Interview: Aavartan


The idea of the ever-recurring cycle of life comes alive through the work of Minnesota’s first tabla ensemble, Aavartan. Led by Dr. A Pavan, a staple figure in the local classical Indian music scene, Aavartan is the culmination of years of experience and collaboration among multiple Twin Cities Indian music artists. While Northern Indian Tabla is typically played in a solo format, Aavartan adapts this tradition to fit an ensemble of musicians. The result is a chorus of dummers that can present the sophisticated practice and extensive repertoire of the Tabla in a format that is engaging to all audiences. Aavartan’s first ever performance, called The Cycle of Rhythm, takes place Sunday, June 11th at The Cedar Cultural Center.


We spoke to Dr. A Pavan, founder and lead member of Aavartan, to discuss his inspirations as a musician, the complexities of the Tabla, and his hopes for the future of Northern Indian music in Minnesota.


Buy tickets ($15 advance / $18 day of show) for Aavartan: The Cycle of Rhythm on Sunday, June 11th here.



Q: Avartan is Minnesota’s first-ever Tabla (North Indian classical drum) ensemble, making its inaugural debut at The Cedar. What inspired you to create a Tabla ensemble?

A: As a Tabla artist it has been a long standing personal desire of mine to present the classical solo repertoire of Tabla to Minnesota audiences. The Indian Music Society of Minnesota (IMSOM) has presented a few outstanding Tabla artists in solo format over the years, but, by and large, the instrument and its unique poetic drumming tradition are underrepresented and underappreciated in Minnesota. Now that I have a few good students and mentees who have been workshopping with me for a couple of years, I figured this would be an apt time to assemble a small group that can present this sophisticated drumming tradition and its amazing repertoire, in an innovative format that can engage both, the informed and the lay audiences, alike. The award of an Artist Initiative Grant from the MN State Arts Board for 2016-17 was the catalyst that really jumpstarted the ensemble building process and here we are, many months later, getting ready to present our maiden concert at The Cedar. Abhinav Sharma, Siddharth Iyengar, Chinmay Sahu and Samir Patel will be performing with me in the ensemble along with two special guests.


Q: Classical Tabla compositions are normally performed in a solo format. What does adapting this style to fit an ensemble add to the musical experience?

A: The main idea behind creating the ensemble was to present the Tabla solo repertoire in an engaging format that all types of audiences can relate to, as mentioned above. The ensemble format brings several dynamics to the presentation that keep rotating and shifting among the ensemble members, as the performance progresses. For example, parts of one composition might be played together by some or all ensemble members while others may be played solo with members taking turns, all the while developing the composition from a base structure into something that keeps evolving in different ways. At other times, we might break into oral recitation, either interspersed with, or bookending the playing, to make people aware of the innate poetic beauty of these percussive pieces. Much like in any spoken language, there is truly beautiful poetic expression possible through the onomatopoeic language of the Tabla, that drives the sounds and the compositions that one hears played through the instrument. This aspect of Tabla drumming, in particular, is far less appreciated. One of our goals, therefore, is to also allow the audience an opportunity to hear and really feel the poetry of Tabla in all its nuances. And finally, we have two special guests, Dr. Pooja Goswami Pavan, Hindustani (North Indian classical) vocalist and Dr. Praful Kelkar, Sarod (a “lute-like” stringed instrument) artist, who will bring melodic components to the mix, to make this a part-musical, rather than a purely percussive experience, for the audience.


Q: Dr. A Pavan, you have been a fixture in the Indian classical music scene here in Minnesota for over 25 years. How have you seen the local Indian classical music scene evolve during that time?

