The master tabla player and current artist in residence at Milapfest speaks to Jamie Bowman about his journey, practice and the similarities between Kolkata and Liverpool.
There’s no doubting that 2020 was difficult for anyone trying to teach a musical instrument. Nearly all elements of extended tangibility have been removed from our social order. But how about sparing a thought for the tabla teacher? Notoriously hard to learn, its playing involves extensive use of the fingers and palms in various configurations to create a wide variety of different types of sounds which are reflected in the mnemonic syllables.
Not only is it technically hard to master, but the tabla itself was once a secret preserve for only a few higher status individuals and its secret was closely guarded. Thus, being born into a family of tabla players was often the only way to gain access to this knowledge. Now imagine trying to impart that knowledge to pupils during a Zoom call.
“I have been teaching online for a long time, actually, because I have many students from abroad, but for the beginners it is a big problem because of the fingering,” says KOUSIC SEN, master tabla artiste and artist in residence at Liverpool-based Milapfest, the UK’s largest Indian arts development trust.
“You cannot just teach them that online, so it is very difficult. The position of the fingers is so important – if they start playing wrong the whole thing goes wrong,” Kousic explains, speaking today over Zoom from his home in Kensington.
Milapfest has been a mainstay in Liverpool’s cultural sector for more than two decades. It works to promote Indian arts throughout the UK and not only produces a varied programme of entertainment, but also offers education on the diversity of Indian culture. The trust complements its work on education and professional development in the Indian arts with performances, commissions and exhibitions demonstrating the richness of the continent.
Kousic’s role at the organisation includes teaching at the weekly Arts School and performances at Milapfest concerts around the UK, not to mention his position as percussion conductor for Samyo and Tarang – Milapfest’s two ensembles.
Pravinder Singh, Milapfest’s head of programmes and planning, explains the set-up of the orchestras: “Samyo is one of the nine national youth orchestras of Great Britain and it is a mixture of musicians from North India and South India. The blend of music and styles coming together is one of the first of its type.
“For that orchestra to be resident in Liverpool and have access to such an amazing internationally renowned performer like Kousic is great,” Singh adds. “His role is critical and crucial, especially when it comes to artist development. These young musicians rarely get the opportunity to speak to, learn from and interact with such a musician. It is a great learning experience for them. They can pick up the phone, have a Zoom meeting about tabla and percussion, it’s amazing.”
As a performer, Kousic has become famous for his intense and energetic performances. Understandably, he is missing the live arena since Covid-19 put a stop to his regular outings across the globe.
“Many concerts have been cancelled, but I have been practicing, and so far with the support of Milap, I have been fine until now at least,” he says.
“I have been playing internationally since 1988, so I am really missing live concerts. I always want to play in front of a crowd and I have realised the more I get from the crowd the more inspired I feel. Touring and playing performances – it feels like a whole world is missing,” he shares, with a slight sense of melancholy.
Kousic was born in a musical family in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India. Even before his birth, he was exposed to Indian music. His mother, Smt Tapati Sen, was a prominent North Indian classical vocalist and an A-grade artist of All India Radio. He started playing tabla, very informally, with his father.
“My mum was an Indian classical vocalist and my father, although not a professional musician, was a very literate person when it came to music, so I had no choice really. I had to go to school and practice – that was it,” he shares of his formative years in India.
“My first visit to England was in 1988,” he continues. “I started to tour many countries and had many jobs offered to me. I was travelling to the US a lot, but then someone offered me the chance to come to England.”
Kousic warmed to England from its first impression on him. “There is really not that much difference between India and England, especially when it comes to music,” he explains. “So many people are interested [in music] and so many people come to the concerts. They are also encouraging their children to learn Indian music.”
Over the last 30 years, Kousic has accompanied many notable musicians and dancers throughout India and become a regular participant in major music festivals around the world. He has toured extensively in the US, Canada, Europe and South and East Asia and collaborated with musicians from other traditions, working with Western, Cuban, Indonesian, Persian and Spanish musicians.
“When I think of Indian musicians of my generation,” Kousic contemplates, “I have probably [produced] the most cross-cultural music,” he says. “Russian, Arabic, Spanish flamenco, Cuban, Indonesian and also jazz… just because I teach tabla it doesn’t mean my students should become tabla players – they could become a pianist,” he explains. “When I work with other genres I only have to find the match, the commonality, then I can go musically with them. It is very important to me.”
In common with all cultural institutions, 2020 was a challenging year, but both Kousic and Pravinder are insistent they will continue to fly the flag for Indian music in Liverpool and beyond. Their passion for the city shines through. “From Calcutta I have come to another cultural city in Liverpool,” adds Kousic. “For me they are in the same category.”
The coming months will see Milap continue their Music For The Mind & Soul digital concert series, which draws together a diverse selection of performers and musical styles. Following on from the first event of the year in late January, Saturday 27th February features Enjikkudi Subramanian and H.N. Bhaskar, with the following month, 27th March, seeing J.A. Jayanth and Debasmita Bhattacharya in concert with Sai Giridhar and M.T. Aditya.
“We are trying to be as optimistic as we can bearing in mind everything that has happened,” notes Pravinder. “For us, the main thing is we want to come out of the pandemic with an organisation that continues to support Indian arts going forward.”
“We have so many young people involved and we hope we can give them a genuine flavour of Indian music, dance and arts. When we can get back into theatres, which we are hoping might be in April 2021, we can come out of it stronger,” Kousic concludes. “Hopefully we’ll continue to deliver better work than we were before.”
Kousic Sen is the current artist in residence at Milapfest. The Music For The Mind & Soul digital concert series takes place on 27th February and 27th March.