In 1997-98, I conducted a series of interviews with percussionists to discuss their thoughts on rhythm. The following is an excerpt from my interview with Sharda Sahai (1935-2011) that took place on December 12, 1997 in Southall, London, England.
Teaching Time Feel
RH When you teach students tabla in a traditional Indian setting, how do you first teach them to think about keeping steady time?
SS First we try to get them to clap and hit somehow, somewhere the time.
RH Hit their body?
SS Their body, with feet, with hand, with mind, or some way they have to keep time. First, we teach them one against one, then two against one, then four against one. Everything is against one.
RH Do you use numbers, or do you use bols?
SS We do both ways, but most often we use bols. We make phrases like [clap on capitals]:
One against one: Te Te Te Te
Two against one: Te te Te te Te te Te te
Four against one: Te ra Ki ta Te ra Ki ta Te ra Ki ta Te ra Ki ta
Then we give a phrase with a different count:
Ki ta Ta ka Ki ta Ta ka Ki ta Ta ka
From here we give some rhythm with still a different count:
Te ra Ki ta Ta ka
RH So the length changes as the phrase changes?
SS Yes, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3. We teach them a few of these phrases and make them practice, then we give them another rhythm.
RH When you are teaching the basic one against one, do you teach groups of 2, 3, and 4, or do you also teach 5, 7, etc.?
SS Not like the South. We don’t teach that way. If it comes, it comes, but we don’t say in particular, this is 5, this is 3, this is 7. We teach them as different rhythms “against.” If I want to teach 3, I teach 3, then I say 3 against 1, or 1 ½ against 1, or 6 against 1.
RH With young students do you ever use a metronome?
SS Yes. If their time is not getting perfect, then I make them use a metronome. In India, everyone can’t have a metronome because it is too expensive. But here in North America I make them use one.
RH So you think it is good to use a metronome?
SS Sure, for a little while, but not forever. Indian music is not very much like a metronome. Sometime if you are perfect in time, the other people are not perfect in time.
RH Do you ever use a metronome yourself?
SS Sometimes in practice I use one.
RH Why would you use a metronome?
SS I use it to keep from developing a habit of going faster or slower; to stay in one place and to check the speed. I use it for both reasons. I don’t want to go too much slower in speed because when I get slower, I am going to stop playing.
RH If a young student is having trouble playing with good time, what other things would you do besides use a metronome?
SS Make them play with other people. I have a student practice with other students and after a while they get good time.
RH When you are first teaching students one against one, do you show them the tala cycle right from the beginning?
SS Not in the beginning. Later we show them the time cycle.
RH How soon do you start showing them the tala?
SS Not soon. They first have to be able to learn the patterns. Most often we say, “double it.” They have to understand that one is not fixed, it is not a metronome; it can be slower or faster. You only understand timing when you double it.
RH Do you think it is important to have some sort of physical movement?
SS Yes, this is the best way to get perfect rhythm. A drummer has to accompany other people, so if he is not perfect, he cannot survive. The drummer’s time has to be perfect.
RH Do you ever tap on the student’s leg?
SS Sometimes, yes.
RH I have heard stories about teachers whacking their students.
SS Yes, if somebody has very bad time, then he hits them.
Indian students vs. Western students
RH Do you find any difference in the time sense between Indian students and Western students?
SS Somehow, with Western students you very rarely find one whose time is not good.
RH Very rarely?
SS Yes, very rarely. Otherwise, everyone’s time is okay.
RH What about Indian students?
SS Indian students have trouble for timing. Western students also have trouble but not as much as Indian students.
RH Why do you think this is?
SS I think because at a very young age, Western students are playing drums or piano or some other instrument. Indian students only listen to music. Some of them come from a family that has no background to understand music.
RH Most of the students in India who study tabla start very young, don’t they?
SS Most start very young, but you find some older students, too.
RH Do the older students have trouble with time?
RH How would you explain to a Western musician what a tala cycle is?
SS Tal cycle is a time cycle. In India we have several different time cycles that we use and give them different names. An Indian book says we have 235 time cycles. For example, 6 is dadra, 8 is kaharva, 16 is tin tal, 15 is pancam savari, 10 is jaap tal, 7 is rupak.
RH You teach all these?
SS Yes, but still we teach “against.” For example, when we play with what you would call a triplet feel, we say it is 1½ against 1. It is more difficult when you do 5 against 4.
