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A Mistry story

Aban Mistry talks about the trials of being India's first woman tabla player

Speak of the tabla, and the mind conjures up images of vigorous beats and ustads playing with enormous energy. Images mostly masculine. And truth is, there are very few women who have mastered the instrument.

Meet Dr Aban Mistry. She is India's first woman tabla player. Her book on the tabla and the pakhawaj took her ten years to research, and experts say it will remain an invaluable reference book for generations of students.

The first thing Dr Mistry will tell you is that the tabla was not introduced by Amir Khusro in the 17th century, as is popularly believed. She believes it has been around for at least 2,200 years.

"I went through hundreds of papers at the Archaeological Survey of India, and even in government offices of small towns all over the country," says Dr Mistry. She also travelled all over the country with guru Pandit Keki Jijina. "There were times I've had to sleep in temples and even on the streets," she says.

A 2,200 year-old motif on the stone wall at Bhaja caves in Maharashtra, which shows a woman playing an instrument similar to the tabla, convinced her that the instrument has been around a long time. And that it was not just men who excelled at it.

The tabla became popular after the khayal style of singing gained popularity. Khayal is the most popular classical form in Hindustani music today. The tabla replaced the pakhawaj, which was popular with the dhrupad singers; the deep sonorous sound of the pakhawaj gave way to the lighter tone of the tabla.

But in a country where women hardly play any drums, taking up the tabla and living by it is quite a feat.

"There was a time when people, especially men, came to my concerts to see me rather than listen to me," recollects the 59-year-old musician who began her career in the early 1950s.

"Even women singers refused to take me as an accompanist because they would not trust me. No one took me seriously."

So she decided to get around the hurdles.

"I just had to prove that I was a good musician," she says. And in 1973, she cut her first tabla record, becoming the first woman ever to do so.

She has learnt from Pandit Keki Jijina and Ustad Amir Hussain Khan, who heard the 14-year-old playing at a concert and asked her to become his student.

The idea of her book, which contains detailed information about all six tabla gharanas, and also their family trees, came up when she decided to write her doctoral thesis. In 1984, she had published Tabla aur phakhawaj ke gharane evam paramparayen in Hindi.

Dr Mistry plays the sitar too; she cut a disc in 1973. Dancing the Kathak was her favourite hobby till she had to give it up because of ill health. She has learnt singing from Pandit Laxmanrao Bodas.

Today, after performing for nearly five decades, Dr Mistry is busy teaching. Her student Vidya Parab-Sawant has carved her own niche as a tabla player.

"Maa Bhagwati chose me," says the musician, "I can only pass on her blessings to the next generation."

Archana Chaudhary

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