Sejal Kukadia is one of the few female representatives of the tabla, a pair of hand drums and the most important percussion instrument in classical Hindu music.
More than a few musicians live in South Fork, from those in the plethora of bar bands covering classic rock staples to the writers of some of those catalogs. But very few, if any, are like East Hampton’s Sejal Kukadia.
Ms. Kukadia, a native of suburban Albany, is one of the few female exponents of the tabla, a pair of hand drums and the principal percussion instrument in classical Hindu music, in the United States. She covers all of Long Island for the Taalim School of Indian Music, teaches private and group classes in East Hampton and Montauk, performs with Divahn, an all-female fusion band from New York City, and also supports female tabla players over the internet platform TablaGirls.
Ms Kukadia arrived in East Hampton from New Hyde Park in 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic put an end to concerts and face-to-face classes. “Most of my student base is there because I’ve been there for more than 10 years,” she said. “I worked from home most of the time, so it made sense to come and live here because I didn’t have to travel anywhere. I only taught virtually for a long time.” She now teaches both in person and online and commutes to New Hyde Park a few times a month.
How did an American woman come to excel in the very male-dominated realm of the tabla? “I grew up in a household that had a lot of Indian instruments,” Ms. Kukadia said. Her parents are from Gujarat in western India. “They had a strong interest in Indian music so I had them around me, the instruments – harmonium, tabla, bansuri flute. I was just drawn to the tabla for the sound, I just loved that sound. We’d go to local Indian classical music concerts and I just got really drawn to the sound of the tabla.”
The smaller of the two drums, the daya tabla, is played by the musician’s dominant hand and is tuned to a specific note to complement a soloist’s melody. It’s made of wood. “This makes more treble sounds, the faster sounds too,” Ms. Kukadia said. “This tone is so rich, so full of depth. Even when I was young, this sound attracted me to the instrument.”
The larger baya tabla is usually made of brass, copper, aluminum or steel. “It makes a deeper, deeper bass tone,” she said. “One makes a ringtone, one makes a flat, hard tone. The balance of the two is really special.”
She took classes, but the Albany region offered no guru, commonly defined as a spiritual teacher but also applicable to those teaching the ways of a classical Indian art form. “If you wanted to learn in a really traditional way, you would look for a guru, a real classical artist, a musician, a full-time teacher. I didn’t have that where I lived, I would just take lessons here and there from local tabla players. But my interest was really growing – exponentially – so I decided to seek out a teacher, one that I was sure would set me on the path I wanted to go in India.”
This search eventually led Ms. Kukadia to Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state of Gujarat, and to Pandit Divyang Vakil (“Pandit” is an award for an expert in Indian classical music and is used for an Indian musician). She compares the experience to earning a master’s degree. “When I came across this teacher, I moved to India to study him full time in an intensive, apprentice-like way, like 100 percent tabla, tabla, tabla, practice, practice, practice.”
She stayed in India for several years before returning to the United States. “By that point, I was completely immersed,” she said. “A few years later we founded the Taalim School of Indian Music and it just went from there. Now we have teachers, many locations and hundreds and hundreds of students.” This year marks the school’s 20th anniversary.
Students are concentrated closer to New York City, which has far more people of South Asian descent. “Also, tabla is not as well known here as it is over there,” said Ms. Kukadia. But “Introducing tabla to a non-Indian audience is particularly rewarding because one of my main goals as a teacher is to educate a diverse audience about the depth and beauty of Indian music, the expression and purity of its music.”
Gian Carlo Feleppa, a Springs-based composer and multi-instrumentalist, is one of these students. Mr. Feleppa plays the sitar, an Indian stringed instrument also used in Hindu classical music, during classes at the Mandala Yoga Center for Healing Arts in Amagansett, where he met his future teacher.
“It’s for the best,” said Mr. Feleppa. “Indian music was so unusual to me when I first heard it that I couldn’t really tell what I was hearing. That made me listen to Ravi Shankar. Then I discovered Bollywood records.” He and wife Kukadia met just before the pandemic hit, and their first tabla lesson was in January 2020. “I’m still a student,” he said, “and by the second I’m feeling pretty good about my playing, I’ll go to a lesson and listen to her – she’s ridiculously great.”
In March, the Taalim school completed its annual Pledge for Practice initiative, in which students pledge to practice every day throughout the month for a specified amount of time and raise money for Indians who want to become musicians, but not over the means for tuition, instruments, and the like. At the end, the students perform in a recital.
“Of course we would have a big concert before the pandemic,” Ms. Kukadia said. “All students, all families, tons of music happening. The students showed the result of these 30 days of practice. But because we haven’t been able to do large gatherings for the last two years, we did it online and it’s just been an amazing response.”
“I’m blown away by Indian kids,” Mr. Feleppa remarked about the concerts. “It was incredible to be a part of it.”
Those interested in learning tabla can go to the contact page on taalim.com or send an email to [email protected]. Ms. Kukadia will perform with Divahn at the North American Jewish Choral Festival in Stamford, Connecticut on July 11 at 9:00 p.m. She will be offering a free tabla workshop at 4:00 p.m. on July 28 at the Amagansett Library
Many students “have stayed with us year after year,” Ms. Kukadia said. “I’ve watched students grow up.” One started teaching at age 11 and is now 25 and performs and serves as a sort of assistant teacher. “We did a lot of gigs together. Ages 11 to 25 – I feel like she is my daughter. It is really something special to see these students progress, progress and grow up.”