RH What do you think about when you are playing?
SS Whatever tal I am playing, the cycle goes inside me. I don’t care about the sitar player, the dancer, or anybody, the time goes with me.
RH So if you’re playing tin tal…..?
SS Tin tal I feel all the time.
RH Tin tal is a 16-beat cycle. When you play in tin tal is your mind dividing up the 16 beats into smaller grouping?
SS 4 groups of 4.
RH Do you subdivide these groups?
SS 4, 4, 4, 4. We don’t divide less than that. This kind of counting would be too much when you are playing a particular thing.
RH I would call that having a grid in your mind when you play, and you just place the rhythms in that grid.
RH I find that Western students who don’t have very good time do not have this grid going on in their heads.
SS That is true. I find with Western students their time is okay, but their hand control affects their time sense.
RH Do you find with Indian students that some don’t have this internal pulse?
SS Sure, you find it everywhere.
RH I find it very difficult to teach time sense if people don’t feel it.
SS Yes, very difficult.
RH It’s either natural or it’s not. You can teach it to a certain degree, but somehow it has to be natural.
SS If they don’t have this natural time sense, they can’t have freedom. If you have to teach it to them, they can’t have freedom. They are only trying to play what is taught to them rather than feeling it from inside them. When we learn the system and have a natural time sense, then we have freedom. We don’t have to think about anything we play.
RH I wonder why some people have it and some people don’t.
SS It is God gifted.
RH I agree.
Tin tal; 8-bar phrases
RH Why is tin tal the most common tal?
SS It is common because it is easy for the listener; it’s easy to listen to. It’s easy for the player, too, because it falls evenly into 4 groups of 4. Other tals are not even, like 3+2+3+2, or 4+2+3+5. They have to think a little hard. 4 is easy.
RH So you think it is because it is even. In Western music, too, we have 8-bar phrases. I wonder why that feels natural to human beings, that feeling of 8 or 16?
SS Because the rhythm they hear most of the time is 4, 2, 8 or 3, 6. 3 or 6 also easily goes, but most classical music is in 4.
RH Why do you think humans feel that, though? Why does 5 not feel normal?
SS 5 does not feel normal because it is hard for counting, hard for walking, hard for thinking.
RH Because it is uneven?
SS Yes, uneven.
RH Why do you think tihais are a group of three instead of some other grouping, like a group of 4?
SS Some tihais are 4, but that is called chauhai, not tihai. Tihai is 3. It has to do with mathematics. With 16, you end on 17 – tihai. For dividing it is very difficult, for example, to count 17 instead of 16.
RH Do you think dividing something 3 times gives a feeling of ending?
RH A chauhai would feel different from a tihai?
SS Yes. I just played a concert two months ago in which there were around two thousand people in the audience. No Indians, everybody was Western. When the tihai ended, everyone enjoyed it and was clapping. How did they get that feeling? I don’t know.
RH So they just naturally felt that even they didn’t understand technically what was happening?
SS I think that among the two thousand people maybe ten knew what was happening.
RH So there is something natural about that.
SS In India, the same thing happens. When the tihai ends, you get applause.
RH It’s odd how humans just have a feeling for these different groups of numbers. Do you think most rhythms are constructed from 2s and 3s?
SS Mostly it is 2. If you think about nature: day and night; evening and morning. Everything goes like that.
RH In 2s.
RH Like a yin/yang kind of thing.
SS Life/death, young/old – anything that is counted. Tabla/bayan, although nobody says tabla/bayan.
RH In the West we have piano/forte, but everyone just says piano. So you think it is mostly 2s?
SS Mostly 2. 2 or 1 or 4, whichever is even. I think people easily understand this.
RH With very complicated rhythms, very long ones, do you still reduce to 2s and 1s?
SS Yes. Any complicated rhythm you do “against,” but still you are keeping 2 or 4 or 1. You say: 1½ against 1; 2 against 1; 3 against 1; 5 against 1; 7 against 1; or 1¼ against 1; 1¾ against 1. Everything goes “against.” One is there. I don’t know how people in other musical cultures think. You find cross rhythm in Western music, Indian music, everywhere. Still, rhythm is 1 against 1, cross is 1½ or 1¼ or 1¾.
