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The High Priestess of Tabla

(Profile) Suphala Patankar speaks about how she broke stereotypes to become one of the most versatile tabla players around

Soleil Nathwani Oct 10, 2010


When you think of your typical tabla player you think of something that harkens back to the pillars of Indian classical music; a dignified older gentleman in his white kurta seated with gravitas before his drums. Well, stereotypes are meant to be broken. Suphala Patankar, arguably one of the most talented and versatile tabla players of the younger generation, is a veritable bombshell who believes not only in pushing the boundaries but breaking through them. Living between two continents, she would travel from her home in the US to India to learn her craft in the age-old tradition of guru passing the language of tabla to student. She took what she imbibed and it came naturally to seek to bridge the divide. She has collaborated on her albums with artists she met in the West from rock god Perry Farrell to actor-singer Antonio Banderas to 12-time Grammy winner Norah Jones. Sitting across from me in a French pastry shop in her now home town of New York City, her response to the question foremost in my mind ”“ ”˜Why the goatskin drums of all things?’ – is as precise and perfect as the bon-bons under the glass counter: “Whenever I went to a concert, I could not focus on anything else but the tabla.”

Her quiet determination to master this instrument superseded all the odds. Patankar grew up in Minneapolis where tabla players are about as common as palm trees. Her parents had emigrated from Mumbai. With her father being a mechanical engineer, and mother a medical technician, she was a far cry from being the next in a line of artists. So when Patankar first started playing the tabla in her teens, it had to be a conscious choice. “It was pretty much just my crazy idea. My parents never expected that one of their kids would play the drums for ever. I had found teachers in Minneapolis but a friend of mine introduced me to Zakir Hussain and then everything changed.”

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That summer Patankar took a class with Hussain who recognised her innate talent and suggested that she continue to learn under his tutelage and that of his father the legendary Ustad Alla Rakha in India. From that year on, Patankar would spend up to half the year living and studying with father and son in their Nepean Sea Road apartment in Mumbai. “The introduction to tabla in India was a whole other thing because of Alla Rakhaji and the students there. They became like family. It was invaluable to learn in the style of teaching of that generation. It was total immersion. And from then on I thought, ”˜Okay, this is what I want to do’,” she says.

Patankar continued long stints in India over seven years until Alla Rakha passed away in 2000. With every trip back from India, she made the tabla the canvas on which Western artists could paint. “It’s what felt authentic to me. I first think of what is going to make me happy to play; not what genre is working right now. And that resulted in organic collaborations with people I met along the way,” she explains. In 1999, Patankar moved to New York where she met a wide array of musicians who were willing to experiment.

Her last album Blueprint is a testament to her ability to bring together musicians of all stripes but more importantly confirmation that a drummer can maintain a strong voice while playing along side great talent ”“ it features violinist Mazz Swift, guitarist Vernon Reid, bansuri player Rakesh Chaurasia, cellist David Gotay, and singer-songwriter Edie Brickell amongst others. One track provides more creativity that you find on most albums. While the music may shift from a dreamy violin to a burst of guitar and the mood from acid jazz to Brazilian beats, Patankar’s percussion seamlessly pulls the collage together. Her current project and fourth album promises nothing less inventive. “I’ve been playing with all these odd time cycles, which we do in Indian rhythm, but I’m doing it with non-Indian musicians,” she says. “It’s wonderful because anyone that is so deeply into exploring their instrument is someone I learn something from and I will never stop learning.”

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It is perhaps Patankar’s live performances with their nature of constant improvisation that are the most enchanting. An opinion that seems to be widely shared as she has performed live before thousands at New York’s Central Park Summer Stage and in Kabul where she made history as the first musician to perform after the fall of the Taliban and the first female tabla player that her peers had played with. But Suphala seems to be amongst a rare breed of musicians who play purely for the love of the craft and almost dismiss the exhilaration of a large audience. And despite being an integral part of bringing the tabla into the contemporary music scene, her classical roots have not left her. “It is an experience to play for thousands of people but there is something to be said for having a really intimate situation where people are knowledgeable about your instrument. I enjoy introducing the tabla in places where it has never been heard but when I go to play in India, it’s like speaking the same language and those times really stick with me,” she says.

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