A: The Twin Cities’ community’s desire to experience live Indian classical music has been growing over the years. The Indian Music Society of Minnesota (IMSOM) has largely been the driving force behind this, presenting and promoting world class Indian music for over 37 years now. Many professional artists of Indian classical music have now made their home in the Twin Cities. This has not only resulted in a rise in the quality and number of Indian musical works presented in the cities, but also, spurred the growth of a vibrant student community. There are also now multiple groups who create, curate or present various Indian classical dances. Not only is the local Indian community growing steadily, but diverse audiences who appreciate Indian arts are growing too. IMSOM and the various local Indian artists are consistently striving to find new audiences and collaborations both within and outside the Indian community. There are now multiple community festivals, such as the IMSOM sponsored “Aradhana” that bring together hundreds of community members in an innovative way, presenting and promoting the strength, popularity and the influence Indian music has on Indian culture and arts in general. All of these provide a great opportunity for Indians, especially second generation Indians born in the USA, to experience and maintain their cultural heritage. We also see rapidly growing collaborations among the Indian classical art forms and non-Indian genres spanning the world of music and dance. The state of Minnesota and various other local arts bodies have been very supportive of these Indian organizations and artists through grants, awards and recognitions. All in all, Indian music is here to stay and thrive inMinnesota. That’s how I see it.


Q: The Tabla has an expansive history across the Indian subcontinent. Which regions do you specifically draw from to create your sound?

A: The Tabla tradition recognizes six major stylistic schools, called Gharanas. Each of these Gharanas traces its origins to a certain region in North India, spanning roughly from Punjab in the North West to Farrukhabad and Benares to the Eastern end of this region. Our goal is to present each Gharana’s representative compositions and highlight their salient features, as in, the sounds, the fingering technique, the phraseology, the development of the piece etc. Instead of one long performance as one might expect in a traditional Tabla solo presentation, we have broken down our performance set into several smaller pieces of 8-10 minutes, organized by the Gharana highlights (e.g. a piece called “Delhi Beats” presents compositions that originate from the Delhi Gharana) or by a certain unifying theme (e.g. “A Duet in Triplets” features compositions that consist of all phrases played in triplets superposed over the pulse of the rhythmic cycle) and so on. Hopefully, the audience will get a better appreciation of not only the various types of Tabla compositions and the sounds they entail, but also, what style they represent and what their salient features are. It won’t, however, be a didactic lecture-demonstration in any way; it will be a performance, just to be clear.


Q: What do you wish more people knew about Northern Indian music?

A: There is a whole lot to know, but mostly, I would like to urge local audiences to experience the beauty and splendor of our classical music traditions by attending live concerts of Indian classical music, especially, the world class presentations of IMSOM and those of the many fine artists we now have locally. Beyond that, of course, there are many elements of aesthetics, sounds, instruments, techniques, genres, that one can spend a lifetime experiencing and enjoying. But mostly, our music is melodic (as opposed to harmonic) and is largely improvisational, with not one, but two glorious classical music systems, namely, Hindustani or North Indian classical and Carnatic or South Indian classical. Both systems are based on the foundational concepts of the Raga (melodic framework) and the Tala (rhythmic framework). I’ll stop here, for lack of time and space but look out for all the Indian music and the various intriguing collaborations by Indian musicians and dancers happening in the cities all the time.


Q: What’s inspiring you lately?

A: Nothing I can specifically point to as a current inspiration, but the music of the masters of the last century has always been the greatest draw for me. No matter what I’m drawn to from time to time, I keep going back to the older stuff (as far as Indian classical music goes). Numerous masters have inspired me and continue to do so – far too many to mention here. And in Tabla, that list extends to several dozen people. But of course I owe the bulk of my inspiration in Tabla to my teacher’s teacher (my Grand Guru, so to speak), Ustad Shaik Dawood Khan of Hyderabad. His compositions and playing technique have really shaped my own learning and playing to a large extent. Everything I know today, I owe it all to the many awe inspiring Gurus of Tabla I have had the great fortune of learning from over the years. That journey continues to this day. I listen to a lot of other music outside of Indian music as well and collaborate with musicians from various genres but that would be a discussion for another day. Right now, Tabla is all that is on my mind.