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Rhythms of the Soul – Taranath Rao

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Rhythms of the Soul – Taranath Rao

Acknowledged as one of the nation’s premier percussionists, Pandit Taranath Rao is also a distinguished composer and scholar who has been imparting theoretical and practical education in the Indian musical tradition at Los Angeles for over 12 years now.

MOHAN NADKARNI profiles the versatile artist who turns 76 this week.

 The profundity of his knowledge in the intricacies of laya, his maestry over a bewildering variety to taals and his equally varied compositions, many of them in Sanskrit, have baffled contemporaries, connoisseurs and critics alike. He has built up a phenomenal repertoire.

The Illustrated Weekly of India, March 11, 1990

Along with music, Taranath demonstrated a flair for the visual arts.

Along with music, Taranath demonstrated a flair for the visual arts.

Undoubtedly, there may be many music aficianados belonging to the present generation who may react skeptically to his name: the more knowledgeable among them might be aware of him as the guru of several of today’s young percussion celebrities who dominate concert platforms both here and abroad. Pandit Taranath Rao, or Panditji as he is affectionately known, is however a familiar entity with music lovers a generation older, for whom he is not only a percussion wizard of uncommon merit, but also a distinguished composer, an erudite scholar and a sensitive painter all rolled into one – a creative spark whose versatility places him in a class by himself, as a maestro with a difference.

Acknowledged as one of the nation’s premier percussionists, Panditji regaled audiences with his uncommon mastery for years before he suddenly decided to leave the country in 1978. But not before he left behind soloists and accompanists like Omkar Gulwady, Balakrishna Iyer and Anand Badamikar, to name only a few, who have earned acclaim with their adroitness and skill. Who in their quest for excellence have gratefully acknowledged their inspiration to their erudite mentor who regards them, proudly and affectionately, as his ideal shishyas, who have been carrying forward the age-old taal vadya tradition with unstinted dedication.

Since 1978, Pandit Taranath Rao has been based in America where he is presently on a teaching assignment with the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) at Valenica, Los Angeles. Cal Arts a special and unusual community devoted to professional education in the visual and performing arts, believes in giving students not only thorough training, but also in allowing them the widest scope for artistic growth and expression. And it is here that he has been imparting theoretical and practical training in north Indian percussion instruments for the last nine years.

The Institute, recognising his talent and genius, conferred its prestigious award on him in 1982; the citation expresses its ‘deepest appreciation’, and recognizes ‘his extraordinary service to the Institute’ – this within a mere four years of association.

Indeed, it speaks volumes for Panditji’s keen dedication, as also the seriousness and sincerity of his American students that the number of learners has risen from nine in 1978 to 50 today. Besides, there are several youngsters from outside the Institute who continue to seek and benefit from his shagirdi. Besides the tabla, he has taught them how to play several other Indian percussion instruments. The guru-shishya bond between the Indian virtuoso and his American disciples has grown stronger with the passage of time. They have been secured a green card for him. But Panditji has decided to return home much like the prodigal son, leaving behind scores of shishyas who have in the course of their association with him not only memorized the Sanskrit text of the taala shastra, but have also mastered the art of intonating them as precisely and authentically as his Indian disciples.

Ironically, but perhaps not quite surprisingly, Panditji has yet to receive the recognition he so richly deserves in the land of his birth. He hasn’t consciously sought it either. He belongs to the fast-vanishing generation of great and self-effacing artistes for whom the pursuit of their adored muse is in itself its own reward.

Bombay has Panditji’s karmabhoomi since 1932. His spacious flat at Sleater Road in central Bombay has been a rendezvous for many an all-time great of yesteryear, as also for many budding artistes struggling to establish themselves in the musical firmament. Not many know that Panditji has often played host to some of today’s maestro’s like Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Bhimsen Joshi.

Hattiangady Taranath Ram Rao hails from a cultured, affluent family from Mangalore in the Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka. His father, a renowned maddalam player of his time, encouraged the artistically inclined Taranath to experiment and develop his forte in diverse artistic genres. But it was soon apparent that the tabla was his chosen instrument – it soon became an obsession with him, and it was over it that he established mastery.

Along with music, Taranath demonstrated a flair for the visual arts, and it was indeed the urge to study the two that brought him to Bombay. Even while he pursued his studies taking a diploma course at the Sir J J School of Arts, he latched on to playing the tabla under the tutelage of late Subbarao Ankolekar. He also benefited from his studentship under celebrated percussion maestros like Khaprumama Parvatkar of Goa and Faiyyaz Mahmmad of Kanpur. He finally sought tutelage under another great luminary, Shamsuddin Khan.

Encouraged by these masters to undertake comprehensive studies into the knowledge they shared with him, Taranath Rao devoted several years to analyse, sift and systematically codify the science of percussion music. His mastery of laya enabled him to play a lehara in a basic laya while he rcited intricate combinations in a different laya simultaneously – an achievement in itself. Ultimately, these forays into the fascinating world of sound led to him evolve a ‘stenography’ distinct to the tabla. He has also evolved independently, a script which he has often utilized to examine students at university tests and tabla contests conducted by organizations like All India Radio.

The profundity of Panditji’s knowledge in the intricacies of laya, his mastery over a bewildering variety of taals and his equally varied compositions, many of them in Sanskrit, have baffled contemporaries, connoisseurs and critics alike. He has built up a phenomenal repertoire of compositions, but he shares his knowledge ungrudgingly and freely with anyone genuinely interested.

His contribution to the field of music has ben laudatory. In 1961, AIR arranged a national broadcast of his 90-minute programme entitled Bharatiya Sangeet ke Do Roop (a comparative study of the taala system as followed in north and south Indian music).

In 1967, Pandit Ravi Shankar invited Panditji to undertake a concert tour abroad. Panditji realized that it was a fantastic opportunity to interpret the great tradition of Indian percussion music to western audiences. For a year he taught at Ravi Shankar’s Kinnar School of Indian Music in America. After a short stint back home, he accompanised noted veena maestro Zia Mohiuddin Khan Dagar to London, Paris, Rome, Nairobi and several other cities abroad. During the course of his travels, he was solicited by several westerners interested in the Indian musical tradition. One such devotee, Lloyd Miller, who studied under him during his association with the Kinnar School and who himself holds a doctorate in music, subsequently published a book on the fundamentals of the tabla called Eastern Drum Rhythms.

In recognition of his long-standing services to the field of music, the newly established Goa Kala Academy at Panaji requested his services to manage the affairs of the music division. Disillusioned with his stint with the Academy he returned to Bombay, only to proceed abroad.

Since then, he has been visiting India once every three or four years. He devotes time during such sojourns to staying with his daughters in Bombay and Pune, and to renewing his association and acquaintance with disciples, friends and admirers. He remains a wandering genius.


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