It is fabled that the great tabla masters of the past could summon divine powers through their drums, captivating even the birds and beasts with their sonic ingenuity. According to one famous tale, the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775-1862) once summoned the finest tabla players from across his kingdom to his palace at Delhi’s Lāl Qila (the ‘Red Fort’). The Shah, ruthlessly passionate about cultural success, demanded that the tablists face off against each other for as long as it took to determine who was the Empire’s rhythmic champion.
But, this competition was no X-Factor. Dozens of tabla players did battle with their drums for days on end, whipping onlookers into a frenzy with their pounding explorations. Finally, Ustad Kale Khan stepped to the stage, knowing that he would have to produce something extraordinary to outmatch the rest. Inspired by the pressure, it is said he revealed a brand new composition, which imitated the sounds of the surrounding birds so sweetly that flocks of pigeons flew to his feet in appreciation.
Astounded, the Shah immediately awarded him the title..and also offered to crush the hands of his opponents, although Khan persuaded him to spare them (and you thought Simon Cowell was mean…). The Red Fort Kayda is still performed today – see this superb version from modern maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain:
Robert S. Gottlieb’s ‘Solo Tabla Drumming of North India’ hails Khan’s achievements: “of particular interest is the imaginative use of meend [wide bends] on the bayan [bass tabla]. The bols [composition syllables]…were devised especially to imitate the sounds of pigeons. Kale Khan was very fond of pigeons, and raised them as well. This was an activity which subsequent Ajrara [gharana] members…continued to cultivate”.
Kale’s stylistic lineage would continue in other ways – his son Ustad Munir Khan would become the main guru of Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa (1892-1976), one of the finest tabla masters in all of history (video below).
● Read next: Versatile Vibrations: how the tabla can mimic anything – horses, cannons, trains, and more