Written by Matthew Ern Wednesday, 28 August 2013 00:00
The tabla is a classical Indian drum set predominantly played by men; but New Hyde Park resident Sejal Kukadia is bringing her passion for the instrument to students of all ages and both genders at the Taalim School of Indian Music.
The tabla is a percussion instrument that is typically used as accompaniment in classical Indian pieces. From the outset, Kukadia never let the fact that the world of the tabla was male-dominated stop her. When she first decided to play, Kukadia said to herself, “I like this instrument. I want to learn this instrument,” and it was settled. She is now teaching a modern style of play to anyone who wishes to learn.
Kukadia says people have been very encouraging to her and the women she plays with. “They don’t care what gender you are. People would tell me, ‘I’ve never seen a woman play the tabla before.’”
The trend seems to be changing in recent years through the work Sejal and the other instructors at the Taalim School. Some of her students are young girls, some are women in their twenties and thirties and some are older still, just now finding the time to learn.
Growing up in upstate New York, the tabla was a household instrument for Kukadia the same way the guitar or piano is commonly found in western homes. She began playing casually at a young age, but after attending a concert featuring Indian percussionists she resolved to move to India and study the instrument in-depth. For four years she lived in Gujarat and studied under the guru Pandit Divyang Vakil.
“A guru is more than a teacher, studying under one is more like an apprenticeship,” she explains.
Learning the instrument involved adopting a new mindset and lifestyle, practicing long hours each day. Social events like parties or even going to the movies took a backseat during her years of training. She has been playing the tabla seriously for 15 years now.
After completing her study in India, Kukadia moved back to the United States and became an instructor at Taalim, which has several locations throughout New York and New Jersey. She has taught at the school for 11 years and even helped to found the New Hyde Park location. All of the instructors at Taalim have trained under Guru Vakil.
Rather than teach the tabla as an accompanying instrument, Vakil and his disciples strive to make it the main focus of arrangements, according to Kukadia. This relatively new concept features tabla solos and entire ensembles made up of strictly tabla percussionists.
The new style of playing involves high-speed fingering and contemporary versions of classical music. “It’s fun,” she said. “Some people describe it as a rock concert.”
Besides teaching at the Taalim School, she performs the tabla professionally. “We’re bringing the tabla to younger and non-Indian audiences as well,” Kukadia said.
She plays with an all-female ensemble called Taalika and toured with the Middle-Eastern fusion group Divahn around the country. Kukadia is the tabla player for the five-piece band, which also features the guitar and other string instruments, such as the violin.
Kukadia says you could probably count all the female professional tabla players in the world on one hand. But the increase in attention tabla ensembles are getting has her hopeful for the future.
“Women are really making their way in the way of tabla,” she said.