I remember once telling my old tabla teacher, Taranath Rao, that I had wrestled in high school. I recall being quite surprised to find out that he too was a youth wrestler! I’ll never know whether I could have out-wrestled guruji; but I surely know that it would take me another hundred lifetimes to become even one thousandth the tabla player that he was.
I also surely know that I was very blessed that a man in the direct lineage of the Farukkhabad Gharana of tabla masters would be willing to take, as a student, a 20-year-old composer of electro-acoustic music who had neither the tenacity nor the aptitude to become an accomplished hand-drummer. The fact is, I began studying with Taranath because I “wanted to learn something non-Western” and because my friend Amy (who was an accomplished percussionist) was going to study tabla – and I thought Amy was cute.
Over the years that I knew Taranath, he became far more that just a path to “something non-Western” and a reason to hang out with Amy. He became one of the great influences on my life. This is not because I would ever become a particularly good drummer but, rather, because knowing him led me to both my interests in India and to a realization about what a truly joyful human being could be and how precious it was to know one.
Taranath Rao was born one hundred years ago today, March 6, 1915, in Mangalore India. His uncle, A. K. Rao, was an accomplished Indian violinist and his own father, Ramarao Hattiangady, was a percussionist and an actor. Because of these family members, Taranath received some very early exposure to musical genius. Taranath first studied tabla with Vishnu Goakar. He learned mridangam from his own father. Ultimately Taranath studied with Shamshuddin Khan, who he first met while on tour with the great master Abdul Kareem Khan. There is an old story about Shamshuddin Khan that says his hands were so light, and his drumming so effortless, that anyone sitting behind him could not even tell when his hands were moving and when not. Clearly my guru learned this lesson well; sadly, I did not.
Taranath moved to Bombay around 1932 to study art. Shamshuddin Kahn didn’t have time to take on new students so, first, Taranath studied with pakawaj master Subbarao Ankolekar who also player tabla in the style of Delhi gharana. It was not until almost 7 years later that, in 1939, Shamshuddin Khan could make time for Taranath. He had found his guru.
Though having begun to master the Delhi gharana, his discipleship under Shamshuddin led him to another stylistic lineage. Through a history that I honestly do not know well, my guru Taranath, is directly in the discipleship lineage of the fathers of the Farukkhabad and Lucknow Gharanas.
I studied with Taranath from 1979 or 1980 through 1982. He taught me a tremendous amount about drumming and about the theory of North Indian rhythm. He also taught me about joy, love, and humor.
We used to joke with Taranath because he had difficulty pronouncing the letters W and V in English. He once told us how important rhythm is to Indian music by saying that “Music contains rhythm like the waves are in the ocean.” We kept asking him to repeat the word “waves” as if we did not understand. Finally he said” “WAVES! WAVES!… V-A-V-E-S!” He was just awesome!
Taranath had some physical problems by the time I knew him. That is actually what brought him to the US. He could no longer play 5 or 6 hour-long concerts. He could still, however, perform at a world-class level for our American-style 2 hours shows. Because he did not drive, one of his students would typically pick him up and bring him to school. Of course, that left us open to a variety of alternative plans. One of these was to show up, as a group, to pick him up. This could result in quite a wonderful dining experience when we would, just by the stroke of luck, be invited to dinner.
Once, on his birthday, Taranath received from his students, a 1/2 gallon bottle (I think) of Chevas Regal. This was an extra entertaining evening because we had not only the joy of Tabla lessons and dinner, but also the great Joy of watching Taranath’s wife (who we all called “Mami”) walk around offering up whiskey from that big bottle. What do I remember that made that so entertaining? Well… Guess what LETTER the word “Whisky” starts with? That right! “W“! Mami, like guruji, couldn’t pronounce the letter W! So, she walked around the room offering us “‘Ski?” “‘Ski?”, “‘Ski?”
Those were some fun times. But there is one memory that cemented the memory or Taranath in my mind, for life. Not long before guruji died I was in Los Angeles and went to visit CalArts, where I had studied with Taranath. This was either 1990 or 1991. I was walking the halls, giving my wife a tour, when I met Taranath with one of his newer (younger) students. I had not seen him in something like 7 or 8 years. When he saw me, he got the most priceless smile on his face. He nearly ran up to me and embraced me. He turned to his student and then back to me. With one of the most genuine smiles I have ever seen, the great Pandit Taranath Rao, direct descendant of the the leaders of the Farukkhabad and Lucknow Gharanas, looked at me and said “Look at you!” and turned to his student and said of me “HE was one of MY STUDENTS TOO!!!” Rarely in my life have I been so warmly embraced.
And so… on this 100th birthday of one of my favorite men of CalArts, I think of Taranath Rao with the same warmth and love that he last embraced me, those many years ago.