Posts Tagged ‘Tabla’

Christmas in India: Part six

January 18, 2011

I wish I could tell you our performance was a rousing success.

I wish I could tell you all the dance steps I’d forgotten came back to me as I performed. I wish I could tell you our yoga demonstration went off without a glitch. I wish I could tell you our musical performance was so mesmerizing the audience gave us a standing ovation.

Unfortunately, none of those wishes came true.

But we did get a curtain call.

Had you been backstage during our performance, unable to see the action on the other side of the curtain, you might have expected something catastrophic to happen during our performance. Maybe an overhead light would give way, and topple down onto the stage. Perhaps a pack of monkeys would be released, and chase us into the crowd. Minutes before our performance, we were clearly paying the price for our procrastination.

For all I knew, maybe a monkey had looted my bag – the red sash vital to my first costume was nowhere to be found. The Bengali dance was the second item on our program, and some changes to our costumes would have to be made if we were to perform as planned. I ran around desperately, searching for the sash backstage, but I didn’t run into any good luck.

The reason for my wardrobe malfunction had to do with my misunderstanding of the order of events. I’d wrongly assumed my other dance would be performed first, so I removed the dhoti-kurta I’d been wearing over the Maharashtran dance costume. When I realized the order was reversed, I put it back on. Somewhere in that costume shuffle, the sash was lost, and our group had no choice but to improvise.

I walked onstage about ten minutes before the performance to put our instruments in place. I couldn’t help but notice that with ten minutes until showtime, the gazebo was far from full, with over two-thirds of the 1500 seats still empty. So as I made my way onstage the second time – my hands on my hips and my feet in step with the music – it was with mild surprise that I found the room filled to capacity.

It’s a shame we didn’t give those people a better performance.

Unlike the inaugural kathak dance, which by all accounts went smoothly, our Bengali dance left significant room for improvement. Perhaps the audience didn’t notice our many errors, but we certainly did. In one particularly embarrassing stretch, my mind went blank for several seconds, and I could do little more than tap my feet in tune to the music. Often I found myself a half-second behind, perceptive to but not assured of the steps I was to take.

It wasn’t quite a debacle, but even the polite applause we received seemed too gracious. It was obvious that we’d learned the dance in three days.

Although I assume the ensuing Eastern dance in which five girls performed went well, I wouldn’t know. My mindset had been switched to the coming Maharashtran dance, my mediocre showing in the Bengali dance already forgotten. So it came as a surprise when I learned our musical performance was next on the program, not the final of our four dances. I removed my triangular dance hat and made my way on stage again, reassured that at least my second performance would be better than my first.

I have nothing memorable to report of our brief concert. The first few seconds of the tabla part were marked by volume trouble, but the sound was soon turned up accordingly. A tuned ear would have noticed split second differences in our coordination, and perhaps the crowd would rather have seen us play longer, but I can offer no complaints. The audience was our pacemaker, clapping along as we played tabla, and they were appreciative of our performance.

And the Maharashtran folk dance went even better. So much better, in fact, that the audience called for an encore. This required me to rush my props across the backstage as the girls began their bit and yell “Jordan!Jordan!Jordan!Jordan!Jordan!Jordan!” at the person closest to the entrance on stage left. My double-backstage-sprint was for naught, however, as the music faded out and the encore ended before I had the chance to come on stage once more.

But my sprints were just beginning, and so was our yoga demonstration. Once I ran to discard my costume, which I wouldn’t need for yoga, once I ran to stage right in the erroneous belief that was where I’d be entering, and once I ran back to stage left, realizing my mistake about two seconds too late.

It was a hectic start to a performance that left a lot to be desired.

We entered the stage without the plates that were to hold the petals, although that hardly mattered when we could just hold the flowers in our palms. After our initial “om”, a silence prevailed that had little to do with meditation. For about a minute, the accompanying music had nothing to accompany, and we could do little but softly chant “om” two or three times more. Until someone backstage found a microphone for Brii, she could say nothing, and even then, it took several seconds to get the volume turned on.

I can’t comment on the rest of the demonstration, because I had my eyes closed until my part at the end. It seemed to go well, though.

And then it was over. That was it. The end. Bas.

