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The Art of Accompaniment - Tabla-Sangat with Ashis Paul

Essay by Yogendra
(June 2010)

It is as if someone had switched on a light. The meditative alap has unfolded smoothly, and I have just played the typical upbeat phrase, mukhra, to start the gatkari, the play with theme and variation in the slow 16-beat cycle teental - when the first stroke of the tabla sounds with bell-like clarity and warm round bass in perfect time on the first beat of the cycle. My eye briefly meets my accompanist Ashis Paul, and I see an incredibly radiant smile on his face that sends a wave of joy through my heart. Unvoluntarily a wide grin crosses my cheeks, while Ashis establishes the tala with a tasteful extended solo and I keep the melodic theme and embellish it with some relaxed ornaments. I have been giving raga concerts for 25 years with all kinds of tabla accompanists, but today something is different: I feel carried like never before and can simply enjoy the playing together.

Ashis Paul, aged 36, is still relatively unknown, but performs regularly with top artists of his generation in India as well as in Europe, the US, Japan and South Africa. His biggest strength is probably the sensitive accompaniment of plucked string instruments like sitar or sarod. Just like his teacher Anindo Chatterjee he follows each melodic movement attentively, moulds the basic theka-rhythm fittingly, responds with intelligence and a great sense of style in his solos, and enriches the music with his own ideas, which I can again pick up and elaborate further. Never does he push himself to the front or become dominant. An accompanist like him is all a melody soloist can wish for - always alert, always supportive, and always with a joyful sparkle in his eyes.

While the seminars are the highlights of the AACM's work, it is also organising ongoing classes, individual lessons, workshops with invited guest artists and concerts with classical Indian music all year round. Over the years, more than 1,500 students were taught and more than 180 concerts were arranged by the AACM Switzerland. Guest lecturers included Lakshmi Shankar, Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Sultan Khan, Pandit Jasraj, George Ruckert and the Gundecha brothers. Concerts were given, amongst others, by Ravi Shankar, Bhimsen Joshi, Nikhil Banerjee, Mohiuddin Dagar, V.G. Jog, Alla Rakha, Kishori Amonkar, Shivkumar Sharma, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ram Narayan, Sultan Khan, Zakir Hussain, Anindo Chatterjee, Ajoy Chakraborty, Buddhaditya Mukherjee, Parween Sultana, Ronu Mazumdar, Ken Zuckerman and the Gundecha Brothers - and, of course by Ali Akbar Khan and Swapan Chaudhuri.

The wonderful harmony between Ashis and me should be credited to Partha Chatterjee as well, my friend and teacher from Calcutta, in whose house I had first met Ashis. Partha has not only formed my understanding of raga music to a great deal, he has also taught Ashis the art of accompaniment for many years. This art is known as sangat and has to do with a thorough knowledge of as many typical melodic movements as possible and their proper accompaniment on tabla. But good sangat also requires the ability to anticipate the next movement, to come up with new ideas spontaneously, to be open for surprises, and to maintain a sense of balance and proportion throughout the whole performance. It does not just need specific knowledge and skills, it needs certain a state of mind as well. When sangat really works, it generates an open, lively and inspiring dialogue that can have an overwhelmingly blissful effect on the musicians. And a receptive audience might well be able to share that intense delight. This is what raga music is all about, after all: ananda - bliss.