Shaswati Mandal Paul in conversation with Shuchita Rao
The legendary romantic tragedies of Heer-Ranjha and Sohni-Mahiwaal have been popular in India for a couple of centuries. When they are sung as Hindustani tappa, some listeners are awestruck while others are not impressed. The listeners who do not care much for tappa as a form of music say that it is a gimmick. Much like how jeans torn at the knees are the most expensive items in a garment store, the tappa is a kind of fad and attracts attention for its uniqueness. It fails to communicate the lyrical aspect of love stories and can be enjoyed for perhaps just a few minutes. The listeners who love tappa consider tappa singing an admirable feat that only a handful of vocalists can deliver with ease and expertise. They say that singing the tappa demands an exceptional command not only over sruti and laya, but also over short and complex taan patterns that move in a brisk and oblique fashion against the rhythmic cycle. Vidushi Malini Rajurkar has acquired an iconic status when it comes to tappa renditions. She is almost always requested to sing tappa in her vocal performances to this day.
Few artists take the risk of including tappa in their performances. The khayal, dhrupad, tarana, bhajan and abhang musical forms seem to be the safer choices. Very few artists can pull off a tappa and win the hearts of the listeners. When Bhopal-based vocalist Shashwati Mandal Paul, accompanied by Ashis Sengupta (tabla) and Sanatan Goswami (harmonium) performed in Boston on 7 July, she left the listeners spellbound. She sang khayal in ragas Multani, Dhani and Khambavati, and tarana in Bheempalasi and Bhairavi. What captivated the audience, however, was her flawless rendering of a famous traditional Punjabi tappa in raga Kafi set to the 16-beat Addha tala.
O miya jaanewaale, Saanu Allah di kasam, Phir aa rey
Allah jaanda tusi, Munuh le jaande, Aavo sujnaa galey lag jaa, Shirshah matvaale
O traveller, you must come back to me because God knows that you have stolen my heart.
Shashwati Mandal learned tappa for several years from Balasaheb Poochwale of the Gwalior gharana. A versatile vocalist, she has performed at the ITC-Sangeet Research Academy, Sawai Gandharva, Saptak and Harivallabh festivals in India. She has collaborated with UK-based musician Derek Roberts to release a tappa recording in a fusion format. Based on its popularity in Europe, she was invited to give a tappa presentation at the Darbar festival in London in 2008.
Shuchita: What is tappa?
Shashwati: It is a tradition of folk singing from the Punjab/Multan/Baluchistan/Sindh regions of north western India. Camel riders sang stories of love and separation while riding along. They had high-pitched, flexible voices. The musical form came to be known as tappa as it followed the gait of the camel. The tappas were marked by a fusillade of short and quick melodic taan patterns that moved obliquely in conjunction with a 16-beat rhythmic cycle creating a unique flavour. Because of the short, brisk taan movements, tappas are characterised by a chanchal or restless temperament. Like thumri and dadra, tappa is now considered an independent genre in the semi-classical system of Hindustani music.
When and how were you introduced to tappa singing?
My grandfather Bala Bhau Umdekar was a court musician in the royal court of the Scindias in Gwalior. My mother, the late Kamal Mandal, put me through rigorous and intensive musical training everyday through my childhood years to master the taans. I was probably 17 years old when I won a three-year scholarship to study tappa under Gwalior gharana singer Pandit Balasaheb Poochwale because I was good at singing taans. I learned several tappa compositions from him and continued to train with him for five more years after my scholarship ended. I learned traditional advanced ragas such as Narayani, Khambavati and Devgandhar from him.
Tell us the story how Gwalior gharana musicians learned to sing Punjabi tappa?
Ghulam Nabi (1742–1792), son of Ghulam Rasool, court musician of Awadh, travelled from Lucknow to Punjab. He was a khayal singer and it is said that his voice had a shrill, high pitched timbre, much like that of the camel riders. He liked what he heard, came back to Lucknow and composed several tappas under the pen-name of ‘Shori Miyaan’. S.N. Ratanjankar and Raja Bhaiya Poochhwale from Gwalior and Agra introduced the “tup-khayal” in the first half of the 19th century. Tup-khayals are khayals with taan elements fused into them and are usually sung in slow or medium tempo. They are followed by faster, drut khayals in double the tempo. From Lucknow, the tappa went to Gwalior and Benaras.