We couldn’t really celebrate until we were back in the cottage, our costumes un-costumed, our bangles-unbangled, the mess awaiting us inside un-made. But we’d made it through our performance unscarred and unfazed. All the mistakes we’d made were now in the past. At last, we had nothing to worry about except how to enjoy the evening ahead.

Back at the cottage, I decided to look through my backpack again.

You’ll never guess what red piece of fabric I found inside.



Christmas in India: Part one

January 11, 2011

I knew before Christmas that the day’s events would probably be worthy of a blog entry. I was wrong. My Christmas was worthy of several blog entries. I’ve written nearly as much about a 40-hour stretch over three December days as I did on the 25-day South Tour. Enjoy!


It would sound better if I said we spent months preparing for Christmas Day.

It would sound better if I said we’d put in hours of arduous practice every week before the District Conference, that we’d diligently prepared and rehearsed for our presentation in front of 1,500 Rotarians, that the showcase of exchange students from Nagpur, Nasik, Bhopal, Indore, Jalgaon and Yavatmal would be flawless.

It would sound better, anyway. But the truth is that we learned just about everything we needed to know in less than a week.

The six of us from Nagpur (Anaïs, Dascha, Franziska [Germany], Jakob, Michelle and I) had been taking tabla and dance classes since August, and yoga classes since October – kind of.

Our tabla classes, which were supposed to last one hour three times a week, had dissolved into ten to twenty minute classes twice a week, if that. Our dance classes, which were supposed to be just as frequent as tabla, faced similar results as attendance slowly dwindled. We took drama/yoga classes for about two weeks in October, and had about five more classes in the days before the conference.

Much of what we did in those classes, too, wouldn’t apply to our Christmas Day presentation. In spite of this, we were to be performing four classical Indian dances, a musical fusion with tablas, flutes and drums, and a five-minute group demonstration of yoga. Save some of the tabla in the musical fusion, the entirety of our presentation had been learned since the end of the South Tour, much of it in the last two days. Jordan, Kelsey and Amanda had arrived from Indore and Bhopal on the 22nd, which lifted our spirits considerably, but they’d had only three days to learn their parts.

As our final practice began, we were still a long way from being ready to perform. Just before 1 p.m. on Christmas Eve, I biked to the flat where we always had yoga class, only to see Jakob riding away with our teacher. The location had apparently changed to Modern School, the site of our tabla and dance classes.

So I rode my bike to Modern School, and that’s where I spent the next four and a half hours.

Compared to the other practices, our dramatic yoga reenactment was coming along quite nicely. Brii was to be the yoga-goddess, and the other 12 of us were to file in and toss flower petals on her in worship. After sitting cross-legged and chanting “om”, we would then demonstrate various yoga positions while Brii explained them to the audience. The performance would conclude with us contorting ourselves once more as we constructed a human-temple through which Brii would walk at the end.

Except for Brii, who had several lines to memorize, yoga-acting looked like it would be a test of nothing more than our flexibility.

The same could not be said of music. Anaïs, Jakob and I had become adept at playing our 42-line, two minute main part – so long as we had a copy in front of us. But we still didn’t know what else would be going into the fusion, and how it would fit in. Olivia and Brii had been recruited in recent days to play “drums” with Jakob and I, which meant we’d be playing on two drums and two modified plastic buckets. Franziska and Jordan had learned what they’d be playing on flute, but how all three parts would fit together remained a mystery.

As for our four dances, I noticed a strong correlation between practice time and execution. None of the kathak I’d been learning since August helped me much, but I felt reasonably confident with the Maharashtran dance that I’d had ten days to practice. The same could not be said of the Bengali dance which I’d learned 48 hours before – a full half of the steps I was taking were erroneous or delayed.

Nevertheless, practice that day was transcended much more by Christmas cheer than stage fear. TV crews, photographers and journalists came to interview, photograph and film us. Jakob and I were interviewed by a TV reporter who asked us about our lives in India – in Hindi. The only responses I could give were “bahut acha” (Hindi for “very good”) when asked about Indian food and “Maha Laxshmi” (the huge festival at our house in September) when asked to name my favorite festival.

I’ll never know if our 30 seconds of fame found airtime. By the time I found myself in front of a TV once again, our interview was already yesterday’s news.

Our plan for what was left of Christmas Eve was to go to dinner as a group and attend midnight mass at one of the only churches in Nagpur. But our plan for the latter was in jeopardy.