RH When you think of something “against,” it is always 1 against 1, 1¼ against 1, 1½ against 1; it’s never 11/3 against 1?
SS No, we don’t think that way because we have a very particular rhythmic set-up where you can do “against” of anything. For example, 1½ against is called ari. This ari laykari can be 1½ against, or 3 against 1, or 6 against 1, or 12 against 1, but it is still ari. Then comes 1¼ against which is called savai. This can be 1¼ against 1, 2½ against 1, 5 against 1, but it is still savai. Then there are other laykari like 7, which is 1¾ against 1, or 3½ against 1.
Older masters have done something else you can find, but it is very difficult to listen to and very difficult to play, so most people don’t play it. They say 6 against 4 is ari, 9 against 4 is kuwari, 13½ against 4 is viyari. They keep going like that in quarter, quarter, but it is very difficult to play. Otherwise, it is very simple, ari, kuwari, viyari. Ari is 6, kuwari is 5, viyari is 7. I play 9 against 4, which is 2¼ against 1, but when you go more, it is very, very difficult. You have to cut it down yourself because somebody is keeping time and you have to play with that time.
RH When other musicians in India are learning about time, for example a sitarist or vocalist, do they learn basically the same way tabla players learn?
SS Yes. They have to practice scales or modes in rhythms, but they learn the same way.
RH Do you find that Indian musicians who play other instruments or who are singers generally have good time?
SS I think so.
RH Is this because of the training system?
SS Yes, but they don’t have very good time like in South India.
SS Yes. South India is very good because everybody has to learn the same thing. Vina, vocal, violin, mrdangam, or dance, anything.
RH So they all know the same material?
RH That’s not the case in North India?
SS No, and North Indians have lots of competition. Sometimes they try to stop you to catch theka. They do lots of funny things.
RH Is this because they can’t play with the tabla player?
SS They try to stop the tabla players and make them look bad. They fight together with the music and they won’t set anything. You have to improvise the whole thing. In South India, I think the mrdangam player is not looking at the vina player, not looking at the vocalist, not looking at the dancer, they just play. This is because everyone knows what is going on.
RH So in North India, the sitar player or vocalist will learn rhythm up to a certain point and then they spend time learning their instrument and don’t bother with rhythm anymore?
SS No, they bother with it, but they have to practice a lot. That is the problem. Very much practice.
RH It seems like most tabla players know how to write notation for their instrument. When did this develop?
SS Very recent. About 60 or 70 years ago.
RH When you have a tabla student, do you teach them to notate the music right away?
SS Now we do.
RH From the beginning?
RH Do you think they remember it as well?
SS Yes. I use an underlining system to help them understand the organization of beats, but this is a recent thing, as I said, and started when the examination system began. I use an older notation that only I can understand. If you show my notation to someone else, they can’tunderstand it, but I know where 1, 1, 1 is going.
RH When you were a student, did you write down everything?
SS No, because it was an oral tradition.
RH So you didn’t write anything down?
SS You can write it down at home, but you can’t write it down in front of your teacher. Not look. Memorize.
RH Did you go home and write down your lessons?
SS I did. Many people do now.
RH Do you think it is a good thing to write down the material?
SS Yes, because the mind sometimes gets weak, then you start forgetting things. It you write it down, it helps.
RH Do you think that if you write it down it makes your mind weak right away?
SS Many people think it is better to write it down first and then play it, but India is not like that.
RH In Western music, that is the way we do it. First write it down, then play it.
SS Writing is just to use if you need it – if you forget something. You have to memorize the composition in front of your teacher, and they are not going to speak it a hundred times to you.
RH With Western musicians, the first thing we learn is notation. Consequently, when I am learning tabla or I’m learning African drumming, when I am given a pattern to play, I first think of it in Western notation. I have found that if I am teaching African drumming to Western students, they sometimes can only play it if they write it down first. Then they see it and they say, “Oh, it goes like that!”
SS We always say to a student, “Don’t look at your paper! Play!” Because your reading power can’t go as fast as your head goes. Correct?
SS In Western music you have symbols. In Indian music you have to write down every letter, so you can only play as fast as you can read. For that reason we say, “Don’t look at your paper. Play. Memorize if you want to play, but don’t look and play!”
RH In tabla playing are there any rhythms or compositions that are secret?
SS Lots of them. Not rhythms, but compositions.
