Keeping family tradition alive

Keeping family tradition alive

The sound of the tabla resonates from the workshop in the busy Afzalganj market on the banks of the river Musi. The sound of daina (right) is crisp the base of the baya (left) is deep and the combination is real heaven. The tabla is being tested and is made by none other than the famous Akber Miya and Brothers (formerly Akbar Miya and Sons), a family-run business that makes world-class tablas, a percussion instrument made out of goat or buffalo skin.

The Akber Miya Tabla makers have been in the business for almost 105 years at the same place. The tradition started by father Akber Miya was continued by son Mohammad Yusuf. Later it was taken up by his five sons--Akber, Azhar, Nayeem, Ismail and Naseem. After Yusuf’s demise, Akber and Nayeem now make the instruments in a makeshift workshop opposite the original site as the old building workshop is being rebuilt.

“We still make tablas in the same old way my grandfather used to make. But nowadays there are more sellers of this musical instrument than makers. It is unfortunate that few websites are even selling tablas made of synthetic material,” Akber, who is named after his grandfather, said. His firm still gets redwood from Uttar Pradesh and the black one from Akola in Maharashtra.

The wood is carved into the right side of the instrument which is heavy and strong with a broad base tapering into a narrow top. “The top has to be narrow because the player needs to tune the instrument to suit the singers and accompanying instruments' pitch with the help of a steel hammer,” Akber says.

The left is made of copper or tin and in a few cases with stainless steel. “The players who use them in big concerts overseas prefer the stainless steel one, as it looks good on the stage,” Nayeem, who helps his brother in giving finishing touches to the wonderful instruments, says.

The leather is first softened for a whole day before made into tops which will be fitted to the right and left side of instruments. The black round paste called “Siyahi” is applied in the centre only after the leather tops are fitted to the instruments. Each top will have interwoven tags made out of leather to loosen or tighten the grip on the skin helping to alter the pitch.

“It takes four days to complete one set of tabla. It is labour intensive and no step can be skipped or hastened, lest the tabla will not be Akber Miya’s,” a proud Akber Jr says. The sound of the tabla depends on the diameter of the skin used in making the instrument.

“For instance, the great Ghazal maestro Mehdi Hassan preferred base sound while Ghulam Ali Saab prefers a crisper sound,” Akbar says.  “But the synthetic tops have come into scene after ban on beef skin,” he explains. However, the Akber’s are making the instruments of high quality with the available skin. “Softening the tough skin into something very different is an art and my grandfather mastered it and I have learned the art working in my father’s workshop since I was eight years,” Akber says.

But, the next generation is not interested in the family business and children are pursuing higher education. “We will continue and our workers will continue making the instruments as they are in demand. No Ghazal, Qavvali, movie song, Bhajans and Gurbani can be played without tabla. Singers need tabla to accompany their voices, so the market will be there,” Nayeem reasons out. The brothers, however, are worried about the fake Akber Miya and Brothers websites. “Even our address was posted on the web by one of our well-wishers just to guide tabla enthusiasts to our workshop. There are many fake firms that try to sell their product in Akber Miya’s name,” he lamented.

Akber’s tablas are so famous that they are priced at Rs 14,000 to 15,000 while one could get a tabla online at Rs 5,000 or so. Akber says that he is not into numbers but determined to maintain high quality and the brand name. However, the Akber’s hesitate to hog limelight. “After a long time we felt that we require certification from the state tourism department so that the tourists from other states know about us and visit us. This will also help true lovers of tabla to differentiate between our instruments from the fake,” says Akber.

However there is one more eminent maker of tabla in the country, the award winning Khazim Khan Niyazi of New Delhi who is a contemporary of Mohammad Yusuf. Akber’s tablas are being used by almost all music directors, including AR Rehman, percussionists from Hollywood, maestros such as Shaik Dawood and Gajender Sivalkar from Hyderabad.  “Many gurus have taught their students on our tablas,” he added.

The Akber’s also undertake repair of old tablas as many of the great masters use a top for 50 to 60 concerts only and would prefer to change the top for high quality sound. The bottoms are strong and will remain strong for years. Many of the tablas used during Nizam time are lying with the Akbers. They come in different shape and colours indicating the time of the making of that instrument. Many have been used in durbars of the kings and kinsmen of yore. The air of nearby Mehboob Ki Mehdi might have resonated with the sound of the Akber’s tablas.

Many tabla enthusiasts and students visit Akber Miya and sons at Afzalganj to order a piece of the legacy. A Polish young man was trying tabla, Dholak and Pakhwaj made at the workshop, hoping to carry them home.  “If anyone is interested they can leave their address and we will parcel one for them,” Nayeem, who is now conversant with the tricks of the trade, said.

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