It’s one thing to have your work nominated for a Grammy award alongside some of the world’s best musicians in your category, such as Enya. Better still, winning that category.
That’s exactly what Hyderabadi tabla exponent Abhiman Kaushal managed to do, when his studio work on the album White Sun II — through the music group White Sun — won this year’s Grammy Award for Best New Age Album.
He’s quick to clarify that the only reason he’s filling headlines in India is because of his collaboration with the band. And Abhiman, who is now based in California, says that working with them, especially lead vocalist Gurujas, has been very rewarding.
“Gurujas, who is the main voice of White Sun II, approached me a few years ago and we bonded since the first day. I felt so much at ease with their music and her voice that I never felt any challenge blending in. In fact, I don’t recall one song where I played the tabla and they requested a retake. Our sounds blended so naturally and it felt like it was meant to be,” explains Abhiman about fitting in with the band, whose music primarily comprises Sikh-influenced hymns.
The son of a tabla player and Kuchipudi dancer — R.B. Kaushal and Sumathy Kaushal, respectively — Abhiman had an early introduction into music. “As a young child, I was attracted to the sounds of the tabla but was apprehensive about learning the form, as it required serious practice the way I found my father doing so on a daily basis. Like any other child, I wanted to play with friends rather than be confined in a room for practice!” Abhiman reveals, adding that he was eventually “blessed” to become the disciple of Ustad Shaik Dawood Khan.
After his training, he began performing not just in India, but across the globe, and alongside some of the biggest names in Indian classical music, such as Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Pandit Jasraj and more. He then moved to the US, where he began experimenting with his sound.
He soon realised that American audiences, too, found Indian music interesting. “To perform in India is the epitome of every Indian classical musician, but it is equally gratifying to perform in the US as the audiences here have been listening to Indian music since the late ’60s early ’70s,” Abhiman says.
Now, the director of North Indian Music Music in the Department of Ethnomusicology at the University of California, LÁ and Riverside (UCLA and UCR), Abhiman has also recorded with several artistes, and says that working with varied genres has helped him hone his skills better.
Abhiman says, “I attribute this to the firm foundation instilled in me as an Indian classical musician. I use this metaphor: If the trunk of tree is strong, the branches can reach out wide without the insecurity of falling along the way. Being a faculty at the prestigious UCLA, I have had the privilege of collaborating with famous musicians of various world genres. This certainly pushed my boundaries in approaching music not solely as a classical tabla player but one who can adapt to the global sounds.”
And despite his varied and hectic schedule, Abhiman says that playing the tabla is what keeps him grounded. “For me practice is a sadhana (discipline). I feel like a complete human being only when I have spent time with my tabla, as I owe my identity and life to this wonderful art form.”