Jakob’s host family, which would be taking us to a club for dinner, could provide transportation to the club and the church. But driving us back to our six respective homes at one or two in the morning was just not possible. We grew despondent as the sun set, and the possibility of Christmas without church dawned on us.

That’s when Pooja and Jagdish Khatri stepped up for us.

The problem of transportation would be resolved if all of us spent the night in one home. The Khatri’s home. Two rooms would be enough to accommodate all of us. Having us dropped in one place simplified the transportation situation considerably. It didn’t matter if they had a chimney or not. We had a plan.

Most Indians are very hospitable, but something about this gesture made it a little more meaningful.

Sharing your home on Christmas night just doesn’t compare to anything else.


Tabla, Tirakita, and avoiding the Indian timepass

August 20, 2010

Ti ra ki ta
Ti ra ki ta
Ti ra ki ta
Ti ra ki ta

For the past two weeks, three other Rotary students and I have been learning the tabla, an instrument made of two classical, audially diverse Indian drums.

During inbound orientation, all Rotary students were told to choose between the tabla, the Indian flute, and the harmonium. Given my lack of musical talents, tabla seemed easiest. It’s just two drums, right?

Suffice to say, I’ve needed all the practice I can get.

At the moment, I’ve only learned to make five sounds. But when you add the sounds I’ve found on my own, double that. When you add the combinations from those, it makes about 30.

I could do more math, but my teacher, Ravi Satfale, makes quantifying the sounds from the tabla rather useless.

Suddenly, the flute seems kind of easy, doesn’t it?

Except there’s one more thing: playing the tabla is really, really fun.

Ke ke ti ra ki ta
Ke ke ti ra ki ta
Ke ke ti ra ki ta
Ke ke ti ra ki ta

We started with the basics. Tirakita is the foundation for much of the music the tabla makes. As we began, I made many mistakes. I’d hit the wrong note or I’d mix up the order. My fingers would be in the wrong position. My legs would be crossed improperly because I was wearing the wrong pants.

After some time, though, we’ve gotten into a rhythm. Like a train approaching full speed, my fingers move faster across the goatskin. When tirakita no longer gives me trouble, we add ke ke’s and ge ge’s. With enough practice, in come the ta ta‘s. Together, ta ta and ge ge make dhe dhe.

The more I immerse myself in tabla, the easier it is to play. At first, every note made me think – I was self-conscious of every note. My mistakes came when I allowed tabla to become part of my subconscious.

But it is impossible to master the tabla without allowing yourself to use your subconscious. The more you repeat an activity, the less you have to think about it. A few days ago, I noticed I could play tirakita without any thought. Same with an added ke ke. And ge ge.

Tabla had become a part of my subconscious.

Ke ke ti ra ki ta/ Ge ge ti ra ki ta
Ke ke ti ra ki ta/ Ta ta ti ra ki ta
Ke ke ti ra ki ta/ Dha dha ti ra ki ta
Ta ta ti ra ki ta/ Dha dha dhin dhin dha

One month ago, I stepped on a plane in Chicago and stepped off another in India. Having spent over four weeks here, I’ve become accustomed to the customs which once baffled me.

I stare at the cows, goats and dogs in the street about as much as they stare at me. Bathing with soap and a bucket of tepid water has lost its original novelty. The omnipresent honking and orderly meandering of the roads’ cars, bikes and motorbikes no longer makes me flinch.

I keep reading books and articles that say I’m supposed to feel disoriented, depressed and uncomfortable by this point in my exchange. The funny thing is, I’m not. Does that mean something’s wrong with me?


Maybe the time for culture shock is later. Maybe I haven’t yet met enough people to relieve me of my ease. Maybe, a couple months from now, I’ll write something scathing and sad that makes me want to leave my second home for my first.

It’s for times like those that I don’t want to get caught in a timepass. Indians use “timepass” to express that they aren’t doing much – just passing the time.

I want to avoid the timepass. Not that boredom is inherently bad, but with exchange students, there’s a correlation between boredom and homesickness. The less I walk around aimlessly, the less I walk around glum.

Remember this, future-Chris: When you do find yourself in a timepass, at least there’s something fun you can do to pass the time.

Ti ra
Ki ta


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