Another prize for the Tabla

Indian tabla player Sandeep Das wins prestigious Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for Music Composition for 2019

SANDEEP DAS considered one of the leading Tabla exponents in the world today, has been awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation fellowships in the category of Music Composition for 2019.

The Guggenheim Foundation was founded in 1925 in honour of John Simon Guggenheim to support the projects of artists and scholars in any field or discipline who have “demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts”.

Roughly 3,000 candidates were in the running this year and of those 168 were selected to receive fellowships across disciplines, with 11 awards being granted in the field of music composition. Amongst the other awardees are Nobel Prize Winners, Poet Laureates, members of the National Academy of Sciences, and many more distinguished individuals! You can view more on the Guggenheim Foundation website via this link. 

Sandeep’s collaboration with the Silk Road Ensemble for “Sing me Home” won the Grammy Award for the Best World Music Album. Prior to this win, he was nominated for the Grammy Award in 2005 and 2009. A professional career spanning 23 years has seen him composing and playing with the Legendary Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble, String quartets and Orchestra’s such as The New York Philharmonic, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the The Boston Symphony Orchestra to name a few.

International Cellist Yo Yo Ma says about Sandeep:

 “Sandeep transcends his instrument- when he plays the Tabla he is a creator of myths, a master communicator and an orchestra, all in one. In my decades of collaboration around the world, he is easily one of the greatest artists I have ever met. Not only is he one of the best artists I have met but he is also once one of the best teachers I have met. I believe there is no one he cannot engage!” 

It all started with a complaint that Sandeep’s father got from Sandeep’s school teacher.  “Sandeep has been disturbing the class…asked to stop tapping the desk with his hands, he starts tapping with his feet. Please take him to a doctor!” On reaching home that day, instead of being taken to a doctor Sandeep was gifted his first set of Tabla and taken to his first guru Shiv Kumar Singh where he spent one year in training.

Being a big fan of Pt. Kishan Maharaj of the Benaras Gharana, his father K.N.Das, sought and requested the legendary tabla maestro to teach his son. The Maestro proceeded to test his skills in various ways. At the end He was very happy and said –‘He has tabla in his blood and I will teach him.’

Sandeep learnt tabla under his Guru for 11 years in the Guru-Shishya parampara. Sandeep proudly mentions how everything he learnt was taught to him orally and thus all those years of learning live with him every second of his life and he doesn’t have to flip through any written diary of any sort.

For the first few years, he would travel from Patna to Benaras every Friday evening, stay overnight at his guru’s home and then return on Sunday. He would never spend a single vacation at home. Later his father took a transfer to Varanasi, so that his musical education could continue unhindered.

Under Pt. Kishanji Maharaj, Sandeep not only learnt tabla but also valuable lessons in life.


“When I was 9 or 10 years old, we were practicing in a room and Guru ji got very mad at us. He said why don’t you people clean the room before you sit down to practice and he asked me to clean the room. I had never done it at home so I couldn’t sweep the floor nicely. He took the broom from my hand and taught me how to sweep the floor and mentioned to me that if you sweep the floor nicely you can also be a good tabla player. Words which at that time didn’t make sense to me. How did sweeping the floor relate to tabla but as I grew up I realized that the other things he was teaching us to do, even doing the smallest jobs perfectly, taught us discipline, focus, attention to details and made the toughest jobs seem easy and that would also spill over in our playing.”

Pt. Kishanji Maharaj always discouraged his students from copying him. He would say, “As long as you are a Xerox you’ll never have any value. The moment you start playing, everybody should know which gharana you come from, but you must always have your own personality, your own thoughts imbibed in what you are playing.” Unlike many others, he advised his students to listen to every tabla player, but said, “Even if you like something, don’t try to play like them. Make it your own. It should sound that its Sandeep Das playing and not Sandeep Das copying or mimicking somebody else.”

Under his Guru’s guidance, Sandeep debuted on stage with legendary Sitar maestro, Pt. Ravi Shankar. He also won the national drumming championship thrice and became the youngest drummer ever to be graded by All-India radio.

One of the biggest turning points in his career came with his meeting the world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma who invited him to play with the Silk Road Ensemble.

Interview with Sandeep Das:

Indian percussion is so well appreciated abroad, how can it be supported in India?

The major factor is that the percussion players have to understand that they are a very needed aspect of Indian classical music and stand up against exploitation. They have to believe in their hard work and realise that it is the quality of the playing that gets them concerts and not just by being subservient to someone, who in return will exploit them. They themselves have to stand up.


Is the domination of one or two great maestros distracting attention from a whole lot of young talented percussionists? Why do we always talk of only one or two great musicians for every instrument?

As you must have noticed, where are the art and culture pages or focus on anything of our own heritage and culture in today’s media, be it print or television. Whereas you pick up any media from the west and you will see dedicated critics and pages for the same. That is a very unfortunate situation in our country now that the media will only cover people who are already well known or people who can pay for PR.


What is the most important change happening in Indian percussion today?

There is no dearth of great individual talent in our country so we have talented younger players but the majority in a rush to get popular are ending up mimicking the west. That is where we are going wrong. I would say learn one this well enough and deeply first and be proud of your own music and culture.


What is it about the Indian tabla that makes it so universally popular?

When I think about it I am amazed at how smart and intelligent our predecessors were. Even one instrument like Tabla has such a vast repertoire that is unmatched with any percussion from anywhere in the world. It is an instrument that with the right training and application can be played with almost any kind of music. Thus I am playing with the biggest western classical orchestras of the world to String quartets and Jazz musicians.

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