Anuradha Pal’s nimble fingers flourish on the tabla at lightning speed rhythm cycles. She strikes the dayaan and bayaan (the left and right cymbal) with equal integrity while her long mane does a little dance of its own, and soon cajoles the ghatam to join in. There is even the grin of a challenge in play while goading this conversation. Sukanya Ramgopal, student of legendary ghatam player Vikku Vinayakram, who is looking on in awe at the brute strength with which these drums are being pounded on, obliges. Soon Latha Ramachar, sitting on the other side, decides that it is time for her kanjira to make a point. The moment that happens, a groovy drum and bass beginning turns into a unique jugalbandi. From here on, beat for beat and joy for joy, the women, who call themselves Stree Shakti, come together and play percussion instruments with all the muscle they can gather. Minutes into this piece, there is a massive explosion of rhythm, and everything is at its masterful best. The piece, titled Coming Together, was performed live at the prestigious WOMAD Festival in London last year. The performance is also one of the centrepieces of Pal’s latest offering, Passion (Sur Aur Saaz, Rs 295).
“Women percussionists in India and abroad have always been a constant target of discrimination. Their capability as strong percussionists has always been doubted. They aren’t even paid properly as compared to their male counterparts. I have lived with that. And now I want to change that. Stree Shakti and its music is a step in this direction,” says Pal, 44, who is still vexed by the memories of sarcasm about the strength in her arms and how she was told that she wasn’t really a candidate in the race.
Pal does not dribble any musical pedigree. She comes from “a simple family with a basic interest in music”. “My grandparents were connoisseurs of music and that’s why I saw many famous musicians in our house at a young age,” says Pal. But the girls back then learnt vocal music and that is how Pal began. But the rhythm concepts felt more beguiling than the bandish and taans she was attempting. Thus the decision to see and replicate what his older brother would play on the tabla came about. The interest was followed by extensive taaleem by tabla legend Ut Allah Rakha and later Ut Zakir Hussain.
“I told my guru (Ut Allah Rakha), please treat me like your fourth son while teaching me and not like I am your daughter. I
want all the difficulties that they have faced in mastering this demanding instrument,” says Pal. Rakha agreed.
Her intense training with him taught her the improvisational medium that relies on the player to bring something of their own to a performance. Till now, Pal is perhaps the only tabla player in the country who has accompanied the country’s finest musicians and done solo tabla shows.
The album opens with a composition in the enchanting raag Basant Bahar and has Pal experimenting with djembe, darabuka, udu and cajon. This is followed by Celebration, a dhrupad composition that culminates with a spunky taraana. Heartbeat has all percussion sounding as one instrument as a tilaana in raag Hindol creeps in as the melody while Romance has sitar player Mita Nag weave raag Jayant Malhar to a 16-beat time cycle. “From being an accompanying instrument, tabla has reached the centrestage. I hope the same can happen for women percussionists,” says Pal.