Aloke Dutta Just Wants to Bang on His Classical Indian Drum All Day. By Himself.
Simone Paz Aloke Dutta, on his rug, with his tabla
Aloke Dutta, the world's foremost solo tabla player, lives in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Studio City.
By far the most important spot in the apartment is the one occupied by the rug on which Dutta practices, composes and teaches. In the 15 years that Dutta has lived there, the rug made a slow circuit around the living room until it settled in its present location in the corner opposite the kitchen. It is a smallish rug, 4 by 6 feet, made of hand-woven red and green wool, slightly faded with age. Dutta bought it for $80 in India back in 1986.
Today, people offer to buy the rug from him for thousands of dollars because of the many famous drummers who have sat on it while taking lessons: Simon Philips of the Who, Danny Carey of Tool, Pat Mastelotto of King Crimson, Mike D of Les Claypool's Fancy Band. Dutta also has hosted a small army of Hollywood session drummers, including Mike Fisher, percussionist for the films Memoirs of a Geisha, Avatar and American Beauty, which featured Dutta's compositions.
The drummers sit cross-legged on the rug while Dutta teaches them how to tap the fingers, or slide the heel of the hand up the skin of the drum to change the pitch. The tabla is an incredibly complex instrument, he explains, one that's been studied by physicists.
The tabla is actually a pair of hand drums, one slightly bigger than the other. The smaller one is roughly the size of a human head; the other is about the size of a pumpkin. Dutta estimates the tabla is approximately 300 years old. Legend has it that the emperor of India was an early fan, though which emperor exactly remains a subject of debate. In any case, it caught on, and it remains the country's most popular drum.
There is no other drum that can produce as many harmonies on a single head. "It sounds like 20 people playing," Dutta says. Tabla beats can sound like rain on a rooftop, or the mournful bellowing of a whale.
Until Dutta, tabla players have mainly been accompanists. As far as he knows, Dutta is the only tabla player who plays it to express an emotion or to tell a story.
He also refuses to jam with anyone. Other percussionists regard this as snobbery, but Dutta regards it as artistic purity. "Solo drum player, it doesn't even exist in the world," he says. "People think the drum is not an independent instrument."
Dutta spends a lot of time alone on the rug. Currently, he practices the tabla on it for two hours each day. (He used to practice 15 hours daily, until his skill and technique matured.)
Upon first touching the drums when he was 21, Dutta knew right away that he was playing his music. In the Indian classical music scene, where most players choose their instrument as children, taking one up beyond kindergarten is considered a late start. But his father was a drummer, so Dutta had been listening to tabla pretty much since birth. Earlier, probably. He suspects he heard it beating while still in his mother's womb as she listened to his father practice.
His father played the drums as an offering to the deity Madan Mohan, an incarnation of Vishnu. "It is a submission," Dutta says. "The ability to do that is an extraordinary quality for any human being. Making the sound not to please anybody but just to make the sound. That is Kant's disinterestedness in art. Pleasure without desire. My father had that nature. In his music, there was never trying to show off. His entire attitude was submission."
Dutta's father, however, was unhappy in his profession, teaching ancient drums at a university 100 miles north of Kolkata. He did not want his eldest son to follow in his footsteps. "He was in pain," Dutta says, with a shrug. So Dutta studied accounting, business and electronics. In the mid-'80s emigrated to the United States, got a job in semiconductor processing at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and played tabla more or less as a hobby, flying out to gigs on weekends with visiting Indian bands.
Before long, though, the voice of the drums was speaking louder to him than the voice of semiconductor processing. At 36, he quit his job, gave up his house in New Mexico and eventually settled in Los Angeles in the tiny apartment to devote himself to tabla. "My inner voice was so strong. My inner voice said, 'Go for it,' " he says.
Initially, people were puzzled and worried for him. "It is the world's responsibility to pay my bills. Not mine," Dutta says, pauses, then laughs, a hearty belly laugh at the seeming ridiculousness of it.
So far, the world has lived up to its responsibility. His needs are modest.
He is not worried. He knows exactly when the world will stop paying his bills: "When I stop practicing," he says without hesitation. "The moment I won't think deeply about my music. The moment I think I am a great musician. That is ego talking. Oh, man, that is the end of me."
Dutta is a talented drummer, though he does not believe in talent. He believes, rather, in discipline and hard work and knowing what you want to do and sticking with it. People often remark on how fast he plays, on how his hands flutter over the drums. But, he says, "Pretty much every tabla player plays fast." What he has learned to do, however, is to sense and manipulate the infinity of micro-beats between beats, as a skilled painter sees the many gradations of color between red and pink.
His goal is to help people understand the special power and beauty of pure drum music. "If what I'm doing has even a little value," he believes, "you will find me."
Somehow, people have, although Dutta does not advertise, and rarely performs onstage. When NPR came to interview him, they asked him that very question -- how do people find you?
"Why are you guys asking me?" was Dutta's response. "I did not contact NPR. You guys contacted me."
They laughed, he recalls. "It is like how the Buddha is saying, if the student is ready, the teacher will show up. Why it is only student? When the teacher is ready, students show up. When performer is ready, opportunity will show up."
When not cross-legged on the rug, he sits, as he does now, in one of two plain wooden chairs lined up in front of the dining table. He sits spine-straight, one ankle over knee, arms clasped at the hip like a Victorian gentleman. At 59, he is so slim, he practically swims in his T-shirt and shorts, which reveal the surgery scars running up his leg from a quintuple heart bypass some years ago. The heart attack happened right here in his apartment, and the rug was nearly the last thing Dutta ever saw. He felt the terrible throbbing in his head, the pain radiating down his arm. Luckily, a student, a drummer for Cirque du Soleil, arrived for a lesson.
At times Dutta's students are nervous before a show. He tells them don't try to play well. Just play. Focus not on the audience but on your sincerity. "Because how good is good enough? Does it depend on how many girls loved it? Or how many people in the audience screamed?" It is as if you are performing for a reward, he admonishes, and the reward draws more attention than the art. "And then you stink."
Let's say 2,000 people know about your music, Dutta continues. "Is that fame? Or do you need to be known by 2 million people?" Perhaps just one is enough.
A young man wrote to Dutta not long ago. He'd cried for half an hour after hearing the song Dutta composed for his father shortly after he died. Never in his life, the young man wrote, had he felt so moved by any piece of music. Titled "Great Soul," the song begins with a pitter-pattering treble beat, tentative at first, like a child's first steps, then skipping, then running steady alongside a deep bass. In the end, only the treble is left. The bass simply, subtly, fades away.