Are particular ragas and talas more suitable to tappa?
Khamaj, Kafi, and Bhairavi are some common ragas and the 16-beat cycles Punjabi and Addha (the number of beats in the rhythmic cycle are same but the bols are different, and the seven-beat cycle Pashto are common tala cycles suitable for tappa singing. Tappas have also been composed in ragas such as Sohoni, Mand, Desh and Bahar.
Is special vocal training needed to sing tappas?
You must be able to sing different kinds of taans in perfect sruti, in varying laya tempos and use words or lyrics while singing the taans. You need a good breath span because often the entire sthayi and antara must be completed within single rhythmic cycles. There is no time even to take a breath. It is important to develop the ability to sing complex two-note taan patterns such as mmppdd, ppddnn, then cut and move to the next pattern and return to the original pattern. Proficiency in rhythm is another requirement. Every tappa has its own unique tempo and the singer needs to practice frequently with the tabla player to learn how and where to adjust the composition in real-time.
In addition to Punjab, do you know of other regions where tappa became popular?
Musicians of Gwalior, Benaras and Kolkata commonly sing the tappa. The Kafi musical form sung in Pakistan and the Heer of Punjab/ Sindh also bear a close resemblance to tappa.
Do you feel the lyrics take a beating in tappa?
The poems are short and primarily in Punjabi/ Multani/ Saraayki languages. Shori Miyan added Urdu and Hindi words in some of his compositions. The Gwalior musicians taught tappa to many of their students. The compositions are beautiful, but as some of the words got distorted with the passage of time in the oral tradition, we cannot make out thei meaning. Girija Devi and Rajan-Sajan Mishra helped popularise tappa in Varanasi. Kalinath Mishra and Nidhu Babu popularised it in Bengal. Today, you have tappas in Bengali and Marathi too.
You worked with London based musicians to record tappa in fusion format. What was the experience like?
Derek Roberts was fascinated by the tappa and had me record traditional tappas with the sarangi and tabla. He was not fully satisfied with the sound and ended up blending my original sound track with additional Carnatic percussion and violin as well as Spanish music tracks. The record was released in the UK and became popular in Eastern Europe.
Did the end product appeal to you?
I am quite satisfied with the end product even though some traditional musicians object to it being in a fusion format. I am thankful to Derek Roberts for the opportunity and for putting the tappa genre on the international map.
Do you prefer to sing the tappa “as-is” or would you like to make some modifications?
I have been working on understanding and improving the gayaki of tappa since the time I started learning it. I would like to work on bringing out the feelings and emotions of the lyrics while preserving the brisk and frolicky nature of the musical genre. It is a work in process and we will have to wait to see the outcome of my thoughts and ideas.
Much like the Punjabi tappa, Bengali tappa is marked by brisk movements of melodic patterns except that they are sung in a slower tempo. Gliding meend movements balance the taan patterns and the format is simple without elaborate improvisation. The talas commonly used are Jat, Addha and Pancham Savari.
The theme of the poems is love and separation and the lyrics are in the Bangla language. Nidhi Ram Gupta and Kalinath Mishra composed and popularised Bengali tappa. It is said that Rabindranath Tagore invited among others, Rajeshwari Dutta – the Punjabi bride of a Bengali poet – educated in Santiniketan, to sing many of his compositions in the tappa format.
A Kafi tappa by Nidhi Ram Gupta goes like this:
Hori tomai bhalo bashi koi, Amar shay prem koi,
Amar lok dekhano bhalobasha, Antaray bhalobashi koi
Where has my love for you gone? The love people see in me is fake. In my heart, there is no love.
There are scores of Tagore songs sung in the tappa style. One example:
E parobashey robey ke, hai
Ke robe e sansarey santaapey, shokey.
Hetha key rakhibey dukho-bhayo-shankote
Temono apono keho nahi e prantorey hai re.
Who wants to live in this alien land, in this world of sadness and misery?
Who will give support here in sadness, fear and despair?
Alas, I do not find one such friend in this world.