RH Why are certain compositions secret?
SS I don’t really know, but teachers say they are. My teacher taught me some compositions, and he said, “Only play once to the audience. Don’t play more than once.”
RH Is that so other tabla players can’t learn it?
SS Yes. And he said “Don’t practice it. If you do practice it, play on a wooden table or something so people won’t hear it. Older players are saying this, but I say to my son and my students, “What I know, I am going to teach you. I practice with you; you practice with me. The same composition I am going to play with you.” But there is a difference between what I play and what others play, and people don’t know why there is a difference. It is because I have done so much practice by playing each composition a million times to set it in the hand. If you are going to practice a million times, that’s okay, but most people don’t. The sound quality and whatever else is different.
RH So you think these secret compositions are secret only because the teacher says they are secret, just to keep his own school and tradition.
SS Yes. That’s the reason they have secret compositions, lots of secret compositions.
Feel of Rhythm
RH Do you think these so-called secret compositions could be secret because they affect the body in a certain way and should only be played under certain conditions?
SS Maybe something happened, I don’t know 100%, but something happened. One book talks about chilla. You have to ask God to give you power to play this composition. This power you get, and you pass it on to your family only, not your disciples or your students. Only family. Son to son. There is some power and you get this power from God.
RH Do you know some of these compositions?
RH Do they seem different to you?
SS Different. When you play them you get a different feeling.
Power of Rhythm
RH You think different rhythms have the power to make you feel a certain way?
RH Can you describe the way you feel when you play these compositions?
SS I can describe the feeling very easily because the audience also feels the same way. The audience is like a buffalo, you know. They don’t know what you are playing, really, but they are able to appreciate those things. Something is there. The way I feel is the same way that the audience feels.
RH Have you ever created a composition that you consider sacred or secret?
SS What happens is, I don’t make compositions; or, I make compositions but I don’t say they are made by me. This is the difference between Indian and Western music. In the West, you compose something, then you get your name and fame. In India, if you are able to play a composition faster than your ancestor, then you get name and fame. All the compositions have names, but we don’t say, “I composed.”
RH I guess what I am really interested in is if there are specific rhythms that can affect the senses?
SS This is difficult to explain, but this is the effect.
RH So you think there are such rhythms?
SS Yes, yes, just like when African music is played, everybody starts dancing. This is the effect that rhythm can have on some.
RH So are you saying that in tabla, or Indian music, if you play a special rhythm, people don’t necessarily get up and dance, but they feel something, maybe in their hearts or their minds?
SS Yes, somewhere. When I play 5, people don’t know what it is, but they show that they are feeling something. If I play 5 against 4 or 5 against 1, they don’t know what is happening.
RH Do you have any favorite compositions?
SS Yes, I have some favorite compositions, but not composed by me.
SS And some secret compositions they have to worship. Just like when I play one tukra, when the last ta comes, the light should go like this [makes motion] with sam.
RH Do you mean in your mind or real?
SS No, real! Or you put a coconut there. When the last dha comes, the coconut should break. Like that. This kind of composition. You can’t say it is secret or you can’t say this is a power from God. It is from practice. I think God helps and practice also helps. I don’t know if a light bulb is going to break or not. We used to use a candle. A candle has lots of light. But you have to practice somehow to make a connection with dha to hit it in just the right way. Everyone can’t do it. But you have to get to the actual point where you can play dha that is connected with light, connected with the coconut.
RH Do you think it could be that you have practiced so much that you get the perfect sound?
SS Yes. Some power you are getting from God, no doubt. But this dha makes some power. Sometime you are practicing in a room and you get hit by this sound. Krrr, krrr, and it is the thing that we are talking about.
RH Have you ever made that sound and broken a coconut?
SS No, not yet [laughs].
RH Have you ever seen it done?
SS No, but I have heard about it.
RH Are there other strange things like this?
SS Yes, there are lots of strange things. One is the mad elephant. A king asked a tabla player to play a composition and cure the king’s elephant. Somehow God helped the tabla player to play a composition and cure the elephant. Another king asked a tabla player to play some laykari that are not connected with any laykari – something completely different. The tabla player played it and called it sulab kotukola. I have some compositions that are just like this. [demonstrates] In this one, nothing is fixed – nothing against that. To be able to play this you need lots of practice. They call it secret because if just anyone tries to play it, they are going to spoil it and the composition’s value goes down.
