Why do so many Indian classical musicians love playing board games?

Sarod pioneer Ustad Ali Akbar Khan famously turned to board game metaphors when teaching students his own Raag Chandranandan: “The ascending and descending are fixed, but in more [in] a curved way…like the game shatranj [an ancient form of chess], you can go in so many ways. The raga you have to play like that…but in the end you don’t kill the king!”

The Ustad is far from the only Hindustani superstar to find themselves drawn towards board games. Benares tabla legend Pandit Kishan Maharaj was an avid player of carrom, an Indian game that roughly resembles miniature table-top snooker (essentially you flick casino-like chips into each other, aiming to pot only those of the right colour).

He extolled the cognitive virtues of carrom to his students, notably including Pandit Kumar Bose – who ended up becoming an even more obsessive exponent of it than his guru. In Maharaj’s words, “I gifted my gold-made carrom set to Kumar. He will treasure it, as he is equally addicted to the game and the tabla”. It’s easy to see why: check out some high-stakes, high-drama carrom gameplay below:

These are only a few of countless examples. So – what is going on? Why do Indian classical musicians seem to love board games so much? I asked young Bengali sarod star Debasmita Bhattacharya what she thought: “Any board game is a sort of ‘brain gym’, and us musicians enjoy it when our ‘counting processes’ are moving. I play carrom, definitely not to a professional standard…but these activities can help you focus on music. I also noticed that perfectionists can be much more drawn to these games”.

This makes intuitive sense – after all, many of the qualities and tendencies that fuel musical progress also manifest strongly within the parameters of a tabletop game – e.g. rule-bound improvisation, face-to-face interaction, quick, clear ‘feedback loops’ on success and failure, and step-by-step, quasi-mathematical modes of creative competition.

These competitive sentiments are certainly echoed by the carrom-obsessed Kumar Bose, who describes playing solo tabla as “a different game [to accompaniment]…I am a royal Bengal tiger!” Elsewhere he adds that “a sportsman with an artistic bent of mind is bound to outshine his peers, and the sportsman’s spirit helps an artist to reach his zenith”. See what you can hear of this in a clip from his virtuoso Darbar performance:

The geometric language used to describe tabla soloing shares common ground with that of board game strategy too. Recently someone described the kayda improvisational structure to me as “diamond-shaped”, explaining that a ‘narrow’ theme is established, which is ‘expanded outwards’ into all manner of fresh reworkings, then gradually ‘reduced’ back to its original form to conclude the performance.

Also – I couldn’t help but notice the distinctly chess-like instructions of South India’s modern melharmony system, which lays out how to adapt rules from European Baroque counterpoint into Carnatic raga, using a complex, graphical ‘decision tree’ approach (“move from cell to cell, from top to bottom, through the T-matrix…”). I don’t really understand it yet, but the metaphors do make it much easier to navigate.

Manual dexterity is also common to music and some board games (e.g. carrom features ‘flicks’…but shatranj doesn’t). It is said that the talent of Pandit Anokhelal Mishra, who rose from poverty to become known as Tabla Samrat (‘Emperor of Tabla’), was only spotted through his incredible skill at playing marbles as an infant.

Inversely, the choice of game can also be influenced by pragmatic musically-based health concerns – Pandit Sanju Sahai (who I interviewed at length here), told me that, as the heir to an illustrious tabla lineage, he “wasn’t allowed to play cricket in case I hurt my hands – so I flew kites and played carrom instead”.

Many artists simply feel they must lead an expansive lifestyle if they are to stay in touch with their best creative fires: Kumar Bose certainly finds time for a lot more than just tabla and carrom: “I exercise regularly and do the puja [devotional ritual] before riyaz [practice]…good health is essential for good art! I played water-polo and football once, still continue with swimming, and eating lots of greens. I have a great collection of perfumes and hard drinks, and any music attracts me. Each of the navarasas [sentiments] is needed to nourish an artist, as all are intertwined”.

These boardgame associations have even made it onto the big screen. 1977’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (‘The Shatranj Players’), directed by the legendary Satyajit Ray, dramatises the 19th-century struggles between Wajid Ali, the Shah of Awadh, and the British Lieutenant-General James Outram (played by screen legend Richard Attenborough, brother of David). Many of the film’s pivotal scenes are superbly soundtracked by rattling, booming tabla rhythms (although unfortunately, the lead actor Amjad Khan is not, as I was slightly disappointed to discover, the filmic-looking sarod virtuoso of the same name). There’s definitely a lot more to uncover here – let us know your take!

● Read nextEarly improvisatory interchange: How jazz was thriving in 1920s India – half a century before Coltrane, McLaughlin, & co

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