A tribute to my Guruji, Ustad Anthony Dass
"If you love your tabla, then that tabla also loves you! It is not a dead thing."
Ustad Anthony Dass passed away at the age of 65 on the 12th March, 2004. He was a great tabla player of Delhi gharana, and he played with the very clear and crisp sound which this particular gharana is noted for. He was one of very few Christian tabla players in India. As a teacher he was systematic, thorough, and very generous with his extensive knowledge. He shared an enormous repertoire of old Delhi gharana compositions which are rarely heard, including many kaidas and rare gats. When he played the famous Delhi kaida, (The "king of kaida's!") DhatiDhagenaDhattkt DhatiDhageDhinagena, he could improvise a seemingly limitless stream of beautiful variations on that theme, and he would play some extremely difficult fingerings, especially in his development of the bol "ttkt".
Ustad Anthony Dass was a disciple of three Delhi tabla greats whom he revered as the "pillars" of the gharana; Ustad Munnu Khan, Ustad Gameh Khan, and Ustad Inam Ali Khan. He studied tabla with this family over a period of forty years. Ustadji warmly recounted how he had his first lesson with Ustad Inam Ali Khan, who was a film buff. They had gone to see a film together but discovered they had arrived at the cinema at the wrong time. Whilst waiting, Ustad Inam Ali Khan instructed Anthony Dass to go to the store and buy a notebook and pencil, which he did, and their tabla talim commenced right there on the dusty roadside! Ustadji's guru-bhais included Ustad Latif Ahmed Khan, Faiyaz Khan, and Gladwyn Charles among others.
Ustad Munnu Khan Ustad Gameh Khan Ustad Inam Ali Khan
The Delhi gharana
This tribute would not be complete without some description of the Delhi gharana of tabla, to which Ustadji devoted his musical life. The Delhi gharana playing style, or "Delhi baj", is noted for several aspects including the clarity of sound production, the playing of "na" and "ta" on the kinar or edge of the tabla, and the emphasis on fingerings using the first (index) and second (middle) fingers of the right hand. The bayan is generally played in a restrained fashion, with pitch modulations achieved by pushing the heel of the hand into the skin rather than sliding across it. Delhi baj is sometimes described as being a "pure" tabla style as it has very little influence from the older double headed drum, the Pakhawaj.
Compositional types include Peshkar, Mohra, Kaida, Rela, Tukra, Gat and Chakradar. Among these, the kaida is considered a most important form in Delhi gharana, and there is a vast repertoire of kaida themes. The word kaida comes from Urdu and means "rule" or "law". Therefore kaidas are developed according to certain rules which serve to maintain consistency in their mood and the motific development of bols and phrases from the theme. This may have the effect of creating a trance in the listener, through the coexistence of the qualities of constancy and change. This is akin to the melodic form of raga, which creates a particular mood through similar outlines and restraints. The aesthetic of developing kaida in the traditional way is rarely appreciated or even understood these days, with many tabla players attempting to create interest by mixing bols not found in the kaida theme, or suddenly bursting into rela for immediate applause. Ustad Anthony Dass lamented the deterioration of the kaida form, and rather than reducing kaida to mere practice material, Ustadji highlighted the beauty of the kaida form as valuable performance repertoire. In Delhi kaidas, it is typical that the bols tete, tetekete, or sometimes both, are a feature.
The Delhi gharana is the oldest tradition of tabla playing in India, and traces it's lineage back to the first known tabla player, Ustad Sudhar Khan, also referred to as Ustad Sidhar Khan, or Ustad Sidhar Khan Dhadi. According to the gharana family members, Ustad Sudhar Khan was named "Sudhar" because "Shudh" means to make clear, and "dhar" means to do something the right way. Ustad Sudhar Khan "corrected" tabla from Amir Khusrao. Amir Khusrao was born in Delhi in 1253 AD. According to legend, Amir Khusrao was a soldier who met the Sufi saint Nizamuddin and became his disciple. He is often credited with the invention of tabla, which would mean that tabla has been around for the past 700 years or so, although scholars have found no tangible evidence to support this claim. It is generally thought that tabla came into existence in the early 1700's.
Amir Khusrao's shrine is located next to Nizamuddin's shrine in Delhi. The Ustad of Nizamuddin is said to be buried in an ancient Muslim cemetery in Saket, Delhi. During Ustad Anthony Dass's final days, he often went to this cemetery for spiritual healing and prayer.
Aside from being a tabla player, Ustad Anthony Dass was also an accomplished vocalist. He particularly loved to sing Ghazals and Bhajans. He received vocal training from Ustad Shujaat Khan of Rampur gharana and Pandit Vithal Rao of Hyderabad. He had teaching positions in Indian music through the Indian government in many countries, including Fiji for 2 years, Moscow for 5 years, Hungary for 2 years, and 1 year at the University of New England in Armadale, NSW. Ustadji also performed in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia, and the USA. He recorded this tabla lehera LP (above) whilst in Budapest.