I had a great impact. I was very fortunate to learn from both in a traditional way of Guru Shishya Parampara.

Q2. Generally, we see that other instrument like flute, harmonium, Sitar etc. are famous with ladies, were there many girl students in those day?

You must have the courage to do that. First you need to be dam good. Learning from them was my good fortune. Once I knew that they would teach me I totally surrendered to their greatness. This is unfortunately is not seen in today’s students. They come, they learn and they take whatever they want from you. They don’t have that commitment. I decided that if I want to learn from the best, I will have to be the best student. Otherwise, they would not be inspired to give me what they want. A Guru is as great as his students make him feel. If the guru is not given adequate respect and inspiration to teach, he would not be able to give as much as he is capable of. It is a student’s responsibility to respond in that way. In that way, my parents are a very great inspiration, guiding force and shining example. People always remember my Gurus. But if my parents have not supported me especially being a girl, giving the encouragement and openness, and had the maturity to think about music and think about girl traveling of her own taking up all the risk and chances; if they would have traditional mind-set, they would not have allowed me to do so. So, I owe it to my parents. What I am today is because of my parents.

Q3. There are four aspects in our scriptures: Matri devo bhava, pitri devo bhava, gurur devo bhava and atithi devo bhava. You have talked about the first three. Who is your atithi devo bhava?

I can’t say exactly who is my atithi.

Q4. Should I tell you?

Ans. Yes.

Q5. It was somebody who came in your life afterwards—your husband?

Yes, you are absolutely right. My husband is a very progressive and encouraging person. I remember the day I got married, I did a concert. Just after the Pheras. There were some Rajasthani folk musicians who had come to perform at the wedding. I had done a fusion project with them earlier. So, they were good friends of mine. When I asked them to come to the wedding, I didn’t tell them that I am going to be married. When they saw me in the bride’s dress they were surprised and said “Oh, it’s your marriage. Why didn’t you tell us?”I replied to them asking them to perform and not thinking that it’s their sister’s marriage. After the marriage, they requested that they want their younger sister to perform with them. My husband went and got the Tabla and I performed with them; even my husband joined them. Actually, he is an IT professional. He is very fond of music and has a family tradition of music and culture. So, you can say that he is my atithi devo bhava. I am really fortunate to have the best parents, best Guru and best atithi.

Even my brother-bhabhi and their kids are so sweet, supportive and caring that I feel very lucky. Honestly speaking, I had to go through a lot of hard times in my carrier. I had to face a lot of discrimination. At times, people want to recognize your talent. People would praise you but won’t give you chance. If they give you chance, they won’t give you money. If they give you money, they would make sure that your name does not come in publicity. They would try to reduce you in a bottle. In some way, they would deny your respect. Had I come from a musician family I would have already known the tricks of the trade. I come from I very idealistic family. My father struggled in the days of partition. His father died when my father was 7 years old. He used to study under street lights. He got scholarships. Same was with my mother. My father retired as a Joint Managing Director of a pharmaceutical company. Both my parents have inspired me to beat the discrimination by hard work. Unfortunately, today’s people are getting far-far away from these values. Today’s students come to me to learn Tabla. I learnt Tabla for 15 years from my Guru. But in 15 days, student’s mother come to me and ask: “in how many days my son will learn Tabla?” I tell them that I am still learning and they say that you were different but my son is smart!

Q6. Does the company of a great Guru help in learning the good values and virtues, besides learning music from him, which can only be done by accompanying them and not from a distant place?

Yes, nowadays, through things like Facebook, you become friends. You try to learn from a Guru by watching and observing him once a week and all that.

Q7. How did you keep yourself physically fit? Given that you have to practice for long hours sitting in the same posture and also assuming the fact that Indian ladies have lesser hemoglobin, calcium, potassium etc. as compared to the other ladies of the world?

I don’t feel any weakness. Whenever we practice we always remember God. Whatever we practice we give it to God. We don’t practice for others but it is for something which is now prevalent. It is something beyond worship. Practice is like hawan for us. Like in olden days, women used to do tapasya sitting in the same posture, remembering God. We do the same and play Tabla.

Q8. How much long did you practice at one go?

Anuradha with Ustad Zakir Hussain (Her Guru)

10 hours for 40 days. I did chilla which is a tradition of Benaras Gharana when I was learning from them. I am very open minded and want to learn every time. I don’t understand that question hat I have already earned that name, what would I do now? I don’t know what grade I had done. I have just started. And secondly, there is so much to do ahead. Like they say that I have miles to go before I sleep. I have certain experience in my life. I met with some accidents where I virtually died. I was coming back from Puna to Bombay and when the accident took place, the car went all over the place. My uncle was driving the car. I would have also died. Through my leg was hurt but I didn’t have even a scratch on my hand. Then I was on the wheel chair. And on the wheel chair I went abroad and did 21 concerts for two and a half months because I had already made a commitment to my organizers. This discipline has been inculcated by my parents that if you make a commitment, stand by it. I am a Rajput, so pran jaye par vachan na jaye.

Q9. I saw on your website that you have performed in Spirit of Unity Concert at Puttaparti. How was your experience with Sri Sathya Sai baba?