RH Do some tabla players think they have gotten their compositions from God?
SS Yes, sure. Any tabla player, or any musician – you or me or anybody – without some power from God, can’t perform. With that many eyes on you, when you are standing there, if you don’t have some help from God, then all your power will go away. You can’t do anything. So Russell, we believe that as much name and fame as you have, you have some help from the power of God.
RH Do you think there are rhythms that are universal?
SS I think all of music is universal because it doesn’t need words. Every music is connected with every other music. Language is needed to find out what country you are from, but rhythm doesn’t need that. You and I played a concert with 120 drummers from all over the world sitting there together [at Expo ’86 in Vancouver]. Everybody was playing the same rhythm, but the sound of each person was different.
RH Yes, that was a great experience.
RH When you play tabla with other musicians, like Western musicians, Flamenco, or whatever, do you still keep the tala cycle in your mind even if they aren’t thinking tala cycle?
SS I have to think of tala.
RH Could you play without thinking of tala?
SS Without that you are just like in the air. You don’t know where you are. You have to know where you are.
RH Sometimes when you have played with Nexus, we are improvising and there is no pulse.
SS No. Improvising I am still there. I am still thinking tal.
RH A question about tempo. How do you remember tempos?
SS We don’t remember tempos. We don’t have fixed tempos. When I am playing my composition, I understand about tempo, but if I am playing with someone else, I don’t know what the tempo is because they are going to start the piece. Sometimes we can’t play certain compositions because of that. We can’t play everything with their tempo and speed. It may be too fast or too slow, until I get my tempo. My tempo is when I am playing solo, then I know. Then I can remember the tempo. But when I am playing with other people, I can’t .
Tabla Player Legends
RH Can you tell me some legends or stories about famous tabla players?
SS One very famous tabla player played in the court. His king was very happy to listen to the tabla player, so he asked him to promise he wouldn’t play for anyone else besides the king. The tabla player said, “No. I have practiced, I have done everything. I have to play everywhere because I like to.” So the king gave an order to cut off his hand. One hand is cut off and the king said, “Go, play now!” The tabla player composed four or five thousand compositions that could be played by one hand.
Another story is about my great, great grandfather. He was going to play before the court, and before he played, his teacher spoke with the nabob and said, “Nobody should do anything while he is playing. Everybody has to sit and listen.” They agreed, and my great, great grandfather played for nine days.
SS No, he stopped in the daytime – nine nights he played. And after that some kind of political feelings arose because he was Hindu and his teacher was Muslim. After my great, great grandfather finished playing, they said, “Does anyone else want to play?” No one volunteered to play. They said again, “If anyone wants to play ten days, come on – play ten days,” but everyone said no. So they began to worship my great, great grandfather. When you worship something, you don’t use it. So my great, great grandfather’s tabla was stopped. His playing was in the Benares style and he knew composition, and from that time he composed and started teaching. He never played again.
RH How far back does tabla playing go in your family?
SS 200 years. 1783. My family’s style of tabla playing was going on before Ram Sahaiji, but not the same style. The same style is 200 years old.
RH So there was tabla playing before that in your family?
SS Yes. My great, great grandfather was playing tabla before learning from that Muslim fellow. When he was a young boy, the Muslim fellow heard his tabla playing and asked his father to let him teach the boy. His father said okay, so tabla playing in my family goes a ways back. From the thirteenth and fourteenth century it got a little bit more appreciated, more famous, more useful. Because the dhrupad style of singing did not need tabla. Then slowly the styles changed. Then tabla became more useful than pakhavaj or anything.
RH Do you think an Indian student today who comes from a non-musical family and starts to play tabla will feel the same way toward tabla as someone from a family like yours?
SS Yes, sure, because it used to happen like that. My father would have eaten butter and when he finished playing he said, “Smell my hand.” Now this is a no. What your father does is different from what you are. Anybody who plays – that’s who you are. Alla Rakha is from an agricultural family.
RH What about his father?
SS He was also, but he started playing tabla in the theater, in folklore. He became a big tabla player, but his son is an even bigger tabla player. You can’t say that his family never played, but what I say is that who you are is what counts – not what your father was.
RH One more question. What questions do you think would be good to ask about rhythm to other people?
SS What you are asking is perfect.