Jack of all trades, master of some: Abhay Kulkarni

Since the 18th-century Tabla has been the principal percussion instrument in Hindustani classical music. It has attracted many young and adult talents all across the country. One such talent is Abhay Kulkarni.

Abhay Kulkarni is a young humble musician belonging to Bengaluru, India. He has performed at many prestigious events such as Mysuru Dasara, Bengaluru Ganesha Utsava, Bengaluru Fort High school, All India Radio annual Festival, Baroda Annual Music Festival to name a few. He is a gifted musician and a smart engineer by choice. He is driven and aims- if not stars- for a happy successful life. His music is divine to your ears and his demure among people is endearing.

It's my most pleasure to be interviewing him for our article.

Tell us about yourself

Hello, I am Abhay Kulkarni and I am from North Karnataka. I was born 21 years ago to my lovely mom who was from Hubli and my talented dad from Gadag. Currently, I am pursuing my Instrumentation engineering at RNSIT and relish my art of playing the infamous percussion instrument "Tabla".

What was your childhood like?

All my childhood I was a very busy kid. The complete family is filled with music lovers so I was no different. I started attending concerts at a very young age and I enjoyed listening to them. This kept me busy most days of the month. Since I was not into sports, and unlike other kids my age, I never was into cartoons, I never really felt like other kids. I was always involved in one or the other extracurricular activity which I used to take up after school. I joined several classes like Abacus, Sanskrit, Hindi classes, Saat Sangath classes. On weekends I enjoyed practicing on my favorite tabla that my father gifted me. I didn't really like sharing it with other students, so I didn't leave the place for the most day. My father, when I turned 13 used to tell me "Hustle now, you can have fun when you retire early". I stuck on to that!

How and when were you introduced to Tabla?

My father, when he was 32, started his tabla practice. And since 1992, he practices vigorously for 8-9 hours a day. I was 4 years old when I asked my dad if he can impart his knowledge to me. I was officiated as his student through "Ganda Bandhan" a ritual that is done between a Guru and his pupil where the Guru is said to guide his pupil through all the whims of life. Since then my life revolved around tabla.

Under whose tutelage are you?

My first guru was Vidwan Amrutesh Kulkarni and for me, he was more of a guru than a strict parent. Currently, I'm learning under Pandit Satish Hampiholi and my father as well. I have a distinct memory of me as a kid sitting on his lap while he taught my dad nuances, I think that is when the tones and "bhols" captured my attention. I am very fond of my guruji and guruma Vidushi Sneha Hampiholi, she has been a very important guide to me as well. I used to learn Saath Sangath from Pandit V M Nagaraj.

How has Tabla impacted your life and family?

That's an interesting question. I can't fathom my life without tabla. What would I be without tabla?. It has built me in all sense. It has helped me make connections and helped me understand the art of making connections. I probably would have been a frog in a well. It makes me what I am and it makes me feel unique.

Now that we are aware that tabla is a part of your family, what is your part in it? and how do you enjoy it?

I help my dad out with the organization (Sri Guru Samartha Sangeetha Vidyalaya). I'm teaching some of his students, and I'm learning to teach better. My amma sings Hindustani classical music too, so I can say you can hear the Tanpura on all the time in our house.

What is your relationship with the instrument?

Whenever I am sad or happy, or to be precise emotional I Riaz. It helps me realize the bigger picture that is ahead of me, it liberates me. All that I have for my instrument is respect and love. Our relationship involves decades of practice along with a lot of sacrifices. Considering my process-oriented attitude I have never expected an ostentatious outcome from my practices, this helps me enjoy my time with my music. All in all, Tabla is my family, friend, and guru.

What is your take on Tabla being a "Saath"?

Tabla as a Saath is beautiful regard. But Tabla is not just a accompany. People should know it, for that more and more tabla solo performances should be encouraged and done. We take a lot of time and effort to learn and get perfect at every step. The calculations it takes the elaboratenesses a tabla player can deliver is worth more than recognition as just a "Saath".

What is being an artiste who plays Tabla and pursues professional engineering like? Are you torn between the two?