I had a very great experience with him. When I first played there, he called me inside and said, “You are an excellent Tabla player. God will bless you with the best.”

Recently I played in Canada. There is a very big festival called Multi music Montreal. It is world music festival. You will be proud to know that I am the only Indian women musician who had performed at Woodstock festival before a phenomenal number of four lakh people. I was about to cry on stage. I played there with my fusion band called Recharge. Incidentally, I am a brand ambassador of Unicef where all the work is done for the empowerment of women and children. Women should be treated fairly. There is a very beautiful poem written by my mother. “I am women”. Neither affirming nor accreting but standing straight and erect to say I AM. She only wants to be recognized as an individual. Women should be given equal opportunities, which is their right but they don’t get it. Whenever I play Tabla alone, I try to give my audience something different. It is not like playing regular taals. I play some difficult taal because I believe that if you don’t expose your audience to something beyond that they have heard, how they will learn that there is something so deep in the music.

Q10. You have given background music for Gajgamini. How difficult it was?

I am a Tabla player and a percussionist. But I am a composer as well. I have composed several albums. One among which is a spiritual music album called Mirwal Streeshakti. There is a very interesting composition called rag-taal yatra, which is from morning Raag to late evening Rraag using taals and gatis. I am also doing the Recharge CD. I am the composer along with my other team members. I have composed for some documentary films also.

Q11. On that point, I would like to ask you that why don’t the great Indian classical Indian musicians have more exposure in film music?

People do not have patience. These days, people compose music at home using various kinds of new technologies and that’s all. You listen to 50’s and 60’s music. Why it is evergreen? Because everybody’s energy collectively created that music. You see Shankar-Jaikishan, Naushad, SD Burman, RD Burman etc. They were all great musicians. They gave time to music. Nowadays, you work for ten films. You have 5 days, so you want to finish in quickly. They want to save their budget also. If they want people like us to work for them, they will have to pay more. They say that I need a song within one or two hours, that is why great musicians like Shiv-Hari said that they would not work for anybody except Yash Chopra because other people do not give them space to compose music. Now you tell if this is their condition where people like me stand. Nobody wants to give a chance to us. Also, we do not copy remix or do any type of fake music. They don’t emphasize on quality. They want the work very quickly. You are talking about films, bbut what about the organizations? How many organizations are giving chance to young organizations? They are only giving chance to senior musicians to perform.

Q12. In one of his interviews, Zakir Bhai said that he enjoyed the company of Shiv-Hari the most. Which artist do you admire the most?

I would say the same musicians, Shiv-Hari Ji. What is great about them is that you have an equal opportunity to play with them. Some musicians do not give you a chance to play. They don’t let you open they; always try to dominate you. What makes these two great is that they don’t bother if other person gets more important. I never feel threatened playing with them. Actually they encourage me to play more. They say play more, play more. They say that young talent should be more exposed. Unfortunately, there is some politics these days. Some Tabla players who are actually not so good at playing Tabla, they are playing because they are very good at connecting with people. Previously, group-ism was not there. But because these days everything becomes commercial, so it has come in classic music also. Because of that, music is suffering.

Q13. Do you feel there is monopoly of gents in music too?

Yes, there is so much of that. Sometimes we are forced to think that when will we get the opportunity to be equal. I have never expected to be given special treatment.

Q14. Whenever you get an award in India or abroad, who you remember first?

God! Whatever happens is because of the blessings of God. I have a very deep connection with God. It is not a tradition or a ritual. But I believe that anything I do and anything I am must be dedicated either to God or my parents. For me my parents are God.

Q15. What type of Tabla you use and what is its weight of it?

I use brass Tabla—it is around 3 kilos. I am very particular about my instrument and I don’t compromise on it. Usually, Tabla is of Sheesham. Nowadays, it is very difficult to find a good wooden Sheesham Tabla.

Q16. Did you try to make some innovations in your instrument?

Yes. Recently, when I was in Canada, I played an instrument called anu-lokik. It sounds like a cross between a Ghatam and Tavil. It has a lot of different tones. It was very well appreciated there. Still, I am working on some innovation with Tabla.

Q17. Any message for the new students especially for girls?

Firstly, never treat yourself as a girl. Treat yourself as an individual. Believe in yourself that you can do anything. If you are going with suspicion, you are never going to go ahead. You have to go with faith. Have faith in you ability. Make sure that you have good training.

One thought on “Interview with Anuradha Pal–a female Tabla Player”

  1. Thank you! You are a great inspiration! The Lord has lead me to learn tabla, which I will do whatever The Lord asks of me, but I wondered if women played tabla, because I never have seen any, so I googled and found this article. I am a self realized yogini, studying classical Indian music and I love singing and playing bhajans at Temple too. I hope to one day be able to play tabla at Temple too. All that I do is for Lord Shiva, He is my beloved husband. You have been blessed and I love your devotion, it is so beautiful! I must thank you again, because you give me assurance that I can indeed fulfill what Lord Shiva has requested of me!!! Jai Shri Krishna! Haribol!

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