Tribute to tabla

February 2, 2020

Despite his recent death Muhammed Ajmal Khan’s musical legacy will remain

Muhammed Ajmal Khan.

Muhammed Ajmal Khan who passed away on December 12, 2019 was a very good tabla player. His entire life was spent employed by Lok Virsa in Islamabad, doing what was required of him by the institution. He was however, far more accomplished than the role assigned to him might suggest.

Whenever he had the chance to perform independently, it was obvious that he had the ability to fit in both the key roles of tabla player; that of a soloist and of an accompanist. On the surface it may appear that both involve tabla playing but the expectation and demand of the two is quite different. A soloist is supposed to be the main player expressing himself through the virtuosities that he may have mastered. The accompanist on the other hand, is seen as going along with the main performer – who is the star attraction – while the role of the tabla accompanist is to assist the main performer and not engage in any kind of a competition with the main performer.

This may seem simple, but it is not, and to be trained well enough to understand the mizaj (mood) of the main performer, either vocalist or an instrumentalist comes with lots of riyaz. Which in other words means that the tabla playing has to be modified to fit in the larger musical scheme of a performance. To be part of an integrated performance, should be the main aim of the accompanist and this role which erroneously may be counted as subservient; does not go down well with many a tabla player. To understand the spirit of the performance, which may be intuitive and comes naturally, or could be the result of great practice; is the main function of the accompanist tabla player.

Music ran in his veins and he performed as duck takes to water. Born in the mid 1950s in Multan, as is the wont with hereditary musicians – he started to play the tabla very early on till he became a formal shagird.

Hailing from a family of musicians, his entire extended family were qawwals and that too the famous Bakshi qawwals. Music ran in his veins and he performed as a duck takes to water. Born in the mid 1950s in Multan, as is the wont with hereditary musicians – he started to play the tabla very early on till he became a formal shagird. The ability to be a good accompanist must have rubbed on him by his ustad as Ustad Shaukat Hussain Khan was a superb sangatia. His ability to play solo table was unquestioned but his ability as a sangatia on the tabla few could match.

Of all the standard tabla baajs -Delhi, Ajrar, Farukhabad and Lucknow, the Punjab baaj is particularly strong on virtuosity, which may be expressed through speed. There is a strong element of the beat being struck with a degree of rigour. There may be finesse in it, but not as may exist in other baajs and the loudness may be part of its peculiarities.

It is a considered assumption, that the evolution of the Punjab baaj owes a lot to the method in which pakhawaj was played. To some, the basic peculiarity of the Punjab baaj is the direct consequence of its organic relationship with the pakhawaj. Most of the famous tabla players of the Punjab take pride in establishing some kind of link with Ustad Qadir Buksh who was a pakhawaj player. Bhai Naseera from a Rubabi family too was a shagird of the family of Qadir Buksh. Bhai Santo Pakhawaji too from the Rubabi clan was the shagird of the Bhai Bagh, who was related to Qadir Buksh. Ustad Allah Rakha was a shagird of the famous ustad as was Ustad Shaukat Hussain Khan. Ustad Altaf Hussain (Tafoo) too is his shagird.

Tabla became an object of interest and then fascination with the popularity of the duo of Pandit Ravi Shanker and Ustad Allah Rakha. As they became popular and more than curiosities in the West, the emphasis gradually shifted from tabla merely being an accompanying instrument to that which had a greater role within the equation. It became a norm, that Ustad Allah Rakha created within the rhythmic span many variations, which were at one time seen only as the preserve of a soloist. Gradually it so happened that he was also allowed time to display his virtuosity while Ravi Shanker merely provided the accompaniment on the sitar.

A recipient of the President’s Medal for the Pride of Performance Muhammed Ajmal toured many countries and was a member of the team that represented the cultural face of Pakistan abroad through Lok Music. In accompanying the various vocalists of kaafi, ghazal, and geet; Muhammed Ajmal made many innovations that suited the rhythmic requirements of the vocalists who were experimenting with various traditional forms. As he got more opportunities in that area he was never averse to bringing in his own innovation, while retaining the essence of the traditional tabla rendition.

A tribute to tabla player Muhammed Ajmal Khan