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Updated on March 16, 2014

Tabla, Harmonium & Other Indian Instruments

When I was 14 years old, I discovered I could sing while learning to play the guitar. Like many girls and women I had discovered the world of music and the arts. In college and high school I joined choirs, composed songs, studied broadcasting and musical composition. My mother sang songs whenever a guest played the piano. She is related to a well known opera singer of the 1920's, Geraldine Farrar, who sang with Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Geraldine made the roles of Madame Butterfly and Carmen famous. After her opera career she became a movie star of the silent film era. In our household we had all styles of music from opera to the Beatles. My first introduction to drums was singing jazz and being a sound engineer at various musical events we broadcasted over public radio.

With all the this exposure to music, my knowledge grew and I became a music director at a public radio station. It was at this time I became more knowledgeable about tabla, harmonium and other Indian instruments. These instruments have been played for centuries, but it has only been only in the last two centuries when women have played these instruments professionally. As part of Women's History Month, I will introduce you to some female instrumental pioneers. More women and girls are starting to play these instruments in New York, other parts of the United States, Guyana and other Caribbean countries, and India. Dexter Raghunanan, one of the best tabla players in the United States who originally came from Trinidad, often plays with female tabla players. You also see female tabla and harmonium players on the face book pages of music teachers and pandits who teach music in all these countries. It's great to see more women and girls playing these instruments.

Anuradha Pal is considered one of the world's best female professional tabla players. She learned how to play the instrument from her guru (teacher), Ustad Alla Rakha. In the Limca Book of Records and Encyclopedia Britanica, she is "hailed as the first professional Tabla player" and is a master player and musical composer with her own special style. Besides performing at many well known music festivals, she has won numerous awards. She was also on a BBC Radio program on the Five Prominent Women Musicians of India in 1991 and a documentary, All About Her, on the Times Now Channel in 2004. PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) made a film called Adventure Divas in 2001. This program featured the great female musicians of India.

Another well known female tabla player is Tina Sugandh who was born in New Jersey. Her parents were immigrants from Bombay, India. She started singing at the age of five. At first she asked her father for permission to perform with a dholak. Later her father taught her how to play the tabla. She is called the TablaGirl by many who have seen her masterful performances on the tabla. When she was 15 Sean Harris, the screenwriter and creative mentor, helped Tina develop her abilities on the instrument. She studied Biology at Rutgers University and did weekend tabla engagements with her family. Sean encouraged her to record her debut album. She developed demos which led to a publishing contract with Warnerl Music and a recording contract with Hollywood Records. Her whole family appears on her debut album. She combined various musical styles on her album. To find out more about her music, go to or

A great all female tabla ensemble is based in New Jersey by the name of Taalika and features a number of great female performers. It is the only all female table ensemble in the world. Sejal Kukadia of New York, Jin Won of South Korea, Heena Patel of Toronto and Maitree Mewanda of India comprise this great female group. They present classical tabla of renown musician and composer, Pandit Vivyang Vakil. They perform in the United States and are affiliated with the Taalim School of Indian Music.

Panchnaad is another accomplished female ensemble group who perform Indian Classical Instrumental Music. The members of the ensemble are: Shruti Adhikar (santoor), Smit Vajpeyi (sitar), Dr. Rachna Sharma (harmonium), Sangeeta Aghnihotra (tabla) and Mahima Upadhyaya (pakhawaj). On March 9, 2104 they performed in India as part of International Women's Day. Shruti Adhikari is the first female santoorist of India and a student of Padmahushan Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma. Pachna Sharma is one of India's best harmonium players and has received a Doctorate of Music from DAVV, Indoore. Mahima Upadhyay is known as Pakhawaj Girl and was trained by her father, Pandit Ravi Shanakar Upadhyay, a master of the instrument. Sangita Agnihotri received her tabla training from Pandit Dinkar Mujamdar and has received many awards, like the rest of these great women. Smita Vajpeyi is the great Sitarist of State and is well known her outstanding abilities on the instrument.

Another excellent harmonium player is Seema Shirodkar who has accompanied many great vocalists, such as Kishori Amonkar, Ashwini Bhide Deshande, Aaarti Ankalikar, Veena Sahasrabuddhe and Rasid Khan. She started playing in the 1980's and learned from her uncle, Umesh Insulkar, and later was taught by Vastrao Kulkarni in Dadar. In 1986 she became the student of well known and respected harmonium player, Tulsidas Borkar. Her husband is Vishwanath Shirodkar, a well known and respected tabla player.

Many young women today are learning how to play all these instruments because of being encouraged and mentored by family members and teachers. Two young women at Vishnu Mandir in Minneapolis, Minnesota are starting to master the harmonium: Shavnie Persaud and Amanda Ramdeen. It is always a pleasure to hear them sing and play. Music is a great and wonderful gift to share with others. So glad to share all these stories of great female musicians who were great pioneers of Indian music. I would like to encourage workshops focusing on female instrumentalists at every mandir. Remember Lord Krishna was a great master musician who played the flute with the help of Saraswati Ma, goddess of music, arts and sciences. Music is our greatest opportunity to connect with our own divinity within. Take up an instrument. Learn to sing a song. The Divine Mother, Saraswati, will always be with you!




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