I do not wish to make my art of playing tabla mainstream. Whenever I'm asked I tell them tabla is my hobby and engineering my profession but my passion towards them is equal. There are some ups and downs to having multiple passions, no doubt there. For example, if I had an important exam on either tabla or engineering I would have to give up on sleep and sometimes even food. In all honesty, having more than one field to work on just adds more value to your life. Juggling a lot of things together can get hard but that's what I choose. Being busy is what I like.

Walk us through your engineering life

Embedded System is where my heart pins on. I have always wondered how the electronics around me, the machines, and the intriguing instruments worked. That's why I enjoy what I learn in my Instrumentation Engineering course. I'm excited to get out on the field and learn as much as possible. I'm hoping it can give me the answers I need.

Tell us about the number of exams you have taken and why so many?

I recently completed the “Alankar” Examination conducted by Akhila Bharatiya Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Mandal (Miraj), also completed the “Vidwath” examination with distinction conducted by Karnataka Secondary Board. I started taking my tabla exams when I was12 years old. Under a Guru, we can learn a lot of the practical essence of tabla, by taking exams like this helps me learn the theory and the history behind such a beautiful instrument. It helps me apprehend several intricacies better. I thank my gurus and my father for supporting me through all of these stages.

Tell us about the awards and titles you have acquired in this field

I personally like a present I received from the director of L&T. On their annual day, L&T allowed me an opportunity to perform for them, I was just 7 years old then. The director was impressed by my performance and gave me a framed picture of me titled "Chote Ustad " It meant a lot to me.

He was awarded “Baala Prathibe” award in the year 2009, “Karnataka Kalaashri” in the year 2012 by Govt. of Karnataka, “Award Of Excellence” by Canara Bank Ltd in the year 2014, he had been selected for Music Scholarship given by Kannada and culture Dept in the year 2016, he was one of the few candidates who secured Music Scholarship given by the Centre for Cultural Research and Training ( CCRT) in the year 2018. He was awarded “Prathiba Puraskaara” by Sadguru Music Academy under the blessings of Pandit Satish Hampiholi and Vidushi Sneha Hampiholi. On the occasion of the silver jubilee celebration of Sadguru Music Academy, an album “Avarthana”, a tabla recital by Abhay and Sri Amit Bhat was released by Stalwart Musician Pandit Omkar Gulwadi and Gurus.

What is your favorite memory with tabla?

The "Vhatkars" from Mumbai is one of the best Tabla makers in India. My guru Pandit Satish Hampiholi once had bought these amazing pair of Tabla to play in a concert. I was attending this concert with him and as a kid, I was so fascinated and excited to see those pairs of drums I could not contain myself. Seeing this my guru generously offered them to me. I was elated. Playing with my guru is always euphoric. I feel truly blessed whenever I get a chance to play with him.

Who inspires you the most?

A lot of artists inspire me, it's not quite possible to give you one name. But I have to say, I have been forever inspired by Pandit Anindo Chatterjee and the infamous Zakir Hussain Ji. The "Dhir Dhir" of legendary Pandit Swapan Choudhree has always been very close to my heart.

Who is your favorite Vocalist?

The absolute gems Pandit Vasant Rao Deshpande, Ustad Rashid Khan, and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi are my absolute favorites.

Where does your passion lie?

My passion is for classical tabla, because of the technicalities, the calculations it requires, the amount of practice it demands, the intricate details and the indulgence excites me. Pandit Zakir Hussain Ji talking about Tabla calls it a young instrument, this intrigues me as I realize how much more I can learn and how much more I can create. It is my due honor to the art form to keep it alive. I want to create more and learn to appreciate it better. I want to be a student all my life, I wish to keep learning until my last breath. Electronics is similar to all the calculations and technicalities it involves. I want to be a jack of multiple trades.

What is your vision for the future of you and your tabla?

I intend to stick to classical Tabla practices but I'm open to exploring other genres as well. I wish to set up a recording studio for myself and take out more time and produce more classical pieces. It will be blissful to share and discuss with my peers, I believe that this way I will get to learn more. I would like to carry forward Tabla and create a framework for this art form.

What do you have to say to the younger generation who wants to pursue music along with other interests?

My advice for them is to just stick to your decision and trust your gut. Being a jack of all is a good thing. Take in as many "Vidyas"(experience/ knowledge) as you can. It will only make you wiser.

" Build yourself. Believe in yourself. Whatever happens, happens for good"

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