Song of Surrender

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Yogesh Samsi: In perfect rhythm

By Shuchita Rao

“The most intense and beautiful aspect of rhythm can be experienced when you are in perfect rhythm with yourself”– Pandit Yogesh Samsi

Son of the renowned Gwalior/Agra gharana vocalist and composer,the late Dinkar Kaikini, tabla maestro Yogesh Samsi sports no rock star image. The soft-spoken, bespectacled artist still wins crowds over with his solid knowledge, talent and commitment to the art of playing the tabla. Adept at giving tabla solos as well as in accompanying top-notch Hindustani musicians, Samsi has among his many accomplishments the distinction of having performed a jugalbandi alongside the celebrated Zakir Hussain.

Starting his journey at the tender age of four with tabla lessons from Taranath Rao, Yogesh Samsi went on to become a ganda-bandh shagird or disciple of the eminent Alla Rakha Khan, the doyen of the Punjab gharana. Having spent over two decades under his guidance, the talented and soft spoken young maestro carries forward the precious legacy handed to him—with quiet determination and an unwavering sense of purpose.

During a recent concert tour of the USA, Yogesh Samsi enthralled audiences with a tabla solo as well as with supportive accompaniment provided to his older sister, the well-known vocalist Aditi Upadhyay at a baithak concert organised by the Learn Quest Academy in Boston, Massachusetts.

He spoke to Sruti’s USA correspondent, Shuchita Rao, after the concert.

You grew up in a home of reputed Hindustani vocalists. When and how did you decide to pursue a career as a tabla artist?

My late father, Pandit Dinkar Kaikini, initiated me into music, specifically into playing the tabla. As a young child, I learned from Ustad Alla Rakha Khan along with many other students.  At that time, the thought of taking tabla as a full time career did not cross my mind. I concentrated on learning to play the tabla, to practise and to accompany my father at home. I also started getting opportunities to accompany the renowned vocalist, Pandit K. G. Gindeji and that led to requests from other musicians for tabla accompaniment. Perhaps, the conscious decision to pursue a career as a table artist came when I was around 21 years of age. It was then that a voice from within told me that I would not be happy doing anything else but devoting my time to playing the table on a full-time basis.

For over several centuries, tabla players have been expected to play a somewhat subdued role when it comes to accompanying main performers. Would you say that this holds true even in the present times?

Traditional classical music has not changed much over the years. However different performers have different musical temperaments. A standard style of accompaniment does not work with every performing musician. A tabla player needs to observe the strengths of the vocalist/instrumentalist, gauge his/her temperament and adapt to his/her style. Sensitivity is all about understanding the music that you are accompanying and trying to be a supportive partner rather than projecting yourself as a soloist at every available opportunity.

One does get to hear tabla solos sometimes, even though it is still an instrument for providing accompaniment. Do you prefer accompanying on the tabla to tabla solos?

I love doing both. They are two separate art forms and have their unique beauties and challenges. As I said before, providing sangat or accompaniment demands stepping back a little, being patient, observing, analysing and supporting the main performer’s style and then mouldingyourself to the demands of the situation. The great tabla maestro Pandit Samta Prasad used to say “Sangataisikalaahaikiitnisaaricheezein bajaane ki ichchaa hoti hai pur dil pe patthar rakh ke chalna padtaa hai” (Accompaniment is such an art – even though you feel like playing so many different things, you must walk the road by placing a stone on your heart’s desire). You need to sacrifice personal desire in favour of the larger good. You must not feel bad but consciously develop generosity of spirit while making such a sacrifice. Having said that, at the end of the day, there are far more opportunities for accompanying musicians than there are for tabla solos. Lately, trends are changing and tabla solos have slowly been gaining popularity in India and many other parts of the world.  The subject of tabla solo performance is deep and profound and as people are gradually becoming aware of its potential, they are requesting for tabla solo performances.

How would you describe your personality?

I am most definitely not a movie, dinner, party type of person. I like the social life but prefer being left alone, thinking about my music and practising for the majority of the time. I enjoy engaging with my family and teaching the art of playing tabla to my students (including my older son Shravan who loves to play the tabla.) When I see my students perform, I see a reflection of my interest being carried forward and that makes me happy.

We come across players who experiment with instruments other than the tabla, such as western drums. Some even make varied sounds with the mouth and tongue to provide rhythm. Have you ever felt the urge to explore other mediums of percussion?

Certain genres of music actually sound better with instruments other than the tabla. For instance, Bhajan/Keertan sounds wonderful with Pakhawaj and Laavani sounds best with Dholki accompaniment.I did study the pakhawaj style of playing from my Ustad. It is an extremely demanding style and requires a lot of sustained practice. Since the study of tabla engulfed me completely and I was so immersed in it, I never felt a serious urge to explore a different percussion instrument. I enjoy listening to other percussion instruments but given my interest, talent and progress with tabla, I derive complete satisfaction from a study of the table instrument.

As a performer, there may be ample times when you get high praise and accolades for your success at concerts. At other times, there may be a complete lull in activity or a quiet period. How do you balance the ups and downs of a life as a performer?

My philosophy is that as long as you are fully immersed in the study of any subject, it does not matter whether you get to perform or don’t. When I am not performing, I prefer to sit back and work on the finer aspects of my art form by just thinking deeply about the subject. I am working towards two important goals. One is to revive the Punjab gharana – a tradition that was partitioned off to Pakistan post-independence. There is no competent representation of the Punjab gharana in Pakistan today. I interact with intellectuals and research into what the Punjab gharana may have been 100-150 years ago. I want to restore and revive the tradition to what it was in its yester-years. The other desire is to nurture and nourish our next generation of tabla players and take them forward to a level where they can contribute to the gharaana. If I can do that, I feel that I will make my Ustad’s soul happy.

What do you feel has been your main contribution to the world of percussion?

I am really not the one to answer this. The world will give you the answer to this question. I perform and also teach actively in India, the UK and the USA, South Africa and Japan. Right now, I am working on structuring a syllabus for tabla students born and raised in foreign countries like the UK and USA. They need a different approach from what I normally use with students in India. In India, if a student walked into my door with a desire to learn tabla, I would listen to him play for a little bit, get his pulse and decide what to teach him right on the spot. In foreign countries, young talent does not have the needed exposure to the art of tabla playing. They need a structured syllabus and they need to be slowly eased into the practice. I design small modules of instruction for laya/taal exercises, for listening, playing and for padhant, which is recitation. The accents and phonetics for instance, often need fine tuning and adjustment. Teaching gives me great satisfaction and I am proud to say that many of my students are playing at the professional level.

Finally, what to you is the essence of rhythm?

Rhythm has many expressions. When I perform, I paint landscapes of rhythm around me. To express yourself in the best possible manner, you need to experience your own rhythm.  Finding that rhythm is important not just for a musician but for every individual. I strive to find a balance by connecting to my internal rhythm, that which resides inside me (as in the rhythm of thoughts and ideas and saadhana) with the rhythm of the external world.  Discovering this balance gives me inner strength and makes me feel ONE within. This is the essence of rhythm and this is what I learned from my father, and my Ustad.

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